At the start of the 21st-century, Halloween debuted on a Tuesday, just as it falls today.
Ryan beckoned me into our kitchen on Wingra Street as darkness glided up and over the window panes. According to both human memory – and lunar data – the moon was only 3.07 days old, divvied as it is into waxing and waning crescents. As on every October 31, we could sense the boundary between our world and the Otherworld thinning translucent. Through a filmy porthole, we might have been able to glimpse life after death.
In the unlit room, on the rickety kitchen table, a carved pumpkin flickered with the words: “Will you marry me?”
Most couples will claim a holiday as theirs, just as they lay dibs on songs, movies, TV shows, restaurants, and other romantic locales.
Ryan hates a lot of holidays, primarily New Year’s and the Fourth of July. Blame the fireworks: you might as well light money on fire. But he seems to embrace others: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and all five of our children’s birthdays. But if there were a revival of The Newlywed Game and we were not exempt as contestants (having been married now 16 years), the question “Which holiday is yours?” is one for which we’d both nail the answer, regardless of who was relegated to the sound-proof box.
Of all the holidays we practice in the West, regardless of origin – Pagan, Christian, commercial or otherwise – Halloween might be the most psychologically indispensable. It is the only mainstream holiday meant for openly confronting the reality of death, the only holiday on which we dare to embrace what we otherwise deny.
For weeks now, Gustav and Francis, ages four and seven respectively, have coated our family drawing pad with Halloween symbols and their connotations: spiders and webs (fateful demise); bats (endless nocturn); black cats (human souls reincarnate); and skeletons and ghosts (humans in decayed or spiritual form).
At bedtime, Gustav begs for scary stories, Edward Gorey with an extra dash of sinister, and so I invent horrifying tales, half-asleep myself, teetering on the edge of his twin mattress. My tired and mumbling voice frightens him with delight. On Friday, I turned our favorite old neighbor (thanks for the inspiration, Betty!) into a gourmet chef and grave-digger. She served hot soup, broth from young children’s bones, in a bistro on her front porch. Gustav loved the story; he asked for a ladle dipped into her stockpot as a late bedtime snack. If only.
Halloween is the single time of year that Irie, Leo, and Fern do not chastise me for my macabre sensibilities. Whenever we pull up on Main Street next to G. Reinke and Co. Monuments, I am known to say, year-round, “Should we stop in and pick out my grave marker?”
“Mom,” they howl, “What is wrong with you?” The building reads, “Est. 1908,” the year my grandma, Alta, was born, one hundred years before she passed away. The dead follow me wherever I go.
This is true for all of us, isn’t it?
October is the only – and I mean only – month my children don’t (or won’t) fight my morbidity. In the preamble to Halloween, thoughts such as “My mother will die someday” are conceivable, manageable, and entirely season-appropriate.
Perhaps I should blame my father for my dark mind. He reared me on stories of Ed Gein, our most famous Wisconsin serial killer. The gravedigger and murderer inspired characters such as Hannibal Lector and Norman Bates – the kinds of men I’d hope Ryan never has to defend in his line of work. My dad did meet the Plainfield Ghoul through his work as a psychiatrist for the Wisconsin circuit courts, along with a lot of other horrifying and infamous criminals.
Though I resist Halloween as homage to gruesome outlaws, Halloween speaks my language. The wind, cold, and rain force us to weather the elements, to build up stamina required for surviving another year. The outdoor fires, meant to keep us warm and ward off evil, are authentic, not contrived in the way of Easter egg hunts or dinners with Cupid.
Nothing this month made me happier than two life-size “couples” skeletons (one for Ryan; one for me), that appeared one day in our Bucky Badger Adirondack chairs, delivered by my step-mom, Nancy, just in time for the holiday. She gets my taste. We like our skeletons in plain view, instead of crammed into the cupboards next to the family secrets.
Maybe this explains why no professional family portraits exist of our family; Ryan and I didn’t even hire a wedding photographer. I resist the pressure of annual (or, worse yet, bi-annual) photo shoots. The demands to fashionably match and to pose, smiling into a camera lens, is like becoming embalmed versions of our real selves. Neither make-up – nor formaldehyde – can trick the mind into believing the camera’s falsehoods or the mortician’s lies.
“Real” is not a matching set of cardigans nor preserved flesh. “Real” is a person’s spirit, visiting earth once a year – on Halloween – expecting hospitality inside an old cage of bones.
My favorite photos of the children are from Halloween, on which they dress as zombies, wraiths, and this year, Leo as the deranged clown and Irie as Wednesday Adams. They will roam the neighborhood and co-exist with spirits of the dead – a great-grandmother or two, in my best version of things. And in disguises and costumes, our children appear more embodied than any other time of year because they are face-to-face with the truth of human existence.
The genius of Halloween is that it’s not designed to look pretty. Creativity, instead of conformity, wins out. The pressure to be perfect or to look perfect subsides.
Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter – in their fully blended Pagan-Christian-commercial states – are beauteous with garlands, white doves, lilies, roses, and chrysanthemums. Martha Stewart and her successors pin ribbons on the loveliest of lights displays and home decorating exploits. On the contrary, the Jack-o-lantern is at best, scary, funky, weird, and quick to decay into an orange-black protuberance of guts. It returns to the earth without fanfare.
Centuries ago, before “soul-ing” or “guising” became trick-or-treat, children would sing or pray for wandering souls in exchange for soul cakes. So as not to wander in life, I carved a second pumpkin on Halloween 2000, illuminating just three letters and an exclamation point – “YES!” Ryan and I married in 2001 – “in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” though I remain open to the possibility of spirited togetherness and October reunions. Halloween will remain our holiday into the ever-after.