What Halloween Means To Me
|by Eric Scharf|
Like most Americans, I take a rather irreverent/indifferent view of holidays. President's Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veteran's Day--all just a day off from work. Thanksgiving: an excuse to get stuffed. New Year's: an excuse to get drunk. Independence Day: an excuse to start a brush fire.
For an ostensibly Christian nation, America pretty much drops the ball with regard to Easter; in Europe, especially the Catholic countries, they shut everything down for up to two weeks. I find it something of a disappointment to have to put up with all the cloying hypocrisy of living in a Christian culture and miss out on the theologically concomitant pageantry.
America reserves its greatest cultural-commercial efforts for Christmas. I have deeply held beliefs about the proper observance of Christmas, but they are restricted to myself and my family; I don't consider my Christmas to be public property, and I eschew all attempts to conflate my celebration with community spirit.
Don't get me started on St. Patrick's Day.
The holiday which I find gives me the greatest sense of community is Halloween. My first experiences of it were of course Trick-or-Treating; my parents were thoughtful enough to make costumes for me even when I was too young to know what Halloween was. My pre-pubescent years were spent in residential Tucson, which, while not exactly full of the spooky hollows and gabled wooden mansions found in American Halloween imagery, was certainly capable of being frightening in its own way. There were lonely roads to walk down, desolate undeveloped lots to cross, and of course the house belonging to mean old Mr. Griffith, who would shout at you if you so much as put a foot on his precious gravel yard. Every October, in defiance of local ordinance and common sense, the scent of leaf fires filled the evening air, heralding the return of the natural forces of Decay. When I turned eleven we moved to suburban Seattle, with its prolific greenbelts of evergreen trees. Trick-or-Treating lasted about two or three years after that, but I never found (or looked for) a gang of adolescent vandals to join. Feeling too old for Trick-or-Treating and too "dignified" for pulling pranks on neighbors I didn't know, my observance of Halloween was reduced to coming up with costumes of obscure personae for wearing to school.
In the last years that I lived in my parents' suburban house, I took upon myself the duty of passing out candy on Halloween. I noted with resigned dismay the decreasing numbers of Trick-or-Treaters we received at our door. I would make a half-hearted effort at getting into a theatrical rôle, but I never seemed to get into the Halloween spirit. I realize now, in retrospect, that my generally alienated adolescence necessarily prevented me from understanding the social rôle I should have been attempting to fill. I moved out into an apartment and shortly thereafter my parents sold the house and moved into a gentrified condo, and my proximity to Trick-or-Treaters dropped dramatically. I carved pumpkins and wore costumes to work, but I generally avoided Halloween parties as I felt that they were rarely much different than any other social gathering--no one took the holiday as seriously as I did.
I sought to define for myself "the Halloween spirit" so that I might better spread it to my environs. I had long had a cursory understanding of the history of Halloween, but I researched it, along with other autumnal and harvest festivals. Halloween has its origins in the Druidic holiday of Samhain, but its current form came to America with Irish immigration in the 19th century. There are three interrelated themes which I regard as essential to the "meaning" of Halloween.
The first theme is the inescapability of Nature. Halloween is unquestionably a pagan holiday, in that it celebrates forces directly observable in the world. The forces of Harvest and Decay are immanent in our experience. Nature provides a bounty and exacts a price visible to all. This equilibrium preceded human consciousness, and Halloween, while festive, retains an element of resignation and human powerlessness in the face of an ancient cycle. This same powerlessness is also present in the equally pagan May Day rites of Spring. The reaping of the harvest and the slaughter of livestock have traditionally illustrated the ubiquitous necessity of death. The meaning of Halloween has no need of faith, which recommends it to me much more highly than just-so stories of Resurrection or Inalienable Rights. Quid pro quo seems much more honest to me.
The second theme is the multiplicity of identity. The social practice of wearing masks and costumes is old and complex, and certainly not restricted to Halloween. At least two non-mutually-exclusive interpretations suggest themselves: 1) People contain several aspects or personae, some of which may be difficult to maintain in "normal" society, which on Halloween are given free reign; and 2) The human psyche has a "Light Side" and a "Dark Side", the latter being ceded one night of indulgence in order to contain it for the rest of the year. I find uses for both interpretations, and I regard them as particularly important to the development of children, who must learn early on how to navigate in society while preserving their pathologies intact. Picking the right costume depends a great deal on knowing one's "audience", which in turn requires awareness of one's social milieu. "What do you want to be for Halloween?" is a burning question every year, and when I finally settle on my costume I cannot help but feel a rush of anticipatory adrenaline. To my mind, there are three, not-always-complementary goals in selecting a costume. First, a good costume ought to be visually arresting, both to entertain children (and the child-minded) and to induce the internal awareness of performance, of being "on stage." Second, one should try to achieve a sense of disturbance, of being something unnatural and unnerving. Finally, my intellectual vanity cannot pass up such an opportunity to display cleverness and obscurity (although this can easily backfire; I don't think a single person "got" my costume the year I went as Ludwig Wittgenstein).
