Now that it’s over, I can tell you why I hate Halloween and why, with the exception of my son’s childhood years, when I’d be preoccupied with the fun side of it–buying or making his costume, stocking up on candy, decorating the house–I always have. Basically, it has to do with grief. Because grief has to do with death–and, no matter what kind of spin you put on it, Halloween is about death.
Now, that’s not exactly earth-shattering news. Most adults know that–and, to some extent, so do children. Of course, young children, even if they’ve experienced loss, know death only as an abstract concept and older children tend not to connect skeletons, ghosts, and haunted houses with real people. I’ve often wondered if adults do–but it’s not the kind of thing you ask a friend or colleague over cocktails.
Halloween–which has its roots in Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival of the dead, dating back, by some estimates, nearly 3,000 years–obviously has a built-in darkness. According to ancient folklore, October 31 was the one day of the year when the dead would “return” home. In Christianity, the day after Halloween is known as All Saints Day, and the day after that is known as All Souls Day, a day to remember the dead in prayer.
Still, for most, the darkness is part–if not most–of the fun. Just about everyone likes to be scared a little–as long as they can be scared from a distance, knowing that, if they get too scared, they can retreat to the safety of a parent’s loving arms, and to the warmth and coziness of home.
When I was a young child, in the late ’60s, I’d get excited for weeks before Halloween. I still remember coming home from school when I was in kindergarten or first grade, and seeing the cardboard cutout decorations my mother would Scotch-tape in the window as a “surprise” for me, those now-iconic Beistle cutouts that at once thrilled me and scared me. There was the black cat with the arched back, the sinister jack-o’-lanterns wearing hats and smoking pipes, the witch’s face in the crescent moon, and “Jumpin’ Jiminy,” a skeleton with crepe-paper arms and legs and a jack-o’-lantern head. The creepiest of all, though, were the black cat wearing a monocle and top hat, and “Goblin Man,” a spooky jack-o’-lantern with jointed arms and legs. Goblin Man was a frequent character in my childhood nightmares and, even now, I get a little creeped out by him.
Even though I’d dream that Goblin Man was chasing me or that Jumpin’ Jiminy was trying to “get” me, I knew that Halloween was supposed to be scary, but that it was just pretend, and, as I trick-or-treated, with my coat and hat over my costume, holding tightly onto my mother’s hand, I felt safe and warm and loved. Once we came inside and shut the door, I knew that it was all behind me, except for a requisite nightmare or two in the days ahead. Still, it was a small price to pay for a huge bag of candy (which my mother would first “check” for razor-blades and poison).
The first time that I had a real awareness of the death component of Halloween was in 1971. My grandmother, with whom I was very close, died in May of that year and when Halloween rolled around, I resisted it. I remember the build-up and the talk of ghosts and ghouls and skeleton decorations and costumes, and being both scared and angry. I knew that, though my grandmother was in Heaven with God, she was one of “them” now. Did that mean she was spooky or bad? Did that mean she would haunt people’s houses? When I saw people dressed as ghosts or skeletons or mummies, I felt hurt and confused. Were they making fun of my grandmom? Was my grandmom somehow “bad” because she had died? Did she look like that now?
Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone or ask anyone, so I kept my questions and confusion to myself. And I pretended to like Halloween thereafter. By the time I was 14 or 15, I was taking my little nieces, my brother’s children, trick-or-treating, and I actually did get to enjoy Halloween a little. But I still had that slight gnawing, anxious feeling, like a soft voice whispering, “death, death, death.”
Then, when I was 16, my brother died–on the eighth anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. This time, the association of Halloween with death was much more visceral. My grief after his death was nearly unbearable, and so any association with death was a reminder of the loss. Halloween compounded my grief. My brother was dead. How dare these people make fun of death.
It took many years, but I lightened up about Halloween. Still, after the deaths of my parents, and after losing a child, I’ve protected myself by avoiding the macabre aspects of Halloween. And when I see a fake tombstone decoration or a zombie or ghost costume, I don’t dwell on it. Instead, I say a little prayer. And I move on to the innocuous aspects of harvest time–apple cider and pumpkin pie.