Ghosts swing in the breeze, hanging from tree branches. Orange lights flash on and off in the dark. Tombstones erupt from the grass and pumpkins appear on doorsteps. A maze of spiderwebs have draped themselves over porch railings, windows, and porticos. The month of October, in the days leading up to Halloween transform my neighborhood into a place haunted by giant spiders, witches, and ghouls. Each year the decorations vary, depending on the latest decorating fads. One year it was oversized inflated pumpkins, another year it was the witch smashing into the side of the tree.
Scary. This is the goal. The carving of malevolent faces into pumpkins and the display of anything creepy outside your home was intended to calm the ghosts roaming the earth on October 31st. The creepier the better.
The celebration, from which Our Halloween evolved, is the Gaelic holiday Samhain. During Samhain, the curtain between the living and the dead was lifted for one night. Dressed as ghosts, some people would go door-to-door to ask for food. Trick or Treat.
This year, with the number of Covid-19 infections decreasing, children will once again be knocking on doors. As we scurry to create or purchase just the right costume and pull out the scary videos and books to create the Halloween mood, I’ve been thinking about why it is we’re so fascinated with creating more fear in our lives. Isn’t the world frightening enough as it is?
As a writer, I scan the list of call-outs from the hundreds of online magazines publishing stories, essays, and poetry. A sizeable market exists for writers who have the knack for composing something short and frightening. Several journals specialize exclusively in publishing the unusual, the fantastic. Others shift their themes according to the season, and this is currently the season of witches, goblins, and the harvest moon.
How many of us have had a ghostly experience i.e. an encounter with something we couldn’t quite explain? A premonition. An odd coincidence. I’ve had conversations in my dreams with the dead, but the significance of the interaction fades upon waking. Not enough, in my estimation for a story—but maybe if I stretch the truth. Change the impact of the encounter from fading memory to obsession. This is how stories sometimes begin.
I recall fairy tales I loved as a child, and see their patterns now as a way of coping with situations that are troubling: the evil stepmother, the jealous siblings, the inequity of rich and poor. As scary as it might be for Little Red Riding Hood to be pursued by a wolf, how comforting to be rescued by the woodcutter. But even better is to be alert and vigilant, aware of the ruthless wolves in the world, so as not to trust them.
The weather patterns—rising seas, forest fires, volatile hurricanes and tornadoes— all cause me to see our planet as struggling to produce enough clean water and food for its inhabitants. It’s a reality I cannot ignore. That’s why I’m frightened. Too many citizens in the world have stopped paying attention. The fantasy world is fun to escape into, but not a permanent solution.
Halloween in part evolved to cope with our fear of death by enabling us to suspend our belief in what is real and unreal. Anything can happen. Reassured by our feeling of power, enjoy the season, but let’s not keep our eyes closed too long. Look around, savor what we have and let’s figure out how not to let it slip away.