A pleasing terror
It is a sign of advancing age to reminisce about halcyon days of your childhood. Now that I’m 30 I feel I can utter the phrase “when I was a child” without too much embarrassment (although I still cringe a little at the realisation I have become my father…). Quite frankly, Halloween isn’t as good now as it was when I was a child.
I don’t bother buying sweets/candy for neighbourhood children these days, for the simple reason that in the past 5 years in London, we’ve had a grand total of one solitary child come round. And whilst I admit I live in what looks to be the spookiest house on the street, surely that should be a bonus attraction on Halloween?
Now, I buy candy for myself, and sit and watch spooky films. Yesterday I watched The Exorcist (over-rated), Donnie Darko (confusingly brilliant) and Dead Set (brilliant zombie flick/reality TV satire) whilst inhaling popcorn and chocolate.
My misremembered childhood seemed full of gangs of children traipsing door to door “guising” (as we call trick or treating in Scotland). Houses were opened, adults oohed and aahed over the ingenuity of homemade costumes (my favourite was the Viking costume my mum made), games were played and stories told. Though there were only four TV stations they all seemed to be packed to the rafters with horror movies, shows about ghosts, supernatural themed magic specials. Now? Nothing.
The gothic, the supernatural has been largely abandoned by the mainstream, exiled to the outer fringe reaches of the “specialised” channels. Our primary cultural provider (alas, the television) largely ignores the event, whilst the cinema observes it in the most visceral way possible (the annual Saw release, for example). Parents no longer let their children go door to door, fearful of bogeymen only slightly less imaginary than vampires, and conveniently abdicating the responsibility that comes from escorting the children themselves.
To be simultaneously enthralled by the dark, yet scared of what may lurk there, is an important cultural experience. The light and the dark co-exist in all societies. Without the ritualised dispelling of the nightmares, we risk losing touch with the darkness of our own souls, and knowing how to deal with the shades of the night when they come into our lives. Worse yet, we risk filling that void with deeper fears in our children – myths that all strangers are untrustworthy, that they seek to cause you harm, offering deadly dangers disguised as fun treats. For one night a year witches are abroad – and as we cease to recognise this, we begin to believe that every night of the year far greater dangers lurk under every bed, around every corner, transforming the world into a far more dangerous place than it really is.
Our fairytales have been sanitised. Our purveyors of nightmares marginalised. Safe and controlled fear, what MR James called “a pleasing terror” has been abandoned, all in the name of making us less fearful. All it has removed is our ability to cope with fear, making us more, not less, fearful.
Here’s hoping that next Halloween is terrific, in an older sense of the word…