For me, one of the things that defines Halloween as a holiday is its homemade nature. Pumpkins you carved yourself, costumes hastily assembled from whatever's sitting around the house, elaborate lawn decorations that look like plastic but are actually the carefully-arranged bones of those who have wronged you, that kind of thing. It's a DIY aesthetic, and as such it ties in neatly with the home computer games of the Eighties, and especially their cover art - often amateurish, sometimes laughable but always somehow charming, so with that in mind here's a look at a few ghoulish and grotesque covers from the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 games of Halloweens past.
Devil Rides In
Surely this one should be called "Devil Sneaks Out"? Because that's definitely what's happening here. The mischievous imp is trying to creep away from his necromantic master, probably for a night of carnage and baby-swapping in a nearby village. "Oh no you don't, sunbeam," says the necromancer. "You're staying right here until we've finished organising our collection of foul grimoires. I don't care if it is Saturday night."
So is this the ghost of a knight, then? Whatever it used to be, its new spectral form has shocked that skull to its very core. I know open-mouthed bogglement is common look for skeletons, but that skull seems particularly taken aback. Maybe it's because the ghost is casting a shadow, something that doesn't seem right to me.
Hey, Serpico, you look awfully calm for someone with a phantom head floating next to your ear. I think he's jealous of your beard. Now that he's become a spectre and his lower jaw has dissolved intro trailing wisps of ectoplasm, he'll never be able to grow designer stubble, let alone a beard as full and lush as yours. Sure, he saves time on shaving, but he's stuck in an eternal afterlife, what does he need more time for? And there you are, sitting in your chair that looks like a chopping board, with your beard and padded vest while, erm... hang on, are trees growing out of your arms? Look, I'm sorry man, I can see that you've got problems of your own. I'll just leave you to it.
Spooked, proclaims this cover in dripping, slime-green text that's so Halloween-y that it's making me want to bob for apples whilst someone singing The Monster Mash throws eggs at my house. It's difficult to single out the best element of this cover - the barely-glimpsed thing lurking behind the door is good, but I suppose there's nothing to beat that jolly skeleton. But wait, he's not just any skeleton, he's the ghost of a skeleton! How does that work? Was he already a skeleton before he died? And if he was, what happened to him that was so horrifying that it stripped every morsel of flesh from his bones before it killed him? It's a credit to that skeleton's character that he's managed to remain so chipper after the terrors he has obviously experienced.
Blinky's Scary School
Blinky appears to be the ghost of a clown, which fills me with mixed feelings. On one hand, it means a clown died and that's always a cause for celebration, but on the other hand that means there's now a clown out there who can walk through walls and who cannot be harmed by conventional weapons.
And the award for "computer game title that most sounds like the name of a black metal band" goes to Witchfiend! I can see that she's a witch, but she doesn't look much like a fiend, does she? I reckon that title was a typo, and you're actually playing as the raven in a game called Witchfriend. "Familiar" is just so 1600s, you know?
Cauldron and Cauldron II
Sticking with witches, here are the covers for the Cauldron games, and if, like me, you grew up in the late eighties then these things are going to bellow "HALLOWEEN!" right in your face like an escaped mental patient demanding to know the way to the nearest machete shop. Just look at those things in the cauldron - between those spindly fingers and the fat, ribbed tail I can't help but imagine the witch is boiling up a facehugger from Alien.
These covers have always reminded me of the thin plastic monster masks that were everywhere during the Octobers of my youth, before all Halloween costumes became based on pop-culture figures or sexy versions of every goddamn thing. Speaking of sexy versions...
Upon re-release by Broderbund, Cauldron received a new Meatloaf-video-esque cover of a sultry witch standing in front of what I am just realising is a glowing pumpkin face. I have to be honest, as much as I love the original Cauldron covers, this one would have appealed to me in its own special way. I'm not afraid to admit I have a type, and that type is tousle-haired Eightes goths wearing oversized Dracula capes.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
It's everyone's favourite knife-fingered child abuser Freddy Krueger, appearing on a computer game cover that doesn't feel quite right. After some deliberation I have decided that it looks odd because Freddy is beaming with glee - he looks he's having his photo taken as someone hands him a novelty cheque after his recent lottery win. I know Freddy became more jovial as the movies went on, but this? This is too much. If he ditched the glove and had his sweater repaired, he'd look like a fun uncle instead of a terrifying uncle who kills you while you dream. The background doesn't help, either, looking as it does like a peaceful sky filled with fluffy white clouds. Freddy's Summertime Smilefest is not Halloween appropriate, I'm afraid. Or appropriate at all.
"Dare you enter the Bewarehouse?!"
Well, I dunno, what's in there?
