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A pleasing terror

November 1, 2009
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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…

Paul awoke this morning to discover it was November. Blustery, chilly, damp. And he’s refusing to acknowledge a certain 30-day writing challenge…
  1. November 1, 2009 6:03 am

    Hallowe’en is one of those holidays which comes with a double edged swordness for me.

    As it is a seasonal holiday (rather than one based on a calendar date) it is actually not Samhain here in Australia until April. And trying to explain this to my eager five year old makes me sound like a party pooper. In the Southern Hemisphere we all heard it as kids “we’re not buying into that American crap” .. and I find I’ve become my mother saying it too.

    If I am to believe in the veil between the worlds, the light and the darkness, the terror and anticipation which comes with it – I can’t do it on the day which is meant to celebrate love and union (Beltane).

    What I love most about Hallowe’en in the Sth Hemisphere – my five year old asking me how many days until its Hallowe’en proper here in Australia?

    And I find it odd – when paranormal fiction seems to have exploded everywhere (and I’m not suggesting that is a good thing) TV for the most part shuns it. Maybe that’s the media balance everyone is always on about? 😉

  2. November 1, 2009 2:05 pm

    Interesting. While I can’t say that I can say the phrase “when I was a child” as I’m only twenty, I do get the same feeling each Halloween. However, I do remember Halloween being more… popular, as you said. It seems in only a few short years the entire image of Halloween has been distorted. And, like you, we rarely ever have any child come to our door. Last year we had one, a neighbor. This year, no one.

    I’m forced to agree with the excess fear. It seems now that parents are so concerned about someone causing harm to their children. I remember my parents having to check our candy for razor blades since many, many years ago they heard of someone who bit into an apple with a razor blade stuck inside. (Though this might have been nothing more than a story to scare us into being more careful) Now, while I understand their concern, not everyone would imagine doing such a thing. In fact, most people wouldn’t. I believe our fear is unfounded in the fact that we do not know who lives around us anymore. It seems that when I listen to my grand parents (and even my parents) talk about their childhoods they knew every who lived within three blocks of their house by name. They didn’t have television to lock themselves inside to watch. They went outdoors and got to know their neighbors. Now days? I don’t even know the last name of the family that lives four houses down from me.

    I think it’s a combination of paranoia and our own seclusion that we have brought onto ourselves that is making Halloween less ‘popular’ so to speak. And, of course, the fact that it seems as if the media largely ignores it. Despite the fact that we have instantaneous communication throughout the entire world, we’re more secluded and less social than we’ve ever been.

    A bit of a rant on my part but I couldn’t help but commenting.

  3. November 1, 2009 9:15 pm

    Here in San Francisco Halloween is as big as, bigger than, ever. Of course it has little to do with any genuinely dark roots now.

    The pumpkin patches first spring up around the start of October. Vacant lots suddenly gain bouncy castles, and badly painted versions of popular cartoon characters, and of course lots and lots of pumpkins. You can also buy jack-o-lantern carving kits which make the whole process relatively easy. There’s something terribly visceral about gutting the squashes before the carving begins.

    The children wore their costumes at school (vetted in advance for excesses of blood and sexiness) and had a parade. Later we banded together with other parents and shepherded our kids from door to door. We’re less bemused by this than we have been, having been Brits abroad for three years now. But still, the scale of it is a surprise every year.

    It has the atmosphere of a street party, and in fact some streets do block off traffic and put out tables. You can tell the houses that are up for it because they tend to be decked out with lights, and ghouls, and ghosts that wail, pulled about by motors. Some houses are draped in fake crime scene tape : “Do not enter, haunted area!” Some householders leave cauldrons filled with candy, but most dispense it in person, usually holding a glass of wine. The wealthier areas are magnets for trick and treating. To a class-conscious foreigner it sometimes feels a little strange sending one’s children to accept largess from the super rich, like some strange medieval charity ritual: the dispensing of ye candy.

    The shops have been selling costumes for weeks, and the streets are teeming with off-the-peg Darth Vaders, and Harry Potters. Some parents deck their children out as exotic creatures. I was dazzled by an ancient Egyptian princess whose hairstyle alone could have kept her in Make Up for an afternoon. My daughter bemused everyone but us by insisting on become a human-Dalek hybrid. Doctor Who is not a known franchise here to most, though SF fans seek it out.

    Parents, too, get involved, and among our party was a Wicked Witch of the West, and a tiger. I went as a grumpy British guy, and once I opened my mouth, everyone could tell who I was meant to be.

    The fun didn’t end there. After the trick or treating comes the division of spoils. The children gathered at our temporary base of operations and emptied their candy onto the floor, so that each knelt by his or her own pile. Then they proceeded to bargain their way to the perfect candy combination. The trading was hard and fast, and the younger ones tended to lose out to scams perpetrated by their older brothers and sisters. A bit of post-bedtime redistribution of wealth (in the best European tradition) was required.

    So. OK. It’s a commercial affair. It’s actually a bit of a drag trailing from house to house. The candy is unhealthy. There is little attempt to look into a darker, more interesting tradition. But I find myself liking it nonetheless. Perhaps it’s just that Halloween kicks off the holiday season. It occupies the same space in my head as Bonfire Night used to, I suppose. The nights are drawing in, and the evening air has a chill to it, even here. We’ve just started a ride that will take us to Thanksgiving. Then the remains of the pumpkin patches will be swept away and Santa will co-opt the vacant lots to pedal trees. San Francisco will be wrapped, and decorated, and lit up. The Starbucks cups will turn red. I have to admit it, I guess. I’m just a sucker for this stuff.

  4. November 2, 2009 7:42 pm

    It really starts to hit you.. the old “when I was a child” thing.. However, I figure, theres not much one can do about it – and you can choose to be grumpy or enjoy the experience and knowledge ( hopefully) age brings…

    Although I too live in the southern hemisphere, we celebrated Halloween when I was a child – and teenager – and its likely that it was due to our Scottish heritage. Our Halloween always ended in building a big bonfire and telling the scariest stories we could… and then walking back home through the cow paddocks, acting as if we weren’t scared by any new noise.

    I’ve continued our halloween tradition and although we can’t celebrate Samhain, we observe other roots – that of the spirit world and the dead. We honour the knowledge, wisdom and energy passed down to us from those who have gone before, of those who have passed on. It’s a time to reflect on the lives of recently passed over friends or family members; to give thanks for their presence in our lives and to open ourselves to the blessing and wishes which can be passed to us in this existence…. AND THEN we stuff ourselves full of sweet sugary rubbish and go completely mad.

    I took a few photos of our halloween and details here –

  5. November 3, 2009 11:27 pm

    The age thing hit me for the first time thirteen years ago when visiting a local museum whilst on holidays. Turning the corner I saw an old phonograph and called out excitedly to my son (6 at the time) “Wow, look Philip that’s one of the first record players ever made.”

    With a puzzled look on his face he asked: “Daddy, what’s a record player?”

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