Do you remember when…?

I love the smell of fallen leaves in the morning.

It’s straight out of my childhood. I always looked forward to the return to school, Thanksgiving turkey, and, best of all, Halloween!

As an adult I only have Thanksgiving turkey and Halloween in my life, but I have a great deal of nostalgia around all of them.

People seem to either love or despise nostalgia — I know people who feel it’s just indulging in sentimentality — but psychologists have done studies around it, and results have shown that there are benefits to spending some time in pleasant reminiscing:

  • The boost to your mood when recalling a positive experience. My hubby and I often find ourselves laughing at something from our travels that happens comes to mind from something that’s just occurred. It’s really special to us that we’ve shared those experiences together, and those memories have on occasion been a bulwark against something stressful that’s happening in the present.
  • Researchers found a strong social component, where people experiencing nostalgia were more motivated to connect with other people. It may be for the often communal aspect of the shared memories.
  • When we’re reminiscing, it’s akin to reading or watching a good story, but better because it’s from our own lives and actually happened to us.
  • For the elderly, who can suffer from feelings of isolation, it may inspire them to share their experiences and the wisdom they’ve gained.

Autumn is my favourite season, and Halloween my favourite ‘holiday’, dating back to my childhood and a time when as kids we were innocently and fully free to enjoy it. It was the one night where we were allowed to prowl the streets without a parent in tow, and we made the most of it.

My neighbourhood was lined with trees, and as the air got cooler and the beautiful red and gold leaves began to drift to the ground, shuffling through them on the way to school every day, breathing in the earthy smell and crunching them underfoot, became an annual fall ritual. I would often pick up an especially ‘perfect’ leaf to press between book pages and keep in my room.

The scent of grapes would also fill the air – a lot of people had grapevines in their yards at the time, so it’s an aroma that instantly takes me back to childhood, although it’s increasingly rare.

Each grade at school always put on a Halloween party, and, at least for me, weeks of planning went into my costume. My mom had a trunk full of old clothes, which she readily helped me transform into a variety of outfits.

Anticipation on October 31st was intense – the daylight hours couldn’t pass fast enough. We would put our costumes on and wait feverishly for dusk to fall – it was an unwritten rule to not start trick-or-treating before dark! – and for jack-o-lanterns to come to life on front porches as the streetlights came on. As soon as that happened, our parents would let us out the door for a night of adventure.

We always made a beeline to any places giving out candied apples or popcorn balls, and then, in the mysterious darkness that could be concealing who knew what unearthly creatures and the chill breezes that felt like the tap of the grave on our shoulder, we would go up and down the streets, deciding which houses looked welcoming.

There were always a few houses whose inhabitants were either not kid-friendly, or (to us children) downright creepy. If the former, we didn’t bother visiting them, but if the latter and there was a pumpkin out, we would have a discussion as to whether we felt safe going up to the front door; sometimes we did, with some trepidation, but sometimes the risk outweighed the possibility of more loot.

Once we’d completed our circuit, and usually with a full pillowcase of candy, we’d head toward our respective homes to dump out the contents onto a table and see what goodies we’d accumulated. It was always a great night, and I regret strongly that children now can’t have the same thrill.

My nostalgia for those experiences has been a strong influence on creating a spooky effect for the kids that come to our door trick-or-treating. They all seem to enjoy getting a little scared, and their parents get a kick out of it as well. I didn’t realize how much the children enjoyed the creepy contact lenses I’ve worn with certain costumes until a parent commented once that his kids look forward to it every year.

My hubby helps me decorate our front entrance but allows me to do the dressing-up and hand out the candies. He’s invariably lurking in the background, though, to watch the kids react. We’ve put out a variety of decorations, including some large stone gargoyles that we added glowing red eyes to, and there’s usually fog swirling through the bushes and along the ground. Our house has a split entryway, and the kids have even commented on the interior Halloween décor that they can see behind me as I’m putting treats in their bags.

Halloween allows us to experience some chills in a safe way, and allows both children and adults to step out of our normal lives and become something entirely different for a night. It doesn’t have the emotional baggage or responsibilities of Christmas, and it gives us an opportunity for some good, silly fun.

The proliferation of Halloween-themed cooking contests on the Food Network have instituted a new annual tradition for me, and I now have a well-decorated Halloween tree on our dining-room buffet, but you might still sometimes catch me romping through a pile of raked autumn leaves, to my hubby’s combined dismay and amusement. Enjoy your autumn, and I hope you get as big a kick out of Halloween next week as I do.

