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The Witches of Halloween - Words and Pictures (BBC Schools and Colleges, screened 1975 to 1980)

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

I think this might be Exhibit A in the case of Slattery v. Horror.

As someone who hated school and every aspect of the classroom environment I used to look forward to those days when we would be walked in pairs to the school gym to sit in front of a TV perched atop a wheeley trolley and watch a BBC Schools programme. It didn't really matter to me if the programme was particularly enjoyable or educational as TV was much more my comfort zone than school and any respite from the classroom was to be savoured.

However, one October BBC Schools programming betrayed me by publicly exposing my fear of all things horror related and, worst of all, doing it via the medium of the previously safe world of educational television. To be specific, a Halloween edition of the BBC Schools staple Words and Pictures, a part live action and part animated programme created to help young children with reading.

To be entirely truthful I don't have a very vivid memory of this event, only that it happened and there was a lengthy period of humiliation and being mocked by my peers which followed it. In fact my memory only went as far as the Witches of Halloween animation and the accompanying song, which I'd therefore assumed was the only disturbing aspect of the programme. However I've recently revisited this episode on YouTube, confidently expecting it to be embarrassingly mild and spook-free,only to came away feeling surprisingly validated.

Here's a clip of the offending Witches of Halloween song and I still find it makes me feel quite uncomfortable. I'd forgotten that the cartoon witches have "real" mouths, and am I alone in thinking that the woodwind motif in the song has a touch of The Blood on Satan's Claw to it?

Every episode of Words and Pictures had a story-telling segment combining animation and subtitles to encourage reading. The Halloween episode featured a story about an old lady with questions to answer about how she gained those slick face-carving skills, who conjures into being a sentient pumpkin head on a stick which rampages across the country ("Hop, Hop, Hop" intones Henry Woolf's narration) with the sole purpose of inspiring terror in the local populace. For a child there is little more disturbing than an entity that renders adults senseless with fright, as the possessed pumpkin head does in this tale, and even though I had preserved no memory of it at all it is clear to me now that this story must have been what tipped my childhood sensibilities over the edge. What makes it worse is the phantom squash repeating "That was fun" each time it scares off some hapless citizen. This creature clearly thrives on the fear it creates, and is therefore the type of monster that a sensitive child most dreads.

Fortunately for everyone, the haunted Jack O'Lantern meets its nemesis in the form of a farm pig. In a neat narrative turn the pig is a bit peckish since the farmer went to fetch some turnips for it but never returned, having been driven clean out of his wits by a hopping pumpkin with evil on its mind. So the hungry pig eats the pumpkin. Face first. Candle and all. Which on the one hand is a relief, but is executed in such a way that it also makes me really anxious about where exactly it will all end now that this pig has a taste for possessed vegetables (fruits? Horrific either way).

The programme ends with Henry Woolf advancing towards the screen holding a lit pumpkin head in front of his face and making a similar generic whoooooaaaharharhar noises to those roared by the Jack O'Lantern in the story. Admittedly this may not seem like the scariest thing in the world now but my infant nerves must have been shredded by this point.

To be honest rewatching this Halloween Words and Pictures episode has been a healing experience, and one which has explained a lot. My family have never been very interested in celebrating Halloween so this was probably the first occasion I ever encountered the concept and imagery of the event, and I genuinely think it was pretty unnerving. Even at the most basic level of learning that certain sounds, characters and even musical styles, are intended to be "spooky" this BBC Schools programme, which seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by my emotionally sturdier classmates, was my first experience of watching something scary for which I was the intended audience. And since it caused me to burst into tears, it seemed obvious that spooky fare was not for me, regardless of how out of step that made me feel as the years passed.

However, these were dark times in the UK and the horror just kept on coming so perhaps it was inevitable that sooner or later I would learn to embrace the shadows, if only to prepare myself for the cold war nightmares to come.

For anyone curious souls who wish to experience the nightmare of The Witches of Hallowe'en themselves here is a link to the full episode on YouTube, and a record of my thoughts as I watched it.

0.00 - I'd totally forgotten the opening title sequence. I used to love this - hear how lightweight and cheery it is! Let the light-hearted children's entertainment commence.

0:40 - You bought the pumpkin from the greengrocer's did you? I'm willing to accept that might have been possible in London in the 70s but in the north east of Scotland we did Halloween lanterns the hard way with a swede. I don't think I saw a real live pumpkin in a greengrocers until the 90s to be honest. I think we can gloss over the fact that his pumpkin turns out to be made of polystyrene after all. The magic of television, etc

1:00 - The horror began early. Here are the witches. They don't look too bad at this point but that is a sickly shade of green and they're clearly up to no good

1:05 - Oh dear god! All is forgiven, young me. There's something so very wrong about those mouths. Who knew bad lip-synching good be so disturbing

1:27 - Is it just me, or is the woodwind here very reminiscent of The Blood on Satan's Claw?

2:03 - that pumpkin face is deeply sinister and the words "She cut out two eyes" has made me feel very uneasy

2:20 - "What did she cut out next….?". At this point I'm not sure I want to find out. I'm not comfortable with where this is going at all

3:24 - The old lady's knife skills are troubling me. She's cut out eyes before

3:42 - Good, good, she's put a candle in the pumpkin head now and it's lit up with some really quite realistic candle flicker, which will surely only make it more endearing and whimsical. The animation is a lot better than I remember to be honest

3:55 - Aaaaand now it's sentient. This is horrifying

4:30 - "Mercy on us" indeed old lady. You did this, you did this to us all. I'm not sure if I'm more disturbed by the pumpkin's voice or the creaking of it's wooden post as it looms toward you

We're not even 5 minute in to this 15 minute episode yet

4:48 - It's every movement is a horror, and now we know that it's purpose is to create fear. It's not a misunderstood tragic figure who can't help its unorthodox appearance, it lives for evil.

5:02 - Hop……..hop………hop

5:48 - Well that's a perfectly good tray of bread ruined, and presumably no one in that village will be seeing any more fresh bread for a while because the baker will be rocking back and forth on his heels by the oven if anybody wants him, muttering "hop…..hop…..hop"

6:10 and 7:06 - I think you can see where this is going now. Children's stories are built on repetition so it will be more of the same here, my main concern is whether or not this nightmare can cross running water

8:25 - Anyone who's ever met a full grown pig might be able to see where this is going

8:50 - I'm both relieved and horrified. The pig is eating the pumpkin's face and it's all the pumpkin's own fault for traumatising the poor farmer carrying the pig's turnip dinner. It's a veritable Aesop's Fable.

9:13 - But should we be concerned that the pig enjoys eating faces? Has a monster been spawned? I've seen Hannibal, and I'm really hoping this story doesn't have a sequel.

9:30 - But at least we're left with a sturdy stake in case of a vampire attack

9:40 - "He wasn't a very nice pig, was he?". Who's side are you on Charlie?

11:07 - Thank god, it's magic pencil! A calming educational interlude from the horror

12:37 - Well that didn't last long. After scaring us again with his pumpkin, Henry gives us the edited highlights of the story's spookings one by one, just to make sure that they're adequately seared onto the memory

15:35 - "Why don't you draw a picture of something that really frightens you?". Great idea Henry, but I don't even know where to start

15:50 - We sign off with a reprise of the Witches of Hallowe'en" song, complete with it's eerie descending scale.



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