The Gift of Halloween
“Autumn scoffs: Bear up, babes. Last call. This is your final warning before darkness falls at five.”
What if, one day next spring, you and I ask a Walmart clerk for candies shaped like skulls? What if we demand fake blood to smear on our skin? What if we host an Easter egg hunt wearing shrouds? We could do all this blithely now. But only now, in this liminal season when the lights go out.
This time of year—and it alone, throughout much of the Western world—is when the living dress up like the dead. That's because, now, the outside world with all its fallen leaves starts to mirror the fate awaiting us and all we love. Sliding chill fingers down our necks, October whispers: Frailty. Separation. Hopes and dreams and friends and moments we believed would last forever crumpling, crumbling, tossed.
What? We assumed that he and she and they would simply always be, whether or not we watched them, touched them. Whoops, October simpers: Nothing stays. And in these damp liminal hours we stand, outthrust arms pricked by brittle shards of sunlight, cool and fickle, fading fast. About this, about everything, in October we ask: Where did it go?
This happens every year. We feel assailed by 20,000 tiny thefts throughout this month which always seem unprecedented, sudden, and by stealth. Birdsong. Beachside barbecues. Poof.
We are outraged at being caught off-guard again. But autumn echoes what happens after our pets and pals and parents pass: We think sorrow will kill us. Then, in the cruelest of mercies, we become used to bare branches and forget.
Seasonal changes are clues to the biggest mystery.
Halloween is this gift: a rococo rehearsal of those tragedies that are the only thing we know for certain we will face: not known in car-crash or viral-pneumonia detail, unless we're clairvoyant, but the basics. Bang. Bones. Boo.
At Halloween, we dress up as our own dead selves. Imagine doing that in June. “Hi, guys. Great graduation party! Do you like my mask? Its huge hollow eye-sockets evoke those of Uncle Isaac in his grave. Also my eye-sockets and yours, someday.”
Hungry? I made meringues! With chocolate faces—yes, resembling moaning ghosts! Who wants champagne? (Read “Do Horror Films Serve a Spiritual Purpose?”)
We rehearse, practice, prepare, play, thus pre-forget. Down the road whenever real tragedy strikes, we will have already mocked it, worn it, feasted, screamed.
We will have gazed into at least rubber and sugar versions of its face.
But not in June. Not when dragonflies shimmer, skimming heat-hazed lakes. Not when we need no hats by night. Such tiny nights. Too much cognitive dissonance.
Our ancestors knew this. Cultures worldwide created rites around the concept that, this time of year, dead souls draw near. Celtic Samhain. Christian All Souls’ Day. India's Pitru Paksha. Korea’s Chuseok. Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. Cambodia’s Pchum Ben. Bolivia’s Fiesta de las Natitas. All those graveside picnics. Altars thronged with photographs, flowers, and cake.
Yom Kippur isn’t about death per se. But through fasting and prayer that day, Jews seek atonement, asking God to let them live another year.
In much of the world, all this coincides with vegetative death: last harvests, fallen leaves, fields stiff with frost. As autumn closes in, we panic: Can’t I seize back summer just a bit? I failed to hail its roses when they blazed. I did not bask.
Autumn scoffs: Bear up, babes. Last call. This is your final warning before darkness falls at five.
When fresh fruit from our front yard is only a funny, did-we-merely-dream-it memory, we feast on false fruit: candies by which—literally sweetly—Halloween gentles us through this threshold into real-world winter, which, claws flexed, awaits.
Naturally, none of this applies to Cities Without Seasons, such as my hometown. Dad said nonstop sunshine would render me as unready for real life as dining exclusively on warm honey for 19 years. He was correct—but inhabits that space these days where we can tell him neither this nor anything, except perhaps right about now.
Want more? Read “Some of Us Really Need Halloween.”