Halloween is by far my favorite of all holidays, and I’ve recently begun wondering why that is exactly, to put my finger on it. I do not especially love to dress up. I do not especially love horror movies. I’m not a huge lover of candy. Yet every year around this time, when the weather is cooling and the leaves are changing, when woodsmoke fills overcast skies, I grow very excited. Like the rest of the year was just practice.
Considering it this time around – in light of the fact that I have begun writing this column, and in light of the fact that I have a four-year-old son who is nuts about the holiday and interacting with it as never before – I realized that my love is precisely related to my love of stories and storytelling. Halloween is a celebration for tales and their tellers.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis very methodically lays out the case for Christianity. In doing so, he makes the interesting point that one of the key reasons why he thinks it is a true religion is because it doesn’t make for a perfect fit, it doesn’t quite follow. “If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up,” he writes. “But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It just has the queer twist about it that real things have.”
Well, that is exactly how I feel about Halloween, and a big part of what makes it so cool.
Halloween could never have just been invented. It could not have been merely made up. Martin Luther King Day? Sure, lets honor the man and listen to his speeches and meditate on his life. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day… not hard to figure out where they came from and why we celebrate them. Easter and Christmas… that’s a little different. After all, many millions of Americans believe in the literal birth and eventual resurrection of the Christ, and if Hallmark and their ilk have gotten their grubby hands and commercialized it all out of proportion, we can still follow the strands and see what led to what, where it came from, and despite what certain fear-mongers would like to suggest, the true meaning of the holidays are never far off.
Halloween, though… man, Halloween is something else. You always hear about how it’s this ancient pagan thing, but people differ on the specifics. One person might come up with something they heard, something from a horror movie they saw once, a bit of a sermon, but good luck if two people could agree on it. There’s not one solid Halloween Story the way that there is a clear Easter Story and a clear Christmas Story…. But yet, regardless, we enact it: something ancient and old, a story that’s been forgotten but lives still, and we don’t enact it out of some stiff tradition, we do it because it’s fun, because it’s scary, because deep down, we as a human species just dig that kind of stuff.
There is a family that lives across the street from us. Let’s call them the Waltons. They have four kids, all two years apart, all home-schooled and church-going all kept apart from the influence of secular culture. During the warmer months they play with Arlo quite regularly. They’re good kids, perhaps a bit socially awkward… however, when we were walking around our neighborhood last month, handing out invitations for our first annual Halloween party, we did not hand out invitations to them. Why? Because we knew that they do not celebrate Halloween. Every Halloween night, their house is dark. There is no candy to be had. There are no decorations.
We explained this to Arlo, but that didn’t stop him from asking the oldest of the daughters – on a Sunday morning, just as they were piling into their large minivan, why they did not celebrate Halloween.
“Um….” She stood there awkwardly, clutching her Bible, unsure how to respond. Then, “Well, it’s because we’re Christians,” she said.
I could tell this answer confused Arlo. We attend a Mennonite Church, after all. We certainly participate in the stories of the Christian church. We reenact the resurrection through communion. After she left, I explained to him, “Well, you see, Arlo, it’s like this… See, some people think of Halloween as being the Devil’s holiday, you know, so if we celebrate it, we’re actually celebrating the Devil, and…” and I had to stop because I realized how crazy it sounded, and also because I didn’t want to completely freak him out.
It also gave me pause, because in that moment I was brought back with a whole flood of memories of my childhood and the place Halloween held for me and my family.
I hold a fair amount of empathy for the Waltons. I grew up not entirely unlike them. When I was a child, my only social outlets were church, youth group, and my small, private Christian school. They were all extremely conservative, and there was always a very clear delineation between things that were good and things that were bad. Heavy Metal music, that was bad. Not because the lyrics were demoralizing, but because you could actually become indoctrinated into Satanism just by listening to it! Ouija boards, they were right out. Not because they actually worked, per se, but because real demons might pose as departed loved ones and trick you into believing they worked. Dungeons & Dragons? Please. Future Warlocks of America, more like it.
And then there was Halloween.
Each year around the beginning of October, my grade school handed out pamphlets to all of us impressionable children to give to our impressionable parents. These pamphlets contained the stories behind all those seemingly innocent Halloween traditions which we were no doubt enacting blindly. We were encouraged to read the information, pray on it, and then make our own decisions (which is Christian-ese for “Don’t do it!”). I specifically remember one of them talking about jack o’lanterns. What was once just a cool looking pumpkin cleverly carved to resemble a scary, grinning face was actually – according to my school – a receptacle for an evil spirit.
Everything that was once fun was now brought into league with sacrificing babies beneath bridge trestles.
I bought it. I bought it all. Sure I did! I believed in demons. I believed in Hell. I believed that souls were things which could be corrupted and compromised and damned. Why did I believe these things? Because I was surrounded by people who believed these things. And they all had stories to tell, stories about demon possession, about real-life exorcisms which they witnessed or participated it. Through their stories, reality was moulded. It was real. It was everyday. I didn’t know anything else.