“God preserve my sanity”

“3 MAY. Bistriz. Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning…”

So begins, innocuously, one of the most famous horror stories in history – Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

The cover of the first edition, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=545797

Stories about vampires had been around for a long time, but Stoker’s foray into the horror genre seemed to enrapture the Victorian psyche, perhaps tapping into the repressions of the era’s morality.

Victorians enjoyed a revival of gothic literature, and were also fascinated by mysticism. Spiritualism, brought  over from America around 1852 by an American medium, Mrs. Hayden,  who conducted séances in London for the fashionable, gave hope to people who’d likely lost a loved one by the age of 35, the average life expectancy at the time.

By the time Stoker wrote his story, the Potato Famine had resulted in over a million deaths, the 1848 cholera epidemic had killed 52,000, and the British had been fighting in the Crimean and Boer Wars. Small wonder that death was prevalent on Victorian minds.

Bram Stoker was born in Dublin in the middle of the Potato Famine, and apparently retained memories of the  mass deaths. He was himself bedridden throughout his early childhood from an unknown illness, from which he eventually recovered, but he wrote that during that time, “I was naturally thoughtful, and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years.”

Trinity College Library, Dublin

He became interested in the theatre while a student at Trinity College in Dublin, became a theatre critic and eventually managed the Lyceum Theatre in London for his friend Henry Irving. He travelled widely as a result, although he never actually visited the wilds of Transylvania, which he would delineate in atmospheric detail in his sensational novel.

“Beyond…rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered…”

Stoker also began to write his own stories, and novels. He had met Ármin Vámbéry, a Slovak-Jewish writer and traveller who shared legends from the Carpathian mountains, inspiring Stoker to research in more detail, especially the folklore around vampires.

The concept of a creature who transcended death would have appealed to Victorians as much as Spiritualism. Stoker wasn’t the first Brit to write about vampires – John Polidori, Lord Byron’s physician who was at the rented house in Switzerland when Byron challenged the group to write a ghost story (inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, the other great horror story in history), came up with The Vampyre.

The Vampyre by John Polidori, Public Domain, British Library

Dracula wasn’t greatly successful when published in 1897, although reviewers and fellow authors – including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H. P. Lovecraft – liked it, and the book never made much revenue for Stoker. It wasn’t until Hollywood introduced vampires into popular culture, beginning in 1922 with the silent classic Nosferatu, that the public began to lap up the idea of blood-drinking immortals, and our fascination with the concept continues to this day.

Goth fans have been congregating in Whitby, England – a featured location in Stoker’s story – for 25 years for the well-known Whitby Goth Weekend in late October, and vampire enthusiasts can spend Halloween at parties in Transylvania, but now you can go to the source in Dublin. The city has embraced one of its most famous legacies with Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula Experience, which, as a dedicated Halloween enthusiast, I hauled my hubby to straight off when we were in Ireland a couple of weeks ago!

My mother was actually born in Transylvania, in and around Cluj-Napoca, so you might say that I come by my interest in vampires naturally. Some day I’d love to do that Halloween-party thing on Halloween, but the opportunity to visit an attraction tied to Bram Stoker in Dublin was too good to pass up.

You can book tickets online, and you should: the attraction is only available on a limited selection of dates, and seating is limited. As it happened, it was running the day that we arrived in Dublin – it was meant to be.

Attendees meet at a specified point, a fitness club in the Clontarf area, across the street from where Bram Stoker was born, and are then walked over to the ‘castle’. The show is an entertaining fusion of actors getting you into the spirit of things while leading you through recreated eerie medieval stone passageways, and a stage performance that’s essentially an illusionist show which interacts with the audience. I won’t spoil the story for you, in case you’re able to attend in person, but it was all very well done, and a really fun evening during Halloween season. There are numerous items of actual memorabilia from Stoker’s life, and if you purchase VIP tickets you get some swag as well; please note that there is no shop on the premises to just buy the swag separately.

Hallway of historical info and artifacts, Castle Dracula experience
Scene from the stage show, Castle Dracula experience
Yours truly, in Dracula’s throne

If you’ve never read the original Dracula book, I highly recommend it – it’s very well written and very atmospheric. You can buy it in stores or read it on Project Gutenberg.

Also watch the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi – it would have been sensationally creepy at the time.

Movie posters, Castle Dracula Experience

Dracula has gone on to inspire countless vampire novels and movies, endless kids’ Halloween costumes, and some great music. It is a worthy inclusion in your Halloween entertainment.

“But my very feelings turned to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings…”

Chills and things that go bump in the night – Live!

Calling all Halloween aficionados: there are all kinds of places that are happy to creep you out around the world.

