“The global prevalence of death-related holidays—such as Día del Muerto, the Hungry Ghost Festival, the grave-sweeping-and-lantern-floating Obon—evinces an ancient, universal need.”
Halloween is my favorite holiday.
It always was, because I've always had a dark side, even as a child in endless safe suburban sunshine, when fanged bats and bloody bones felt friendly to me and, although I never saw or heard a ghost, the notion that the spirits of the dead sometimes wander between the worlds replaying their sorrows and joys made more sense to me than mainstream religion ever did.
I also cherish Halloween because it is a fear rite. Its black cats and screaming skulls designed to trigger terror, our shared and personal dread of blood and guts and the annihilation that awaits us all, but then—as access is catharsis—helps us process this. Because my parents yelled at me a lot, because they howled horrifying insults right into my face, year upon year, fear was (and is) my main emotion. I need lots of Halloweens.
And maybe you do too, because with zombie dolls and plastic gravestones Halloween spurs flashbacks we spend all year evading, then sweetens these with fun-size Milky Ways, inviting us to undergo the hopeless void together, masks and costumes hiding our real tears. Never pretending—unlike other holidays—to be anything but what it is, Halloween guards and guides us through the gaping, sudden, summer's-really-over dark.
The global prevalence of death-related holidays—such as Día del Muerto, the Hungry Ghost Festival, the grave-sweeping-and-lantern-floating Obon—evinces an ancient, universal need.
From the night those first eyeliner whiskers were drawn across my face and that first fuzzy tail pinned to my pants, I loved the carnivals, the costumery, the cupcakes whose chocolate frosting sported toothpick ghosts and candy corn. I loved the sharp vegetal smell of candles searing pumpkin flesh. I loved those gap-toothed, death-defying jack-o'-lantern smiles.
Then people I knew died.
With every real-life death in my life, Halloween became less theoretical—not that I saw it that way, as a robot-costumed kid—and increasingly personal. Its grinning cartoon skulls and skeletons assumed the features of my grandmother, my classmate who was crushed inside his car, a friend whose aneurysm knocked her lifeless to the school-library floor. Not that I saw their ghosts or anything. I never saw a ghost. But Frankie's shattered face, Deedee's glasses and Grandma's paisley cotton robe were superimposed on those paper bones. Which made me picture putrefaction: bloated gums and blue eyes, brown eyes that had met mine shrinking, shriveling like grapes under the sun.
Knowing actual people who've actually died deepens the universal truth of Halloween, which is: We end. We talk and think and study and play tennis, then we stop. A day or night comes—is it raining? is it Wednesday?—when we blink once, then never again. We rot. If we don't burn, dissolve or get devoured instantly, we rot. And yes, maybe our spirits stay between the worlds, striving to tell Mom where the hidden silver is, but in our customary forms we're gone. We don't come back. Not in the flesh we know: that flesh our parents, partners, friends and children think is us. Goodbye, goodbye.
We think we know this, but we don't. Until we do.
Knowing real people who have really died makes Halloween holier, because—thusly, hellishly initiated—henceforth we see that night as a tiny window to the Other Side, through which we and the Lost Ones wave at one another and, like autumn leaves riding that pumpkin-perfumed wind, whoosh in and out.
Finite—lasting only one night—Halloween reminds us that death is permanent. Thus life is precious. What better message can any holiday convey? After our sweet, scary immersion into primordial terror, the-day-after-Halloween hastens us back to bright wild life.
Are you beset, as I am, by excessive fears all year? Studies reveal that trauma does this to us, "re-wiring" the human brain such that its fear center, the amygdala, fires on perpetual high alert. And/or: Has mortality visited you? Let's reclaim Halloween as part ritual and part exposure therapy: a safe space in which to face our real and imaginary specters and cadavers, sink into the darkest dark with them, share sweets and—as Pema Chödrön and many other Buddhist teachers urge—befriend, hard as this is, our fears.
Those cupcakes and candies are just rewards for such a plunge. This happy-sad day isn't just for kids.