Yet still – secretly – I harbored a natural inclination for those things which were bad for me. It makes me grin now, as an adult, just to think of it. Of course I did. Didn’t everyone?
I liked the idea that there was something dangerous about a simple jack o’ lantern. Or that a mass-produced board game from Hasbro might actually serve as a receptacle for evil spirits. It got my imagination going, and was probably responsible for my attraction to fantasy in particular and to storytelling in general.
These days, I have some of my own traditions. One is reading Stephen King. This year it was The Stand, which, even though October is now over and we are midway through November, I am ashamed to say that I am only just over the halfway mark. In his introduction, he refers to it as a “long tale of dark Christianity.” Usually I can get through a couple of King novels and still have some time left over for some H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury. When I think back on why he holds such pleasure for me now – as an adult – I think it is precisely due to my mindset in those early, formative days.
In the early to mid-1980s, Stephen King was clearly having his heyday. From my point of view, and from the point of view of the community of which I was a part, his writing was dangerous. It was what secular people read. There’s an author named Frank Peretti who writes novels about angels fighting demons in a spiritual warfare taken straight from the Bible. How was he described? As the “Christian Stephen King.” A nicotine patch for the real stuff.
Growing up in Walkersville, MD, my neighbor across the street was Jeff Morrison. He was the exact opposite of me in just about every way.
Jeff went to public school and dressed any way he liked. He wore Big Johnson T-Shirts. He smoked cigarettes which he’d stolen from his parents. He drank alcohol when he’d stolen it from his parents. He killed deer with his dad and had sex with girls, taking great pleasure in demonstrating to me their ample chests.
By contrast, I rather enjoyed watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my mom.
I went to my church and to my youth group and listened to sermons, the gist of which were people like my neighbor Jeff – whom I could not help but admire and envy – were going to be burning in Hell for eternity, which I – in my skinny, pale-faced social awkwardness – would be chilling in Paradise.
Jeff would not read a book to save his life. He made fun of me if I mentioned something I was reading.
He read Stephen King.
He took me into his room and would show them to me, in nearly – not absolutely, but nearly – the same zeal with which he would showcase his found pornography (which was a big deal, in those pre-Internet days). I knew enough to avert my eyes immediately upon the presence of naked women, but the presence of thick, horror paperbacks held an allure for me which I could not resist. The smell of them. The heft of them.
He let me borrow The Dark Half, and for weeks I kept it hidden in my room. I read it at night after my parents thought I’d gone to sleep. I’m ashamed now to admit that I could not deal with it. It was far too gory. I’d never seen a violent movie before – so this was something completely Other. I had to return it, unread, shaken.
It might seem strange to be writing about Stephen King in a column ostensibly about children’s books, but for me, as a child, the books and stories which I wasn’t allowed to read were nearly as formative as the books I was allowed to read. The sections of the bookstore and video store which were off-limits were obviously the most interesting. My imagination soared, brought me to new, undiscovered countries.
I wrote that preceding paragraph a week ago. Between that paragraph and this, I ran across the quote which serves as the title of this installment. “Without imagination, there is no horror.” Yes, exactly. Validated, in a manner more succinct than I will ever be. That’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speaking in the voice of his famous detective in The Study in Scarlet.
It is quite a thing to know that there is always something else lurking just beyond.
Every week at my place of employment, I read with a kid through the PhillyReads program. He’s seven years old and we were talking the other week and I asked him if he was excited about Halloween. He was! He got a big grin on his face and told me about the costume he was going to wear, the candy he was going to surely get and the best part was – did I mention he’s seven years old? – he told me that after Trick or Treating, his mother was going to take him and his 5-year-old sister to see Saw 3-D.
“Saw 3-D?” I’d read a review of it the other day. “Isn’t that kind of… violent?” I think “torture porn” is the phrase the review had used.
“It’s in 3-D!” he said excitedly.
I cannot imagine. What would it take to scare him, I wondered, to truly frighten him? What unimagined things are there for him to contemplate? Thinking about it now makes me grateful for my protective upbringing. One thing about growing up sheltered, it does wonders for the imagination!
I like that Arlo can get scared after a creepy story, or after watching an episode of Scooby-Doo. I like to think that it means he’s really interacting with it, contemplating the reality of it, the implications. If there’s a monster under the bed of the child in the story, then that must mean…!
Despite any fears or trembling, however, Arlo dearly loves spooky and creepy stories. Each and every week we make our outing to our local library, and during the month of October, we get to choose books from a special section devoted to Halloween books. There are a lot of good ones, of course. He loves the Teeny Tiny Ghost series by Kay Winters and Lynn Munsinger. He loves anything to do with ghosts, or pirates, or pirate ghosts. But in thinking back to my youth, and to that pamphlet my private high school sent us every year, I thought I’d try a different tactic. I intentionally found some picture books which discuss the origins of Halloween itself. I found two good ones: Halloween is… by Gail Gibbons and The Story of the Jack O’Lantern by Katherine Tegen and Brandon Dorman. I felt that both of these books not only explained the holiday well, but also – for me – served to reclaim it.