I really got into this kind of travel a few years ago when I discovered that Sleepy Hollow is a real place! The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a classic eerie tale by Washington Irving, has always been my favourite Halloween-season story ever since watching Disney’s delightful animated version called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Washington Irving was inspired by a real ghost story in what was then the wilds of Tarry Town, New York, along the Hudson River, where Irving had spent some of his youth.

Irving became arguably the most famous American writer of his day. He was a multi-talented man — architect (he built his own house, Sunnyside), diplomat for the American government, mentor to many other contemporary writers. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which you can tour, and his memory is so revered in that area that his headstone gets rubbed constantly by visitors and has had to be replaced more than once.

Montgomery Place Estate, Hudson River Valley

The Hudson River Valley was the summer recreation spot for the wealthy of New York City, as well as a hub of the American Revolutionary War and the inspiration for the Hudson River School of painters, so there’s a lot of history to be visited. The entire area has also embraced Irving’s gothic legacy and becomes a Halloween-themed playground every autumn. One of our favourite places is the Headless Horseman theme attraction, rated one of the best in the U.S. There’s a 20-minute hayride through monster-filled woods, a dark and creepy corn maze, several haunted houses, several shops full of Halloween treasures (the first time we went, my hubby took one look at the shops, parked himself on a hay bale and gestured for me to go and knock myself out), cafes, magicians, music, stilt walkers — this place is truly amazing!

Of course, Disney always does a bang-up job of Halloween. We particularly liked Halloween at Disneyland in California. It’s not nearly as big as Disney World in Florida — if you stay at one of the onsite hotels at Disneyland, you walk out the door into essentially a giant street party that extends into the two parks, plus you get to dress up in costume and enjoy adult trick-or-treating, photo ops with your favourite villain, dance parties and all the rides.

However, last fall we did the Howl-O-Scream evening at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg Virginia, and I liked it even better. During the day you can see all the wonderful spooky detail throughout the park…

… but as dusk starts to fall, fog begins to creep through the air, and the park turns into something delightfully eerie.

Each zone of the park has its own creatures, from the medieval French version of creepy clowns,

to Jack the Ripper in England, who held a wicked knife to my throat, and responded, “Possibly” in a charming British accent when I asked him if I was going to survive my photo op.

Giant menacing pumpkins oversee shadowed cemeteries,

and walkways become murky trails into the unknown.

Howl-O-Scream is a wonderful combination of fun for kids and eerieness for adults, and there’s no extra admission for the event — you enter any time with your day ticket and you’re good to stay as long as you want.

For all of us Halloween enthusiasts, there are many places, both in North America and abroad, to enjoy some pretend terrors. Watch for details about a new spooky adventure in Ireland next week!

Getting your vintage creeps on

It’s Halloween season — my favourite time of year, and clearly for many, many other people as well, judging by the spooky-theme TV ads that are already making their appearance.

There’s something about the fall weather, with frosty mornings and sweater temperatures, leaves drifting to the ground, and the earthy smell of Nature getting ready to hibernate, that signals the approach of the day when the Celts thought that the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest.

I have several annual fall rituals for this time: prowling Home Sense and Pier One for things to add to my rather large collection of Halloween decor, watching the new season of the Food Network’s Halloween Baking Challenge and watching the contestants have inordinate amounts of fun making stylish but warped baked goods, and checking out TCM’s lineup of vintage horror and sci-fi movies.

In the days before CGI, movie producers had to get really creative with special effects — sometimes brilliant for their limited resources (Forbidden Planet), sometimes incredibly cheesy (Plan 9 from Outer Space). Whatever the end result was, they are always entertaining, whether you’re laughing yourself silly over things like not-so-terrifying Mole People…

poster for The Mole People, 1956, By [1], https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3327404

or getting genuinely creeped out, as with the amazingly effective 1931 Dracula.

By Universal Studios – https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/DRACULA-1931-Bela-Lugosi-Edward-Van-Sloan-10×8-LOBBY-CARD/122917865865?hash=item1c9e79c989:g:x9wAAOSwogpaXksB, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67003766

While they may not seem remarkable by today’s standards, imagine what audiences at the time must have felt seeing these stories play out on a large screen in a darkened movie theatre, with effects they’d never seen before.

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8913138

One of my personal favourites, a movie that scared me so much when I first saw it as a teenager that it took me years to watch it again, is a relatively obscure little piece called Curse of the Demon, also known as Night of the Demon, about a curse that gets passed to its unknowing victims through a seemingly innocent piece of paper. That’s all I’ll say about it. If you’ve never seen it, turn out the lights, light a couple of candles and watch it on TCM on October 10th.

Sci-fi movies allowed both movie makers and all of us to let our imaginations run wild about what life might be like on other planets, and what might happen if alien life came to us. Our ongoing fascination with UFOs was just featured in a great article in the Scientific American blog.

