Today, I wanted to do something a little different. Get a little more personal. Not in a “too much information” way, but sharing some memories and a bit of who I am.
Autumn has always been an important time of year for me. It had a lot to do with my formation as a writer and my feelings about creativity as a whole (see my post on writer’s vacation for more information on this), but Halloween itself played an even bigger part – not just in my creative development, but my psychological makeup as a whole.
One of my earliest Halloween memories is going trick-or-treating with my father in the late 70s. If I recall correctly, I was dressed as a chubby little cat (chubby from birth, was I) and got an enormous haul of candy – there are some photos that attest to this. I have no emotional timbre to that memory whatsoever, however. It’s just something that’s “there”. My first real tangible emotional memory from that period was getting hit in the face with a rock by a bully, but I guess that’s neither here nor there.
My first true emotionally resonant memory dates to the early to mid-80s. Somewhere between 84 and 86. By that point, I had learned to associate Halloween with horror films (the dark, exploitative ones, mind you – the kind that my mother would catch on late-night HBO or The Movie Channel) and a general, undefinable sense of dread. I have a very strong memory of coming home from school one mid-October day and finding that the setting sun had lit the house ablaze with an eerie orange light, the same hue as a pumpkin. It had a strange, ethereal quality to it, one that I’ve never seen repeated since. I remember feeling an intense sense of dread and unease. I couldn’t explain it. It felt as if some sort of supernatural force recognized that dread and was intensifying it.
It sounds crazy now, looking for patterns in the chaos, but looking back I can see that moment has become very influential in my writing – I like to add little nods to that moment in stories, where a character feels as though something larger is attempting to communicate with him or her.
Oh, that was also the year that I dyed my hair blue, painted some boxes blue and tied them to my body, and went as the most ridiculous version of the Transformers’ Blurr you’ve ever seen.
This was a time…before. That’s the best way to explain it. It was a time when it was safe for children to go out and trick-or-treat or play on their own. Of course, that could still be the case in small communities, and what’s changed isn’t the times but my location. Hard to say. But it was a small town, less than a thousand people, and a time when everyone knew each other despite a lack of social networking tools. Adults knew each other and/or their children, and if a child hurt him or herself, a local was there to help more often than not.
Now, sure, I liked trick-or-treating with my friends as much as the next kid, especially once the sun was down. For better or worse, though, the first five years or life were very insular, especially as an only child, so my ritual was to start my Halloween journey on my own.
The more I think about this, the more I connect that sunset lighting up the house to my own fascination with sunset itself. Sunsets have always been evocative of an almost superstitious dread (one that I love), and while on a rational level I want to say that as a child I had not much of a concept of death, I know there’s no way that’s the truth. I was a particularly fearful and cautious child, and one of my greatest fears was death and the bodily harm that might come with it – for my childhood, one of the most horrific movie scenes was the death of the pumpkin-masked kid in Halloween 3. Ridiculous movie, but that gave me the shivers for years.
So I remember clearly having those fears and those fears being tied to Halloween and the movies that allowed me to confront those fears head-on and share in something that was emotionally larger than myself. I think that’s what Halloween is about for those cultures that celebrate it: facing the fear of death itself.
For a long time after my childhood, the holiday didn’t mean a whole lot to me. I wasn’t interested in dressing up and going to some party – what was the point? I’d rather just throw on some clothes and go get plastered. I didn’t really get into the whole thing until my early 30s. Since then, I’ve made a special effort to celebrate it, especially so in the last few years, as I’ve come to realize that some of that dread and fear was due to suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder for most of my life.
Looking back, it’s very clear that when October came along and the days got shorter, I started to withdraw into an internal world. That’s not all bad, but it was a coping mechanism to escape the crushing depression that closed in on me. Today, as I know how to cope and am aware of the physical changes that pull at me as the days shorten, I think it’s important to recognize my emotional landscape by embracing traditions and rituals that ground me to the person that I once was – recognizing that I once suffered and being kind to that person who once suffered. It’s also important to face those fears and acknowledge that I have changed in major ways.
In a way, that’s facing the fear of death. Change is death. By connecting to that primal fear of death, I can also celebrate the growth and change inherent in life’s bumpy transitions. I think sometimes we just have to acknowledge that life is imperfect and scary, stare that in the eyes without dwelling on it. Acknowledge it, celebrate it, let it pass.
Celebrating that fear is important, because it makes us human. Without those instincts, we wouldn’t be here.
That’s what Halloween means to me. What was once a fun holiday filled with candy and costumes tempered with a tinge of dread has become a chance to acknowledge my own shortcomings and celebrate the fact that I’m alive.
Okay, and the costumes are still fun.