The Story of the Jack o’Lantern is a wonderful adventure story. Even my utterly desensitized PhillyReads youth liked it. In the story, a wicked man named Jack saunters through cobblestone streets, sneering and plucking apples from carts. He resembled a villianous Ichabod Crane. As you might imagine, a deal with the devil soon ensues, and I love the way Dorman draws the prince of darkness, all fancy clothes and slicked hair and cloven hooves.
It’s an old, old story. I read a southern version of it in the Uncle Remus books when I was working on my B’rer Rabbit column, and I have another book entitled Wicked Jack by Connie Wooldridge and Wil Hilenbrand which tells the same basic story, though it has nothing to do with pumpkins or Halloween, and I never suspected that there was any connection between them. In all the stories, Jack is a wicked, wicked man, so wicked that when he dies he cannot go to heaven – clearly – but also so wicked that even the devil doesn’t want him, and won’t allow him into Hell! So instead he wanders around the earth in ghostly form with nothing but a burning coal – which the Devil gives him so that he can start his own Hell, if he wants. In Wicked Jack, this explains the strange lights you see in the swamps now and again.
In Tegen’s version, however, things are much more action-oriented. The devil hurtles the burning coal straight at Jack, as though trying to take his head off. Jack leaps away, holding a pumpkin before him for protection as he screams out. The burning coal rips a grin-shaped tear in the pumpkin, and this is the first jack o’lantern.
“It is said that you can still see him searching for a place to rest. He is called “Jack of the lantern” because he carries a pumpkin that glows to light his way.”
A nice epilogue goes into more detail about the legend, how it actually comes from Ireland and was about a man who carried a turnip. Halloween Is… discusses this story, too, though not in much detail, and also touches on other Halloween traditions such as why we dress up in costumes for Halloween, why we go door to door asking for candy. “In ancient times,” Gibbons writes, “people feared the coming of winter. They were afraid of the longer nights.” She does a nice job of also explaining the harvest, All Saints Day and All Hallow’s Eve, puts it into nice perspective. After all, it is not just the decorations and the costumes which make Halloween spooky, it it the time of year itself. The sudden darkness, the sudden chill. Halloween emphasizes the spookiness if it, but is not the cause of it.
Arlo and I enjoyed reading these books together, and many more besides. Reading scary stories… that is what I love best about Halloween. Our Halloween party was a rousing success, and Trick or Treating was a blast. However, as we walked around the neighborhood, collecting candy and goodies, I couldn’t help but notice that the Walton household was still dark, as it is every year. I imagined them inside, in the darkness of their home, praying for our collective souls. And I wondered at the Walton children, wondered what undiscovered countries their imaginations were taking them to.
In my youth, I was blessed with several corrupting influences. Some I sought out with intention, but many of them were there for the taking and just seemed to present themselves at opportune moments. The large, labyrinthine bookshelves of Wonder Book and Video, the largest used bookstore in Frederick, MD, was one such influence, with its stacks and stacks of yellowed paperbacks just waiting to be thumbed through. God, I spent hours there. My high school history teacher taking me into his hidden room in which he kept a few thousand LPs stored was another influence. He introduced me to Rock and Roll and secular music that I otherwise would have known nothing about. I would check books out of the library and hide them beneath my mattress, including, I remember vividly, a collection of stories and poetry by Edgar Allen Poe.
All of these things are for me representational of Halloween. The crossing over from the sacred to the secular.
I feel certain Arlo will never experience this… well, I shouldn’t say that. I’m sure there will be a degree to which he will experience it, but I hope to be there with him to lead him by the hand as he grows older and ages, leading him deeper and deeper into the chambers of horror and imagination.
Listen, I have this fantasy.
I’ve had it for some time, but I’ve been thinking about it more and more.
You know how when a man who was been helped by a mentor at an early age wants to return to his old neighborhood and act as a mentor for some other child in need?
Well, this is kind of like that.
In the same way I was blessed by corrupting influences, I fantasize about being the corrupting influence for someone else.
The Walton children, for example. They are 8, 10, 12, and 14 years old. They are tender, yes. They are ripe. They are susceptible to worldly influences, despite their parent’s best efforts. I know they are! They have to be! I was, wasn’t I? Was I so different?
In my fantasy, I’ve invited them over for Halloween – without their parents knowing – and I’m putting in The Shining. Or Blue Velvet. Or The Exorcist.
“Um… we’re not supposed to see scary movies,” they’d say.
“Oh, this isn’t scary! You’ll like it! C’mon, I just made popcorn!”
I would like to meet the youngest of the Walton clan on the corner of our block and hand him a Stephen King paperback, yellowed and worn, and watch as he holds it with wide eyes – “Without imagination there can be no horror,” I’d tell him.
“Just make sure you hide it beneath your mattress.”