Forbidden Planet took a marvelous look at the remnants of an ancient civilization as far advanced above ours as its home planet was from ours, mixed in with a horror theme borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=871061

When construction workers in 1950s London uncover a mysterious artifact, Professor Quatermass and a couple of fellow researchers unearth the startling truth behind hauntings in the abandoned surrounding neighbourhood, where people decades before believed they saw the Devil. Things get increasingly more unnerving as the researchers and excavators try to figure out what’s going on, until they become in danger of losing their very minds. Five Million Years to Earth (called Quatermass and the Pit in England), is unfortunately not showing on TCM this season, but do keep an eye out for it some other time.

If you’ve never checked out some of the many creative vintage scary movies made in the earlier days of Hollywood, I think you’ll be in for a treat this Halloween. They were made with style and imagination.

Nature’s little surprises when you’re on vacation

It sounded like a heavy truck rolling down the street.

But instead of the truck passing our friends’ house in Santa Monica and the sound receding, the noise got louder and louder and the house began to shake.

The first trip that my hubby and I took together, to visit family friends in California while I was on my university Christmas break, started off benignly enough with nice sunny weather. The scent of eucalyptus from the trees lining the streets filled the hazy air, and for breakfast we enjoyed fresh-picked oranges from the tree in our friends’ back yard. I was so excited to see palm trees and the ocean.

We had an adventurous New Year’s Eve at a club in Santa Monica (too crazy to describe in this article), and then got up early to go to Pasadena for the Rose Parade. After the parade we returned to our friends’ home and everyone else settled down to watch the Rose Bowl on television while I, still recovering from a bout of strep throat, lay down for a while in our bedroom – only to be woken up soon after by the earthquake and everyone running into the room yelling at me to get up.

It wasn’t a major quake – only 4.6 on the Richter scale – but enough to shake us up. It’s very unnerving to have the normally solid earth beneath you start moving around. One of the first things our friends did was run to hold up their china cabinet in the dining room, while my hubby and I wanted to find the first available airplane/helicopter and lift off.

In addition, you don’t know how big the quake will turn out to be. Visions of giant cracks appearing in the streets danced in my head.

Aftershocks can sometimes be worse than the original event. After our brief quake, rumblings and aftershocks continued throughout the rest of the day. I remember sitting, trying to relax, but spotting the ornaments on our friends’ Christmas tree start to swing in my peripheral vision. At one point the entire house shifted with a loud bang, as if a giant had come and kicked it!

Several months later, on our honeymoon in the US Virgin Islands, things went south again in a much larger way with a Category Five hurricane followed closely by a tornado that ripped right by our resort. No one could call us on the island afterward, but we were able to call out and reassure our frantic families that we were safe and healthy. Normally I love storms, but that one was a doozy, and a history-maker. For months after we got home my shoulders tightened every time there was a high wind.

A year after that, when Mount St. Helen’s erupted, friends of my in-laws actually called them to see if my hubby and I were in the vicinity! (absolute truth)

Over the years, with many more occurrences that seem to follow us wherever we go, we’ve become accustomed and have learned to go with the flow. Not everything has been one of Nature’s treats – we had to change a trip completely at the start of the Arab Spring, changing from Egypt to Kenya, and on the very first day we took my mother-in-law to England we were exploring the British Museum when it was suddenly evacuated and we lost my hubby for about half-an-hour (that was the most unusual, but not the only thing, to happen on that trip).

We’ve also found ways to stay prepared.

With the advent of the internet, mobile phones and instant news, there are many ways to cover your bases. I’m not sure my hubby and I are that unusual anymore in unusual vacations – global warming is causing all kinds of changes and surprises in weather patterns, and political tensions can erupt unexpectedly – so it pays everyone to understand their options.

A recent case in point in our lives:

We were on an innocuous trip to Williamsburg, Virginia last fall. The weather was hotter than expected, but manageable. We spent an entire day exploring the superb Colonial Williamsburg, got our creeps on at Busch Gardens’ fantastic Howl-O-Scream event, enjoyed history and the sunset on a schooner cruise on the York River, and bought more sandals at an outlet mall to cope with the intense heat.

Waiting for our carriage ride at Colonial Williamsburg.
Sunset cruise on a 3-masted schooner
Howl-O-Scream is one of the best Halloween theme park events we’ve ever been to

We’d finished a round of golf at an area club on Tuesday, and the staff were helping us pack up our clubs when the ranger asked if we’d be coming back for another round. We said we planned to return on Thursday; he replied, “Well, you’ll have to play that by ear. There’s a hurricane coming our way.”

