by Natasha L. Mikles
It’s my favorite time of year—when everything is draped in orange and black, skeleton décor abounds, and little children dressed as superheroes run amok in big-box stores. During the month leading up to Halloween, we welcome into our lives all sorts of frights and fears. Since last year, however, Halloween has seen a new face enter our holiday repertoire—David S. Pumpkins. The character is the result of a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring a couple going on a scary “100 Floors of Terror” ride. While the first few floors feature known and identifiable horror tropes—a deathly bride, a cannibal—soon the doors open onto a bizarre figure played by Tom Hanks in a brash, jack o’lantern-speckled suit with two skeleton sidekicks. Rather than scream or yell, the figure proclaims, “I’m David Pumpkins, and I am going to scare the hell out of you,” before dancing in a ridiculous manner with the two skeletons. He re-appears on floor after floor as the couple becomes increasingly confused about what exactly the nature of this creature is and why they should be scared. At one point, they argue with the figure, ask who he is, and explain that he is not scary, to which he simply replies, “I’m David Pumpkins!” Eventually all the other horrifying figures on the ride become enveloped in the mythos of David Pumpkins, who appears in front of them and inspires distinctly un-terrifying impromptu dance parties.
The sketch is, in some ways, inexplicable. In a recently published interview, Vulture spoke with the three writers who created the character, and they themselves seem a little uncertain how the idea came together. Perhaps there is something that is just fundamentally funny about three men dancing around with funny voices and silly moves, especially in a situation where frights and terrors are expected. However, the sketch reveals more than that—it speaks to how our ideas of horror are shaped by the social world around us.
Douglas Cowan’s idea of “sociophobics” states that “what we fear, why we fear, and how we manifest and resolve our fears are socially constructed, culturally conditioned, and integrally connected to who we are as communal animals.” Our fears, rather than expressions of primal forces, are actually as socially constructed as our ideas of humor. The tale of Mae Nak—which details the story of a man coming back from war to his wife and child, only to find out that both are ghosts—is one of Thailand’s most terrifying ghost stories; for Americans, however, the story of living with one’s true love after their death is the plot of the romantic film Ghost. “Sociophobics” lets us think about what is revealed about Thai and American society respectively from this difference—namely different feelings on ghosts, on romantic love, and on the appropriate form of post-mortem life. We are scared of that which we have been taught is scary, that which is essentially “knowable.” In Sacred Terror, Cowan examines the 1973 film The Exorcist, and argues for taking seriously that it terrified Americans in the 1970s because of a socially prevalent fear of supernatural evil and what it might make one do. I maintain that this fear of the supernatural was not mitigated, but rather heightened by individuals’ decreasing religiosity; a 1973 viewer might not believe in the demons portrayed, but The Exorcist played on the fear that such beliefs did not matter if the demon wanted to possess them. This same impulse is evident in Robert Orsi’s History and Presence, where Orsi admits that—despite now being a secular, areligious Catholic—he is still unable to watch the film, despite his personal disbelief.
What Cowan discovered in the positive, the SNL writers proved in the negative—the joke behind the David S. Pumpkins’ sketch is exactly a breakdown in this social formation of horror. Before Pumpkins appears, the couple are scared by several identifiable horror tropes that have a place in Americans’ social imagination of horror—the wedding suicide, the cannibal waiter, the deathly child, the escaped mental patient. But when Pumpkins appears, the man watching him states only, “I’m just trying to wrap my head around David Pumpkins. Are we supposed to know who that is?” Pumpkin’s catchphrase—“Any questions?”—recalls his essential obscurity; there are so many questions, because the viewer is lost and without any social or cultural guide.
The sketch also challenges an assumption that has been claimed by horror writers going back to H.P. Lovecraft. The bellhop who accompanies the couple at one point makes an effort to explain the pumpkin-covered figure to his confused passengers, stating, “the scariest thing to the mind is the unknown.” But this is not quite true. Lovecraft’s entities, and even Stephen King’s Pennywise, represent not only the unknown, but the unknowable. To the extent that the audience understands the fundamentally alien nature of these beings, they possess a quality that Rudolf Otto called “the wholly other.” As for Pumpkins, as an entity totally disembedded from any narrative context, we do not even know whether or not he is knowable. When questioned about his nature and purpose, Hanks states only that David Pumpkins is “his own thing,” while the skeleton sidekicks are defined only as “part of it.” Pumpkins is neither “wholly other” nor “unknowable.” He is a figure within our grasp, but still, somehow, completely apart from it. Any questions?
 Douglas Cowan, “Horror and the Demonic,” The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, (New York: Routledge, 2009) 403-419. 408.
Natasha L. Mikles teaches Tibetan and Chinese religions at Texas State University. She is beyond excited for Halloween festivities.