Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.
― Edgar Allan Poe
“I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to be for Halloween, Mom,” my son told me a few weeks ago.
My son is 23 years old. Well, he will be soon – on Halloween, to be exact. A grown adult – and yet, he still wants to dress up and go out trick-or-treating, and collect as many treats as he can possibly stuff into a pillowcase.
Will people give him candy? Even though he’ll have a real costume on, I’m not sure, they may not. There are definitely some cranksters out there who will only give candy to children who look like children.
You know, those people really get on my nerves – as if Halloween was just for kids. Well, we know better.
Since his birthday falls on the holiday, it’s appropriate that Lewis is our family’s Halloween mascot. Every year, we’ve thrown elaborate Halloween birthday parties for him in the attic. We love everything about the event – the pumpkin carving, the decorations, the stockpile of Hershey’s chocolate. And especially the scaring people part.
I can’t help it – I was raised on that kind of stuff.
And, like so many things I was brought up on, looking back, it was all a bit suspect.
I remember years ago, at Halloween, my dad, as the rector of a small Episcopal parish, would invite the girls’ junior choir down into the church basement, in the pitch dark, to read W. W. Jacob’s short story, The Monkey’s Paw.
He would light a candle that was shaped like a skull, and as it burned, red wax dripped out of an eye socket. And Dad could tell a really good ghost story, he scared the living daylights out of us.
But his choice of The Monkey’s Paw was a bit dubious. It’s pretty dark. Not to give anything away, but the paw has the power to grant wishes, but they are granted in somewhat literal, macabre ways. Ways that don’t really turn out well, because it seems the paw has a dark mind of its own.
Of course, what I appreciate now, as an adult, is the author’s inventive suggestion of the paw as metaphor – the idea that our minds have a dark imagination that needs to be harnessed.
But looking back, it probably wasn’t the most appropriate, or politically correct thing for a young minister to do with those little girls, but I doubt it ever crossed his mind. Nowadays, he’d have a lawsuit on his hands, or he might even be serving time.
But seriously, in my memory, Halloween has always been associated with a little bit of risk. A feeling of being a tiny bit unsafe, edgy – like something bad could conceivably happen.
And that was definitely a possibility. Growing up in the laissez-faire late 1960s to early 70s, children were pretty much left to their own devices.Except for the few supervised hours in school and at church, our time was our own. We were completely free to roam the neighborhood on our bikes, and explore all the boundaries. It was a glorious, reckless time to be a kid.
I still have a vivid memory of my brother taking us trick-or-treating when I was four years old. He was only seven, so my twin sisters would have been two and a half, mind you. And for some reason, he was completely in charge. We were all holding hands, and he was dragging us along, through a suburban woods, a grove of pine trees that divided the sub-divisions. It was dark and starting to get cold. He was trying to cover as much area as possible in his quest for candy, but all I knew was, we were in crisis.
My littlest sister had wet her pants, and the other one was crying (I’m still trying to figure out how on earth they were toilet trained at that tender age.) But I was scared, and my brother was getting a bit jacked-up, wanting us crybabies to get a hold of ourselves, buck up, and keep moving. I remember starting to think that maybe we were a bit too much for him to manage.
And I remember feeling disappointed because it had all started out so promisingly, with Mommy taking pictures of me wearing my Cinderella mask. Well, that thing had been crushed into a flat, evil, slant-eyed alien and thrown down in the grass. I couldn’t see a thing through its pin-hole eyes anyway, and the razor sharp mouth hole had cut my tongue open, and it was bleeding pretty bad.
Worst of all, I had hardly any candy to show for the whole night, just a few lousy Jolly Ranchers. Where the heck were Mommy and Daddy? Having a glass of wine by the fireplace? Who knew.
But my point is just – we were free. We were exploring the world, as far out as was reasonably safe. And we knew what to do, pretty much. It was a different time, and there was a different attitude about personal responsibility. Parents didn’t censor stuff, walk their kids on leashes, or try to make everything child-proof.
We were trusted to use our nut, and when we made a mistake, we paid for it. No one else, not our parents, not the teacher. In fact, our parents were more likely to side against us, and we’d have to deal with the consequences.
But as a result, we learned a lot about how to relate to adults – how to stand up, and speak up, and how to negotiate. It’s sad, I meet some children today who look at me like I’m a different species when I try to engage them. It’s like they don’t know what to do, they simply haven’t had much practice dealing with adults.
Happily, here in Switzerland I see a similarly relaxed attitude, not unlike the one from my childhood. Not many things are child-proofed, or adult-proofed, for that matter. I’ve seen a baby literally crawl out into a cross walk while her dad simply laughed.