The third theme is the propriety of fear and cruelty. Of all of the "rights" conjured ex nihilo in recent years, "the right to be free from fear" makes the least sense to me. In my experience, fear is fundamental to all phases of life. Coping with fear is an absolutely crucial faculty. Some childhood fears (fear of the dark, fear of being devoured) don't last into adulthood, while others (fear of separation, fear of loneliness) are far more long-lived. When most people say, "I liked to be scared," they're referring to escapism, to "non-realistic" fears common to low-grade horror movies and to, frankly, most commercial Halloween imagery. To my mind, there's nothing terribly wrong with this sort of indulgence, but I think it's inaccurate bordering on the self-deceptive to call it true "horror." This dilution of horror is related to modern culture's attempt to deny the ubiquity of death (mentioned above), as well as contemptibly simplistic misapprehensions of the value of horror. When one's observance of Halloween is directed at children (ie, receiving Trick-or-Treaters), one should revel in fears that are most impressive to one's audience. Some children are more "sophisticated" than others, of course, so this will result in a range of horrors available. My chief dissatisfaction with "adult" observances of Halloween (usually costume parties) lies with their failure to scale the horror to the fears plaguing adults (most such events are in fact uninterested in observing Halloween at all; they regard Halloween in much the same vein as I regard New Year's). For example, the greatest opposition my parents ever expressed to any of my Halloween enterprises was in 1982, when I declared my intention to paint my Jack O'Lantern to appear as a Tylenol capsule. At age 14, I obviously felt it was time to move from the childish horror of monsters from the movies to the adult horror of monsters from the evening news. My parents, who didn't think Halloween meant much more than It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and kids dressed as Luke Skywalker, thought I was trying to be funny. In truth, I was trying to be horrifying, and I succeeded.
In my experience, cruelty is also integral to both Halloween and the human condition. These days, pranks are more immediately associated with April Fool's Day, but of all the meanings of Halloween held by me none is more hallowed than the Trick in Trick-or-Treat. "Tale as old as time": give us your soul or we'll burn your crops. It is with this aspect of Halloween that I most feel nostalgic for a period I never experienced. Alan Funt notwithstanding, it is always more fun to pull pranks on familiar victims than on strangers, and relatives (especially siblings) are often the best targets of all. When Halloween first entered American culture, many people lived in communities where they knew almost all of their neighbors. Back then, if young Eli tipped over the outhouse on All Hallow's Eve, less opprobrium would befall him than if he pulled a similar stunt today (or so I would like to believe). Even the life-threatening mischief of Brom Bones was considered to be part and parcel of rural life on Halloween, when wise folks locked their doors and left a pumpkin pie on the porch. Today, most people are lucky to know even one of their neighbors. In the early eighties, when I was graduating from the Trick-or-Treating of childhood to the hooliganism of adolescence, I knew the names of only two families in our entire neighborhood, and I didn't even know them well enough to egg their house without provoking a call to the police. Detroit provides one of the more inflammatory examples of how the lack of community spirit can distort an otherwise festive occasion. Halloween reminds us that one of the many benefits lost by a society that alienates its individuals is the opportunity for recreational cruelty. My adult life was brightened dramatically when I came to work in an office that fervently observes Halloween amongst its employees, especially the practice of assigning victims for prank predation.
It's only been in recent years that I've realized the qualitative difference between my feelings for Halloween and those for other holidays. Explaining Halloween to my French wife was a nettlesome task, but I pursued it with no less zeal for all that. A few years ago, a friend of mine moved into a house in a neighborhood with many children, which made it unique among my acquaintances' residences. About the same time, my place of work was host to a troop of Trick-or-Treaters from a local day-care. I was in costume the whole day for the first time in many years, and I definitely got a performance high. Scaring the piss out of those kids (literally, probably), with total societal approval, impressed upon me the joy and the duty of horrifying others. I began to agitate for my house-dwelling friend to let me and any like-minded minions use her spooky basement to receive Trick-or-Treaters. For a couple of years my friend had to refuse us due to her housemate's moral qualms (fie!). Last year, however, the feckless housemate had moved out, freeing us to prey upon the neighborhood kiddies. Any child wishing to receive her Halloween candy was directed by a sign ("No monsters in basement, just lots of candy for yummy kiddies!") to proceed to the side of the house to a small wooden door, slightly ajar, from which emanated ghastly sounds of dismemberment. Anyone attempting to give the door a wide berth in order to peer in from a safe distance had to approach the backyard fence, behind which lurked another of our costumed friends. A rabbit-head mask adorned the corner fencepost, as if we had decapitated the Easter Bunny as a warning to the forces of Beauty and Goodness that tonight was Our Night. After leaping out and roaring at the kids (which they were expecting but which nonetheless made them leap a meter straight up), we presented them with our delicious offering of day-old refried beans and plastic maggots. Only one smartass kid was bold enough to try it. After the maggot stew, we offered candy, but on the condition that the party of Trick-or-Treaters leave one of their number behind. I was surprised how many groups agreed to this deal (one kid even leaned on the door to prevent his just-sacrificed comrade from escaping). Our audience was near-universally appreciative, including the parents. One girl, dressed as a ghost, decided to give us lip. You can't let things like that go, cuz once they lose their fear of you, the show's over. So of course I had to charge out of the basement and chase her down the street shouting, "Gimme the marshmallow! She looks tasty to me!" We learned later that the Marshmallow went home in tears. Mission accomplished.
My friend's house got an instant reputation (which is no small feat on Capitol Hill). This year, my wife and I have moved into a house ourselves, surrounded by tall, looming trees, with a gaping garage at the end of a long and (if I have anything to say about it, which I will) dark driveway. I've already started construction on the props (anybody know where I can get mannequins cheap?). Please stop by, and be sure to bring any yummy kiddies you know with you.
Copyright © 1997 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.
Halloween isn't the only Autumnal holiday that serves to release a bit of anarchist steam, but I've never been able to properly observe another Britannic export without incurring the wrath of the authorities.
A few years ago I ran across the following poem by H. P. Lovecraft. It contains many resonsances with my feelings regarding Autumn and Halloween. Lovecraft lived his whole life (the last decade of the 19th century and the first four decades of the 20th) in New England, a region (and a period) I have never visited, yet I cannot deny the undertow of nostalgia whenever I read this poem.