When asked what inspires his work, artist Sam Heimer is quick and to the point: “Halloween, not horror.”
As someone who has always believed Halloween and horror to be synonymous with one another—even if purely in spirit—I eagerly await the explanation.
“I’m always chasing the feeling I had as a kid every October,” Sam explains. “Halloween matters so much. It’s a harvest holiday. It’s food and community, and how those things relate to the frail nature of life. It’s finding warmth when the world is otherwise cold. It’s a spectral holiday that once a year brings me back to childhood, to a time when I could still fully see and feel the magic of the world. I enjoy horror, but I don’t really see it in my work beyond heavy blacks and rotting faces.”
Sam’s love for Halloween beyond just the holiday’s familiar trappings can be felt in every square inch of his artwork, and in my opinion, this undeniable passion for his subject matter is the reason why everything he creates is so instantly a visual success. And despite my initial skepticism, after hearing his explanation on why his work is strictly Halloween and not horror, I agree with him. Halloween and horror are synonymous in many ways, but a lot of those ways are superficial, and nothing about Sam’s work is so simple.
Every ghoul that Sam conjures up is set against a backdrop of smiling pumpkins, cozy homes that glow with warmth, and handfuls of pint-sized trick-or-treaters enjoying the evening fun. Frights are had, but terror fails to take hold. The towns and children, it seems, are inoculated against any feelings of true horror. This is a night of celebration, a night of triumph over the dark imaginings that haunt us throughout so much of the surrounding year. Yes, Sam’s ghouls are monstrously large, crazed, and sometimes even grinning with a self-amused psychopathy that doesn’t feel the slightest bit benign, but even so, never do they feel capable of wrongdoing. If horror is an exploration of our fears, a trip into the heart of what terrifies us, Sam’s artwork is the joyful mockery of the demons we expect to find there.
“There has to be a softness to my work, a sense of humor,” says Sam. “The subject matter is never just gore, for example. My line quality has a natural severity to it, but in every image there’s also feelings of happiness or sadness, depictions of a smile or a soft touch, a joke peppered in. Art that depicts pure sadism doesn’t interest me.”
Adults are nowhere to be found in Sam’s artwork, but the children here aren’t exactly childlike. They’re bizarre in posture and strange in action. They perform dark rituals at the feet of demons, remain calm (almost casual) in the face of monsters, and sprint gleefully from supernatural danger. They befriend Death, flirt with evil, lock their humanity away behind expressionless masks, and through those masks, stare back at the person viewing them in a way that can only be described as unsettling. It all reminds me a bit of The Addams Family, or the work of another dark artist with an affinity for oddball children, whom, it turns out, Sam and I both admire.
“In my art I see the artists I poured over as a kid,” says Sam. “Edward Gorey, José Guadalupe Posada, Gustave Doré.”
Doré is also one of my favorite illustrators, but Gorey is the one I’m referring to here. Sam’s work sometimes feels like it walked right off the pages of Gorey’s, The Gnashlycrumb Tinies, both in style and substance. The engraver’s line work is apparent in the work of both artists, but so is the humorous personification of the forces which lay beyond our control. Dark humor is magical in this way. With it, the artist can pay respect to the horror genre and its artistic importance while also challenging fear’s hold on our psyche. Perhaps that’s why all the children in Sam’s world wear expressionless masks. Horror is rendered comic in the face of the unimpressed.
© 2021, Sam Heimer