October 01, 2017

HALLOWEEN TAPE REVIEW #1: Haunted Halloween: Spooky Sounds to Chill Your Bones

In the 1980s and ‘90s orange audio tapes cascaded down the edges of the best Halloween aisles. They were wonderfully cheap, and the portable format ensured that scary sounds could be heard wherever they were needed the most. The new technology meant that a boombox could replace the precarious “loudspeaker propped in an open window” technique.

With all the power of an ancient muse, these cassettes inspired would-be projects, events, and fantasies in the minds of shoppers. A collection of eerie sound effects could be the basis of a spooky porch display— no, a garage haunted house— no, an independent horror film! The track list of Halloween songs conjured visions of the party of the century. Everyone’s there thrilling to a cover of the Monster Mash: friends, neighbors, and your future spouse.

Averaging about two dollars, an impulse buy was irresistible. However, hitting such a price point meant that manufacturers had to cut corners. The cassettes were often treated with little dignity; considered disposable goods to be trashed on November 1st alongside empty tubes of vampire blood. They tested the conventional wisdom that tape consumers had a right to protective plastic cases. Furthermore, no case meant that no printed sleeve was necessary.

 At their most generic, the graphics were reduced to black type on an orange void. Though disappointing at the time, this style has an iconic quality today. When artwork was used, the craftsmanship varied wildly. Masters and flunkies were both granted equal footage in the seasonal music bin. At their best, the covers capture the essence of Halloween and enhance the recording within.

The recorded content should be the most important factor, but the manufacturers sure didn’t seem to think so. Audio was reused, rehashed, resold under different titles, and outright stolen.  In many cases the recording seemed like an afterthought, a necessary component to fulfill an item number and a catalog listing that was spewed out during a marketing meeting back in February. I find it endlessly amusing that werewolf growls and demon screeches have been commodified.

The true origins of the sounds are largely mysterious (with a handful of exceptions.) It’s a secret that can still hide in the information age thanks to an industry-wide policy of not bothering with printed credits. Most of the recording sessions sound small, personal, and perhaps shameful for those involved. The work of the anonymous recording artists strikes a balance between utility and artistry, between accident and greatness.

In the pre-internet age, there was no hope of knowing what awaited you on that coiled brown ribbon until you popped it in your own tape deck. However, a low quality production didn’t necessarily tarnish the buyers’ delight.  Most of us were paying for the superhuman ability to play creepy sounds at the touch of a button. The ‘user experience’ was also determined by a host of factors including: age, imagination, patience, scare-ability, and interest in general spookiness.

Even if a tape was lackluster, its personal value skyrocketed once it became part of an annual outdoor display, or a backdrop to your Key Club spookhouse. There were also those who ignored the implied ‘soundtrack to an event’ function, and enjoyed them as standalone entertainment. Many listeners created their own virtual reality in the darkness of their bedroom, poring over the soundscapes, trying to decipher the story behind the aural clues. Screams and howls were burned into memories like melodies.

Cassette-era Halloween recordings are still fondly remembered by those who have stayed alive long enough, but the details grow more obscure with each passing year. Most albums have managed the transition to the online realm, but information is scattered and debated, leaving a trail of broken image links and reported Mediafire uploads. (This sentence is only several years away from being ironic, when future web surfers find my own posts full of missing photos and deleted youtube videos.)

This year I’ve developed an uncontrollable urge to sort out the mysterious world of vintage Halloween cassette tapes. I bought my share back in the day, but the last couple of years have found me scouring ebay for the sake of my growing archive. At best, they transport me back to that discount store aisle of costumes and decorations. Sometimes they project scenes of delicious spookiness directly on my mind’s eye. But the sheer hours of effects that I’ve amassed have presented me with a dark, repetitive forest that requires patience and time to navigate.

The names of these albums are practically interchangeable. It’s tough to distinguish Halloween Sounds of Horror from Haunted Horror Sounds from Haunted Halloween and simply Haunted Horror. I also have Sounds of Halloween and THE Sounds of Halloween and two different version of The Horrible Sounds of Halloween.

Between now and Halloween I will classify and review at least two dozen old Halloween tapes. Determining which are the best is impossible because the answer to that question is, “the one that you grew up with.” However, I will do my best to bring some clarity and order to this harrowing subject. Let's begin...

Title: Haunted Halloween: Spooky Sounds to Chill Your Bones
Manufacturer: Dove Audio
Year: 1991
Total Runtime: 46 min
Repeats on both sides: Yes
Stories: No
Music: It starts with a strong synthesized melody that would be at home in horror films of the 1980s. Various music enhances most of the recording.
Narration: A few statements, i.e. ”If you enter this house you may never come out alive."
Distinct Audio: A recurring voice that’s satisfyingly low, and processed in a creepy way.
Review: Haunted Halloween’s greatest strength is its cinematic influence. The effects are relatively subtle; no torture chambers, explosions, or wolf attacks. Instead it follows horror movie pacing, creating a sense of suspense, as opposed to the mishmash of cackles and howls found on most Halloween tapes. It’s like someone’s watching the Late, Late Show in the next room as your mind forms its own plot.

It’s impressive that this is the only release from Dove Audio that isn’t an audiobook. They put out several dozen titles between 1986 and 1998 from authors such as Douglas Adams, Stephen King and Al Gore. The artwork, credited to Alstrom/Pena Design, is some of the best there is. The cover is expertly rendered and is directly inspired by the content. (The Glass Houses typeface is always the correct choice.) It’s rare for this level of professionalism to make its way into the Halloween tape bin. Their audiobook mindset is most evident at the end of the tape when the demonic voice announces the producer credits and shares a toll free number for catalog requests.
Rating: 5 of 5 


Jody Birchfield said...

Awesome idea!! This is very fascinating to me!
"Most of the recording sessions sound small, personal, and perhaps shameful for those involved." This statement made me laugh out loud. I've always figured the person who made the "cat" and "owl" noises on "Sounds To Make You Shiver" was probably ashamed of their performance afterwards.

John Hunter said...

Looking forward to more reviews! I remember listening to one of the albums as a kid as we were trying to set up our cardboard haunted house on my friends front porch. We never could find enough refrigerator boxes, so the haunted house soon turned in to a tunnel of decreasingly smaller boxes and other than a toy spider and a toy snake, didn't really offer much for scares. Good times though!

Tom said...

I enjoyed that more than an adult should. Looking forward to this month-long Sounds of Horror-palooza.

Kirk D. said...

Jody- the one man jobs are the best. Hopefully my admiration will make up for their shame.

John- What a great memory. That's a pretty great concept, sort of Alice in Wonderland-ish. I tried to build a haunt in my garage, but we never figured out how to get customers.

Thanks Tom! I'm happy to have a Halloween project again this year. Thanks for participating.