What Halloween means to me
It is 6 o’clock on a slightly overcast day in October. The air is still and heavy — almost dead. Yet it tingles with a palpable sense of happening — an electricity that zaps the mind and fires the senses. It is bracing but not cold. The sun is beginning to set, casting its final rays before the shadows creep claim dominion. The spectre of wonder opens its wings and gathers up all in its grasp. Windows are glowing like eyes — each a weirder eye with weirder apparitions dancing before the light. From porches other eyes peer, shimmering and glinting by candlelight. The doors are shut tight to the chill in the air, but soon they shall open and greet strange beings that will, just as quickly as they came, scurry away into the night. This is one of the greatest days in the year — Halloween.
As a child trick-or-treating was one of my favourite pastimes and I was always sad that I could only do it once a year. All through October I watched the days tick by ever so slowly. Every year I begged my mother to bring me shopping the minute Halloween products hit shelves in case they were snapped up. How could one possibly get into the spirit of the season properly without a full-size cardboard cut-out of a skeleton for their bedroom door?
As a grownup (although just barely) I am able to look back on those days and I realise just how much it meant to me and how disappointed I was that others didn’t really share my enthusiasm. They dressed up, they decorated, they bought into the fun of it all — but they never embraced it fully as I did. From my youngest days my interests have always leaned to the unusual, the macabre, the down-right scary. To paraphrase a work by one of my creative idols Tim Burton: “While other kids read books like Go Jane, Go, my favourite author was Edgar Allen Poe.” I revelled in stories of supernatural happenings, insane killers, fantastic creatures let loose in the real world.
My childhood was one of self-imposed isolation, refusing as I did to take part in any clubs or sport or anything outside of school. But I never felt lonely. It was just my life; I preferred to be left with my own imagination, allowed to revel in my darker side that others would hate. Halloween was a chance to fully and unapologetically embrace those interests without being called “weird” or have to listen to people asking why I couldn’t “be like other kids.” I didn’t want to be like other kids.
I wanted to be in that strange realm between night and day. Halloween was a celebration of that. I could dress up, decorate as I saw fit, all the while fitting in because everyone else was doing it as well. People wouldn’t look at me like I was insane when I talked about what costumes I was planning, my interest in witches, my views on magic and ghosts, etc. They wouldn’t see me as a weird kid. I was part of them, part of something bigger than myself. It was the biggest thing in my life. Sure, it was only one day a year, but it was good enough.
This past year I finally got my hands on a copy of The Halloween Tree (based on the novel by Ray Bradbury), having seen it last some 10 years ago. As I pressed play I felt a slight trepidation — as an animated special from 1993 that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, would it hold up to my memory? from the moment theme began began and I saw the title, I was that child again, sitting in front of the TV since early morning, waiting breathlessly to be swept away. The art, the voices, the music — dear God that music, the very sound of Halloween. John Debney captures all the facets of the night — the playfulness, the joy, the fun, the darkness, the danger, the skirting of lines between exhilaration and terror. All the memories I had of that time came back in an almost painful avalanche. The Halloween Tree encapsulates everything I love about this time of year, from the ghoulish decorations, to the rich history, to the sense of fun and anything goes. I could believe in magic again, in the powers inherent in All Hallow’s Eve which we are unable to understand most of the time, but which we are able to brush with the tips of our fingers for one night of the year. The show almost felt like it was made just for me, like it was my own little secret. Even now I am still used to blank stares when I mention Mr. Moundshroud. In that way, it remains something that belongs to me. The Halloween Tree was instrumental in my early development and it encouraged me to explore the history of Halloween, and similar traditions around the world. If you haven’t seen it you are depriving yourself.
In my first year of college I took two folklore modules thinking they would be easy credits. It did turn out to be easy, because I loved it (looking back I put more effort into those modules than the ones that made up my actual degree). Since then I have been looking at everything we do through the eyes of a folklorist. Human habits, beliefs, traditions, clothing it all falls under the folklore umbrella. This has overlapped with my love of horror movies through the underused and underappreciated folk horror genre, which includes films such as The Wicker Man, which took on a deeper meaning once I viewed it as a folklorist.
This outlook has given me a deeper appreciation of the holiday as I am more aware than ever of its historic and folkloric roots. The pagan beliefs that ran throughout the landscapes of Ireland before the arrival of Christianity remained in some form (St Brigid is thought to be a Christianization of a goddess of the same name) or another before travelling abroad and morphing into Halloween. The celebration of life through celebrating and placating the dead, through the adoration of nature, through the worship of the world around us. Samhain remains an incredibly potent time in Ireland, especially if you allow yourself to tap into the energies at work.
All these creepy, outlier things that I loved and continue to love find an outlet in creativity. My art largely focuses on shadows and darkness, feeling of terror (as opposed to horror). Even as a kid –when others were drawing sunny scenes, I was drawing vampires and graveyards. Looking over the artwork now it’s a wonder no one brought me to a psychiatrist. Now, in my 20s, I write stories dripping with Gothic atmosphere, short horror films (I am currently working on a short stop-motion ghost story) and I sometimes create figurines inspired by folk horror such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, which have been variously described as “unsettling,” “creepy” and “f*cking terrifying.” This is how I express myself.
It would be remiss of me to talk of this holiday without touching on the way in which the world finds itself today. With the pandemic sweeping the globe and the future of our normal lives in question, this Halloween will be different to any other that we have seen before. But that does not mean it isn’t Halloween. Even as I miss trick or treating as a kid, or going out in a costume as a grownup, I have found that Halloween comes from you. Celebrate life, celebrate death, remember those we’ve lost and love those who remain. Find power in nature and find beauty in the shadows. Keep the jack o’lantern burning.
Halloween has allowed me to express my interests and my adoration of pretence and fantasy. It allows me to explore my identity and how I fit into the world. It has allowed me to find out who I am. Beyond that, it allows all of us a moment to embrace the darker, other sides of ourselves. We get to reinvent who we are and explore our nature through the use of costuming and rituals. It provides a link back to nature — think of what is involved: pumpkins, forests, being outside, the importance of night and shadow. It is living, breathing folklore. Though many generations from its origin, in a form far removed from Samhain, it pulls us back in time, to when magic was everywhere and we looked on the world around us with wonder-filled eyes.
A previous version of this essay was originally published at http://thereandnotgoingback.wordpress.com on October 28, 2018.