Because the law here says that pedestrians actually have right of way – go figure! And, too, the construction sites aren’t properly roped off – the workers rarely wear hard hats or gloves either.
And you have to pay to throw away your personal household trash, because you are responsible for the waste you create on the planet. And each official-approved, trash bag costs about $3.00, a great incentive to recycle.
And safety is your own business. The local bicyclists generally don’t wear helmets. And, in terms of skiing, the slopes aren’t what you would call, marked, or even fully enclosed, either. It’s your own responsibility to know the mountain, nobody’s going to tape it off for you.
Hiking is the same way. I could easily fall to my death for lack of a warning sign, or a fence, or even a flimsy string.
But, in terms of Halloween, American parents really bleach the life out of it.They don’t want it celebrated in the schools, unless it’s called “Harvest Festival” or some other stupid thing. Treats have to be healthy, costumes can’t be scary. And if you try to spook their kids, they get all up in arms.
My husband takes particular pleasure in scaring the bejesus out of the little tots that make the long trek up to our front porch. He wears his Frankenstein mask, and being 6’4, well, it’s pretty terrifying. As soon as the wee ones spot him they start screaming. No way will they walk up to the porch and take candy from that monster.
I think it’s hilarious, although I do feel a little bit sorry for them. Most the time I end up running down the street with a handful of mini-Hershey bars, offering apologies.
But really, what’s wrong with exposing children to a little horror? It’s not like they can’t recognize what’s real and what is pretend. And if not, that’s how they learn. We really sell them short when we assume kids can only process things literally.
Children understand myth and fantasy way better than adults. I just worry that we are raising a bunch of kids who lack imagination. Children who don’t understand hyperbole and farce and camp. Kids who have only been served up a watered down version of literature – what mommy and daddy deem “appropriate.”
It appalls me, the censorship some parents employ. They ferret through the classics, looking for anything remotely real that they can criticize. They only approve the soft, politically correct storylines. And so their kids miss out on the best of literature – like the “dark” fairy tales and fables, for fear of, who knows what. A monkey’s paw?
It’s crazy – how else are kids going to learn about evil, and death, and morality in the world, without Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Mary Shelley or The Grimm Brothers.
Which leads me back to books. I remember a series of events that took place years ago, during the tumultuous Textbook War in Charleston, West Virginia. My dad, an outspoken leader against textbook censorship, was at the volatile center of the controversy.
At one point, he had to move our family into a hotel for a few nights, because someone had made death threats against him. It was serious business, school buses had been bombed, and there was a very real violence lurking under the veneer of some of the “safest” places in town – the churches, the schools, and now even my family’s home.
But during that whole surreal chapter of my young life, I never felt traumatized. It just never occurred to me that my dad wouldn’t protect us. My mind simply couldn’t construct any kind of scary, bloody scenario where all of us would be blown up, or shot and killed.
I was a ten year-old with a huge imagination, but it didn’t operate in a way that ever turned against me. In my thinking, people did bad things (myself included), but generally, I trusted that Mom and Dad would set things right. That’s what grown-ups did – they kept the world safe.
I believe we’ve all encountered times in our lives where we had to discern the real scary from the unreal kind. As children and as adults. We live in such a violent country where practically every newspaper headline is a hair-raising scare.
Ebola – is it transmitted by air? Immigration – watch out, those alien people are taking your job! Obama care – oh no, when you’re sick, you won’t have a provider! On and on. Do we even know what’s real anymore?
And so, I am particularly grateful for Halloween – for the spooky stories, for the candy that looks like bloody body parts. For the chance to dress up and be something really wicked.
Because all of it reminds me that, yes, I do live on a planet that is scary as hell, but that sometimes things are just bloody, good fun. Sometimes we can let our imaginations completely run away with ourselves.
And I am really lucky to have a truly original, American holiday like Halloween. A time I’m allowed to savor the grotesque and the ironic, the spoof and the satire. And when I can discover that the tall man behind the mask is just a goofy neighbor, and that the Monkey’s Paw is just well, a cute, little monkey’s paw – something that some twisted writer dreamed up. And it’s a day where it’s okay, pretty much, to scare the pants off of the little kids in my neighborhood. Hey, they get candy.
But seriously, the scariest thing I’ve ever encountered, and it’s real and it’s alive – is the person who doesn’t see the difference between what’s scary and what’s truly evil in this world. Because that’s a person who totally lacks imagination.
And that, to me, is really terrifying.
Cover photo: Lewis Kendall