Friday, October 9, 2015

Another Halloween

For as long as I can remember, Halloween has made me uneasy.

The end of a Michigan October was generally dark and cold; fallen leaves rotted in wet clumps and the trees looked skeletal. And as born-again Christians, when the pumpkins began to show up on front porches, we pulled out our own favorite "ghost stories" every year. When I was little, there were scary rumors about tainted candy and pets being stolen for Satanic rituals (yeah, I actually looked those up on last fall). As I've written before, Dad picked me up early from school on Halloween so I would not have to participate in a costume parade with my classmates.

One year in our attempt to be "salt and light", I seem to remember Mom handing out healthy snacks (raisins, perhaps?) and religious coloring books. Another year we substituted a harvest-themed costume party. Then came more tales about the Druids making bonfires, and demons living in jack-o-lanterns, and of course we knew that God commanded the execution of all witches and wizards which was why we couldn't read fairy tales. For years after that, we kept our front door dark and pretended not to be home on Halloween night. In our fervor to avoid contamination from occult associations, we were as superstitious as the ancient pagans!

Later, after Frank Peretti's novels gained popularity, we imagined we could sense stronger "warfare" between supernatural armies at that time of year. (Especially when we spent the week fighting past fake spiderwebs and graveyard displays to leave pre-election flyers on people's porches.) We boycotted an October church party that included a hayride at a pumpkin patch. Later still, Reformation parties became popular Halloween alternatives among our friends, some even dressing up as the leaders of the Protestant church in 16th-century Europe.

Last year's "Creeper" jack-o'-lantern
After Chris and I got engaged, I remember a conversation we had about holidays. I wanted to know what to expect from this man I was going to spend the rest of my life celebrating with. So I quizzed him, over AOL Instant Messenger, about his family traditions. How did he feel about Santa Claus? Halloween?

He told me he'd grown up going trick-or-treating, and expected our future children would do the same. The thought made me a little panicky. But he was to be the spiritual head of our household, so I tried to mentally adapt.

In the early years of our marriage, I bought candy and tried to get into the holiday spirit, but mostly failed. Sugar, darkness, and spooky stuff just weren't doing much for me. My toddlers were disturbed by the ghoulish displays at the grocery store, and I didn't blame them a bit! When pint-size ghosts showed up at our door, I tried not to cringe. I still associated Halloween so strongly with evil that I found church Halloween parties disorienting. "Christian" witches and mummies really confused me!

Even after concluding that supernatural evil was a myth, I shied away from the gore and the pervasive theme of death and decay. I read Dracula and Neil Gaiman novels in a gentle attempt to build up my tolerance for horror. Yard displays of gravestones or spiders or body parts no longer seemed evil to me, but I still couldn't see what attracted otherwise normal people to such things!

I tried to ignore the icky stuff and concentrate on the costume angle, but my imagination never took me very far from reality. After all, I'd spent most of two decades wearing outfits that would pass for costumerie in mainstream society! All I had to do was pull together a few stronger pieces from my real-life wardrobe and I could have stepped out of Leave It To Beaver, or Little House on the Prairie.

Last year was the first time I actually stepped beyond what I thought of as my real self.

The thought of a costume party was way too much for me to handle--I stayed home rather than venture outside my shell or risk seeing anything scary.

But, on a whim the morning of Halloween, I bought a witch's hat and assembled an all-black outfit out of my closet. I played with different facial expressions for the camera and posted this selfie to Facebook.

When the kids walked through the neighborhood that evening, I went along, wearing the hat. Strangely, it was kind of fun! And stranger still, friends shared how the costume reflected a side of me that they recognized even though I didn't.

As I've been exploring less familiar sides of myself this year, I find myself appreciating the fun of costumes in a new way. Most of us have enough facets that we can identify a little with healers and helpers at the same time that we identify with witches, warriors, and waifs. We may have a little bit of sexy waitress inside, as well as a silly hot dog.

My kids knew exactly what they wanted to be this year. They see Halloween is their chance to identify with a favorite character or to create one of their own. I like the idea of Halloween giving us an opportunity to embrace a part of ourselves that we may not actually even accept or understand. Perhaps one that contradicts the way we live the rest of the year, or an ideal we aspire to.

This month, we took our first family trip to the Halloween costume store. I'd always been too intimidated by the window displays to venture in, but this time I was feeling brave. And once inside, my imagination began to stretch! Chris kept losing me in the store as I moved down aisle after aisle trying on masks, gawking at costumes, picturing myself with assorted accessories, and perusing the dozens of exotic make-up options.

And this year, to my great surprise, the spooky Halloween displays have not troubled me. I still have no need to decorate my own yard with corpses or giant spiders, but I understand how it can be fun, and even a little empowering, to wear our insecurities on the outside for a change, to reveal our darker sides, to make light of the horrible fears that have haunted our species through the ages.

So bring on Halloween, with its ghosts and candy and costume parties and traditions passed down since the celebration of Samhain. :) I won't be hiding in the basement anymore.

1 comment:

  1. I love the picture.

    Up until about age 9 or so, we used to trick or treat and the rest of it. It was fun, and costumes were a great chance to exercise creativity. (Particularly since money was tight in those days.) After that, though, my parents bought into the whole "halloween is the devil's holiday" crap, and we stopped. It is one of the things I did miss during that part of my childhood.

    It took a few years after my wife and I started having kids for us to go back to participating, although I think this was more due to the stresses of having very small children than anything ideological. The last several, we have been back to trick or treating with friends, and it has been - as it was when I was small - harmless fun.

    I've always been more into the macabre, I'm afraid. In many ways, it is a link to the past, when everyone had their portraits taken with hand on a skull, as a reflection on mortality. Whether you see the macabre as an admission that we too will meet the fate of all, or a more lighthearted whistle past the graveyard, it is a way of coping with the tragedy of mortal existence.

    But why examine the complex reality when you can sell fearmongering books, right?