by Janis Patterson
Halloween! The time of skeletons, ghosts, cookies shaped like bats and scary stories. We wear costumes of witches and zombies and pay money to have frightening things jump out of the dark at us in haunted houses.
So why? Some of the prime directives hardwired into our brain are to survive, to stay safe, to avoid danger. Again, so why on Halloween do we try to scare ourselves witless?
Because it is all play-like. No matter how much we scream and jump in the haunted house, we know that it is only an actor or a mechanical illusion. If we were really hurt by something, everything would stop and care would be showered on us. We wouldn’t really eat a bat, but a bat-shaped cookie is a harmless bit of set dressing – to say nothing of being tasty. The sinister monster or axe-murderer in the corner at the party is really your harmless neighbor from down the block. No one would like to live in a house with skeletons hung around or a mummy in the window (ok, I do know one who does, but though weird she’s basically harmless), hung in thick cobwebs and crawling with velveteen spiders. It’s the same reason we read horror stories at any time of year. We are scared, yes, but we can control the circumstances and therefore control our fear.
Perhaps that is the prime point – control. We know the skull cups aren’t real, because one, they are made of cheap plastic and two, we bought them at the local discount store a couple of days ago. Probably if at any other time of the year anyone offered us a bubbling, fog-shrouded drink in a cup made of a skull (real or fake), we’d scream and run like the dickens. At Halloween we know it’s all make-believe and therefore just part of the fun. Sort of like reading mysteries or thrillers where – no matter how scary or exciting the action is or how much the world is threatened – we always know all the way through that everything will be all right in the end.
Some things seem to be so intrinsic to us as humans that they are universal; we fear the spirits of the dead and believe (even if just a little) in curses. So did the Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians. In spite of our sophistication and knowledge and advanced culture, put us in a shadowy place and let a cold hand touch our flesh, or even just see an amorphous form of white vapor go past and we’re gulping and cringing and perhaps yelling, whether we profess to believe in ghosts or not.
Personally, I am firmly ambivalent. Intellectually I cannot accept the idea of a recognizable specter, head tucked securely under his arm, trotting down the corridor of some ancient pile on a regular schedule. Such a possibility goes against both logic and religion. On the other hand, I have had a few personal experiences that not only cannot be explained by either logic or religion, they were scary as heck! (And those of you who know me personally know that I do not scare easily.) I was alone, there were things going on I could neither explain nor control, and it was flat spooky. I couldn’t wait to get back to the safe world of normalcy.
Therefore, even though I prefer a solid world of rules and explainable phenomena, I will enjoy Halloween to the fullest, wearing wild costumes and eating yummies made to look distinctly unwholesome. I will dance with Death (who is reality is an accountant), laugh at ghosts who flit through the dark and hand out lashings of candy to all kinds of small hobgoblins.
At least, I will as long as I can control the light switch!
And – Boooooo!