Apparently, the demon's revenge is causing you to fail your Wizardry GCSE by not letting you get your coursework done, popping in from the infernal netherworld to hover over your shoulder and whisper "hey, hey, whatcha doin'? Hexes, is it? Man, hexes are easy, you loser. Let's go down the park and drink White Lightning instead!" The demon doesn't even seem like he's that into it, so my guess is that Hell itself needed to get revenge against this wizard and the big orange dope here was the unlucky demon who drew the short straw. Kragzhrez, Emissary of All Misery, gets to spend his afternoon trying to break the record for most piranhas in Hitler's rectum at once, but this demon is stuck winding up a nerd. Well, no-one said hell was fair.
Yes, Mr. Potholer, I'm sure you've just been through a harrowing experience, but when you decide to go spelunking for treasure inside the mouth of an enormous rabid bat then you can't really expect any sympathy, can you? What amount of loot convinced you Bat Orifice Cave was a good place to oh, hang on, I've just noticed that fist-sized diamond you're carrying. Yeah, that amount of loot would probably just about do it.
The cover of Ghost Hunters provides a fairly accurate take on the in-game action, even down to the hero being shirtless - a hero whose name is Hunk Studbuckle, lest we forget - and on top of that it makes the "looking at monsters will kill you" mechanic far more understandable. That bald demon thing, a ghoulish creature that looks like a head mould from a Star Trek: The Original Series alien that has somehow come to life after forty years rotting in a storage locker? I've only glanced at a simple drawing of him and I already feel unwell. The real mystery in this cover, however, is just what the hell that red thing is. I can look at it and make out individual details - it's got horns, sure, and its body appears to be a red raincoat - but I can't assemble all the pieces into one cohesive mental picture. I think it's several child ghosts sitting on each other's shoulders under that coat, and by "think" I mean "really hope".
Okay, so let's address the obvious high point of this cover, and that's the title. Werewolf Simulator? Congratulations, you've managed to take being a fearsome mythical beast / representation of man's animalistic urges and make it sound like a dry recreation of the minutiae of a werewolf's daily life, all presented in spreadsheets and tedious micromanagement. My problem with Werewolf Simulator was that I always forgot to lower the landing gear while approaching the runway. No, wait, that was Microsoft Flight Simulator.
The cover werewolf itself is pretty terrifying, honestly, what with those nightmarishly jagged teeth and the curiously insectile eyes. It's just a shame that werewolf race is being let down by the weirdo posing in front of the moon in the background. That's not a muzzle, that's a beak. He's some kind of were-chicken.
This one's just adorable, though. What could be in that castle that is so spooky that even this ghost is scared of it? I'm going to assume that the castle has been bought by a tasteless Premier League footballer who is going to convert the 12th century belfrey into a steam room and paint Louis Vuitton logos all over the keep. That's the twist, the "spookyman" of the title is actually an international footballing superstar who got too rich too young.
Oh, that Satan, nothing can tear him away from his favourite pendulum. "Come down from there, you silly Satan," you plead, but Satan just hisses at you and threatens to condemn you to an eternity of suffering in the sulphur pits of Hell, a joyless place where they don't even have pendulums. Satan's not even doing anything up there, not menacing a buxom young maiden tied to a slab, not operating as a vital component of a long-case clock, he just perches up there all day demanding "tribute" in the form of Gregg's sausage rolls, the freeloading git.
This cover really tells a story, huh? The story of conjoined twins who bought a tacky ring at a car boot sale - but the ring was cursed, and when one of them put it on they became a werewolf! Extensive Googling has taught me that this is not the plot to an Eighties comedy-horror movie, a fact which has truly astounded me but has also given me fresh impetus to rent a video camera and find a pair of conjoined twins, at least one of whom who doesn't mind having fake hair glued to their face.
"Well, Doctor, your experiments have confirmed beyond a doubt that you can indeed use medical science to create an enormous blue demon jaguar head with fangs that constantly drip blood, but the real question is why? Why would you do that? It's knocking the syringes and pills all over the place, this is a disaster."
Olli and Lissa
Forget Edvard Munch's The Scream, this is an expression of mankind's inner dread for the modern age! Existential angst has never before been captured so graphically, if that is what this picture is intended to depict - there's always the possibility of a third ghost shoving its broomstick where the sun don't shine.
I Ain't Got Nobody
Finally for today, I'd like to show you a cover I genuinely love. I Ain't Got Nobody's cover has all the Halloween elements in place: spooky creatures, a lovely colour palette, a really bad pun, it's just spot on. I think it might even be 3D. Of course, it could just as easily be a printing error or a bad scan causing the effect, but sadly I don't have any red-blue 3D glasses handy to check it out. If you do have the requisite eyewear, then please let me know if it is 3D, but please note that I will not accept any legal or financial responsibility if a ghost flies out of the picture and possesses you. I wouldn't worry about it, though. There's only, like, a ten percent chance of that happening.