What better way to welcome the Halloween season than to have a Halloween expert join us here at What Scares You? I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Lisa Morton about all things scary. Lisa has been called “one of the world’s leading authorities on the supernatural.” She is the author of such acclaimed and award-winning books as Ghosts: A Haunted History, Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, and The Halloween Encyclopedia (now in a second edition). Her latest book, The Art of the Zombie Movie, releases on October 15, 2023, so go pre-order your copy now.
What is your greatest fear?
The onset of dementia. I was my mother’s caregiver through 17 years of dementia, and seeing the confusion and terror she struggled with was horrifying. I also took care of my great-grandmother when she had dementia, although hers was more of the forgetful variety, whereas my mother’s frequently involved nightmarish hallucinations and full-blown fantasies. Mom’s dementia set in when she was 73, and even though there’s no guarantee I’ll get it, I nonetheless feel every second ticking away.
What is the scariest thing you remember from childhood?
One of the scariest things I remember happened when I was (I think) 6: I grew up in Southern California, and we used to go to both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm a lot. Disneyland used to have a man dressed up as the Phantom of the Opera standing in front of the Main Street Cinema, and my dad always wanted me to go stand next to the Phantom for a photo, but, even though I had seen the movie and loved it!, I was too scared to do it. Dad did finally get one photo of me standing a few feet away from the Phantom…with my eyes closed!
What is your favorite urban legend?
Los Angeles has a fantastic urban legend about lizard people who once lived beneath our streets. I first encountered this story while visiting the website for the Los Angeles Public Library many years ago because they used to have a mention right on the front page about a part of the story that claimed there was a door to the lizard people’s tunnels in the basement of the downtown public library. This story really started in 1933, when a guy named G. Warren Shufelt convinced the city that he’d developed a way of using radio waves to locate gold, and a Hopi chief had told him that the underground city of the lizard people was lined with the stuff. Shufelt drilled around L.A. for a while before abruptly vanishing. I love the idea of this vanished civilization beneath L.A. and have used it in a number of stories (including my novella Placerita, co-written with John Palisano and coming from Cemetery Dance in December).
What’s something that most people are afraid of that you are not?
Public speaking. It’s never made me particularly nervous, probably in part because my paternal grandmother was a flamboyant actress, and I think I got some of her penchant for being hammy. But I also don’t mind public speaking because it’s like talking to hundreds of friends at once.
Do you like Halloween?
Well, that of course is a loaded question for me, given that I’m considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on the holiday and have written three nonfiction books on its history (to say nothing of dozens of works of fiction). So…yes, I like it.
Okay, I love it.
Even though I never set out to become a Halloween authority, I always loved Halloween. I grew up in Southern California during the ’60s, a time I think of as “the Golden Age of Trick or Treat.” Back then, kids went trick or treating without parents, who were at home handing out treats. Our whole neighborhood participated, and it was just magical to have that one night a year when you could dress up as something you loved (it was usually monsters for me), go out on your own, and be rewarded for your courage and imagination with candy. It was empowering and liberating, and I feel sorry for modern kids who either get stuck with “trunk or treat” controlled events, or have to be accompanied by parents as they go house to house.
Have you ever had any paranormal experiences or premonitions?
I’ve also become something of a paranormal historian, so I’ve done a lot of paranormal investigations. I’m not a sensitive or medium, so I’ve never had anything like a premonition. I did have one odd happening during an investigation at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, said to be one of the most haunted places in America: we were in the concert hall—a separate building a short walk from the main hotel—in the middle of the night, using a spirit box (for those of you who don’t know, a spirit box is a device that rapidly scans radio signals, emitting a wash of white noise that’s occasionally interrupted by a few words, said to be spirit communications). Nothing much had happened for a while, and then the spirit box suddenly blurted out something that sounded like, “Mostellaria.” At the time I was knee-deep in research for my book Ghosts: A Haunted History, so I knew that “Mostellaria” was the title of an ancient Roman play…that translated to “The Haunted House.” I definitely fall onto the skeptical side of belief, so I suspect that my brain took something else and, using pareidolia, converted it into “mostellaria,” but that makes the experience no less astonishing to me. We are amazing creatures.
What’s your favorite horror movie or television series?
The Exorcist is my favorite movie, and the movie that made me want to become a writer. I saw it as a young teen during its original release, and the impact that movie had on audiences back then was something that’s never happened again. People screamed and ran and fainted. Up until I saw that movie, I wanted to be an anthropologist, but after that I knew I had to be a writer.
What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?
I really think horror works best in short form, so rather than “scariest book” I’ll opt for “scariest story” and go right to Dennis Etchison’s “The Dead Line,” which has the most horrific opening line of a short story ever. The fact that the terrible event described in that opening turns out to be an act of compassion does nothing to mitigate the horror of the line or the story. Etchison is my favorite writer, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have also known him as a friend.
What animal scares you the most?
Oh, that’s easy: man. We are the most narcissistic, vicious, cruel animals on the planet. Fortunately, we’re also capable of great kindness and intelligence. That juxtaposition is ultimately what makes us so unpredictable and frightening.
Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of nonfiction books, and prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening.” She is a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, the author of four novels and over 150 short stories, and a world-class Halloween and paranormal expert. Her recent releases include the Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances; forthcoming in October 2023 from Applause Books is The Art of the Zombie Movie. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and online at www.lisamorton.com.