Someone living along the Fords Colony golf course in Williamsburg has a Halloween-themed sense of humour

There’s a what now? Not that hubby and I aren’t used to hurricanes (this would be our fourth), but Hurricane Michael popped up with almost no warning.

Watching the weather reports in our hotel room

Here’s how we handled it:

  1. Kept an eye on the evolving situation. Hurricanes are notoriously changeable, so if it looks like you’ll be in the path, you can at least keep on top of developments.
  2. The local weather station recommended downloading the Red Cross Hazards app. You can enter your current location and receive any alerts that may come out, as well as look up preparedness info for a variety of different scenarios.
  3. We rejigged our activity plans for that Thursday; it helps to be flexible in these circumstances. The storm was projected to downgrade to Category 3 and reach our area by about 2pm. We had planned to visit the Yorktown Battlefield that day, which is located along the York River, not far from Virginia’s Atlantic shore – not a place we wanted to be when the storm hit due to repeated warnings about storm surges and flash flooding. We were going to be heading towards home the next day, though, so we hit the road early in order to see the Battlefield in the morning and be back in Williamsburg on drier land by lunch.
Storm clouds gathering as we drive to Yorktown

We kept an eye on the skies as we toured the Battlefield. They were darkening and a few drops began to fall as we drove back to town. We had lunch at a Red Lobster restaurant across the street from our hotel (very short travel time if the storm came in during the meal). It started to rain while we ate, intermittently heavy; outside the window, there was a little pebble garden where we watched water gather into a little stream, then a larger stream, then a small pond.

Mortars and cannons from the Battle of Yorktown

From there we picked up a few emergency supplies – battery-operated candles (in case of power outage), extra bottles of water, and snacks – and by 3pm we were safely battened down in our room, watching television and remaining relaxed but alert. I texted my brother about the hurricane, and, having received numerous similar messages from us over the years, his reply was typical: “Gee, what a surprise.”

By dinnertime there’d been spotty rain only, but we made some tea. We had some leftovers in our room fridge from dinner the night before. and our Vanilla Cheesecake at lunch was so delicious that we’d brought two pieces back to our room.

The storm hit in full force after dark, with driving rain and wind rattling the window. The force of the storm actually pushed some rain in along the top corner of our ‘sealed’ window, and we put a towel along the sill to absorb the water. The hotel parking lot and the streets were lightly flooded. We heard reports of tornadoes touching down in several places around the area, and did receive one tornadoes-in-the-area alert from the Red Cross app. The lights flickered a few times but never went completely out.

Hurricane rain driving in sheets outside our hotel room and trees tossing violently

That was the worst of it for us, but our hotel was on a main street, and we’d seen a number of people out driving around during the worst of the storm – I hope it was something urgent to make it worth risking their lives. Sadly, five people who ignored the warnings to stay inside died when they were swept away by flood waters. So preventable.

  • We checked the road reports on Friday morning to see what was open/closed. There were 1,400 road closures in that county alone, but none of them along the route that we would be taking to visit the Luray Caverns that afternoon. The roads that were open were strewn with debris and downed trees.
Slow traffic and lots of debris on the roads that were open the next day

Could we have avoided this scenario entirely by not going south during Hurricane Season (June to November)? Certainly, but we had considered Virginia to be a lower-risk area, and there hadn’t been any intimations of an impending storm. Events like earthquakes can’t be reliably predicted – although, in another absolutely true story, a nun in September of the year we first went to California had predicted that there would be an earthquake around New Year’s Day, and I spent the next three months convincing myself that it was hogwash, so what can one make of that?

You can’t entirely predict what Mother Nature will throw at you, so if you do find yourself in the midst of one of her surprises, follow the local advisories and stay safe. Never  think that ‘it won’t happen to me’ – based on extensive personal experience I can confirm that s*** does happen.

To learn more about how to be prepared in the event of the unexpected, our Canadian government has a useful website for Emergency Preparedness. In particular, check out the sections on Using Technology During a Disaster. The stats also make an interesting read.

A new edition of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook was released this April, with some updates about things like drone attacks and spotting fake news, but you may find the book’s Travel version more useful. Hopefully you’ll never have to things like Stop a Runaway Passenger Train, but I have personally been on a Runaway Camel! (It ended up stopping by itself after a wild ride down a hill when it got back to its corral and before reaching the river, thank goodness.)

And if you ever experience an earthquake, find a spot with the most structural soundness — doorways are good, and bathrooms are excellent. (If in California, don’t go outside — flying clay roof tiles can be deadly.) And be kind to Mother Nature — there may come a day when you want her on your side 🙂