Don’t fear the Reaper. — Blue Oyster Cult
Oh, I’ve loved being spooked, terrified, creeped out since I was knee-high to a werewolf and not much bigger than Bigfoot’s foot.
Okay, sometimes I chickened out; it got too much for me.
I have a vague recollection of my Grandpa Yontz, who died when I was very young, taking me into one of those spookhouses somewhere along the side of the road. We got a few feet into the dark, narrow entry hall. Up ahead to our right, glowing heads hung suspended in air (recalling it decades later, and now being something of a scholar of spookhouses, I can exactly identify the effect: polystyrene mannequin heads, the kind used to display wigs, strung up on fishing line beneath an ultraviolet light). Even then, I knew they weren’t real, but that’s as far as I got. I just couldn’t bring myself to plunge further into that black unknown. I ignored my grandpa’s reassurances, pulled my hand away from his, and darted back for the entrance.
Within a year or two, a real horror visited us: my grandpa was snatched away in a traffic accident on a narrow road coming back from a camping trip on the Mogollon Rim. In the face of reality, pretend horrors aren’t so scary after all, and I never again turned away from a spookhouse or a scary movie.
Maybe there is something to the psychology that they are a catharsis: you endure the horror knowing that, at the end, you will emerge from the darkened theater back into the normal world. It is a world, granted, where numberless horrors abound, but for now they are all held at bay. That can change in an instant.
So you pick up another Stephen King novel or put in another George Romero film (if such entertainments are your cup of tea); you go through another horror ritual and survive. You are unscathed. Your grandpa’s reassurances that it is all just make-believe are once again proven true. An oncoming car veering into your lane around a narrow bend in the road, now, that’s another matter. No guarantees about that. But when the bloodied actors are having their necks chewed on by zombies, you don’t have to think about that fact.
Remember Man as you go by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so shall you be,
Prepare yourself to follow me
–common tombstone epitaph
Fact is, every life ends as a horror story. It may be long and slow as we shrink and wither away, and come to resemble a shuffling zombie, at which point the arrival of death will seem an inevitable and long-delayed resolution. If it comes too soon, we will feel like we have been robbed, cheated of some measure of life whether it be five years or fifty. It may be violent but mercifully brief, or else it may be protracted torture attended to by people in surgical masks with syringes and tubes and machines. In the end, the main character always croaks. So does everyone else. Each generation is an apocalypse with a 100% mortality rate.
Let’s linger just a moment longer on this subject, shall we? Pour yourself some cider and pull up a chair; let’s talk about this whole business of Hallowe’en. Just a short spell, before the happy cries of children come wafting down the street on the autumn wind, and that age-old question is shouted up at us in high-pitched voices, an admonition to make a choice: A. trick, or B. treat?
To follow you I’m not content / Until I know just where you went —anonymous, riposte to above epitaph
Hallowe’en is a lot of things. A chance to play dress-up, to try on different masks and disguises, guises, and maybe to scare the bejesus out of your friend or your sister (or your friend’s sister, whom you really have a crush on). A night to embrace — in a limited and controlled way — the anarchic side of your shadow self, to have a rumpus where the wild things are, all the while stuffing your face with poisonous amounts of candy (and maybe some crazy guy down the block stuck real poison in one of them delectable confections, eh? Or a razor blade! You never know).
There are urban legends aplenty, but the real star attractions are the ghosts, trotted out in celebrations like All Hallow’s Eve and Mexico’s Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). It is a time to remember the souls of loved ones who have passed on into the great mysterious silence of the grave. It is a way, perhaps, to ameliorate the repercussions of the unsettling thought that, afterwards, nothing.
Some of the religious traditions, especially ones involving ancestor worship or veneration, stem from this same human desire for assurance that life goes on even after life ends, on into somewhere else. Either this is true or it is not true. Very intelligent people have held opinions on both sides of that question. A majority have believed that our soul or spirit-energy or essence does continue to exist in some form or another, while others have concluded that this is mere wishful thinking of a self-deluded species. We are aware of our own mortality and cannot handle it, and therefore we maintain the delusion to maintain our sanity (which would make us insane, would it not?). That’s what some say.
It may be wishful thinking, but on All Hallow’s Eve, wish granted. Hope realized, longing fulfilled. If there is no Afterlife, well then, we bring out the spirit masks and tell ghost stories and soften the reality by playing a bit of make believe. We are play-acting the dream.
Either way, I think the haunted-house legends, the Day-of-the-Dead decorations, that all of it is beneficial. If there is some truth behind it all, then these things do reflect some underlying, unseen dimension of reality. If not, then they serve as solace, a comforting way of dressing up reality to better suit how we would like the world to be — mental therapy, maybe, momentarily embracing the comforting idea that the final chapter does not close with just an urn on a shelf or a casket in a moldering grave. We keep the memory alive of those who have passed on, while hoping that, in some objective sense, they do continue to exist quite independent from our own memory of them.
One more thing to consider: Why do we like to be scared? What does that say about us?
Back when I was that easily-frightened little boy, I had a vinyl record of sounds of the haunted house. There were all sorts of terrifying noises — unearthly shrieks, howls, chains clanking, some inhuman groaning. Then there was this section of a slow drip, like a leaking faucet. I always imagined it was an outside water spigot, somewhere on the back wall of the old haunted house, hidden in the weeds. Pretty mundane, a leaky spigot. But that sound in particular gave me goosebumps. I could barely endure it. In fact, I couldn’t listen to the record by myself.
Then I got the 33 rpm LP record of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, complete with narration (a young Ron Howard was the voice of the hapless bridegroom who seeks shelter in the mansion with his bride on a stormy night!). Couldn’t listen to it alone. One day, I resolved to overcome the fear. I went alone into my bedroom, turned off all the lights, and sat through the whole thing. I emerged triumphant.
That record was one of my favorite possessions. One morning I was going to bring it to second-grade show-and-tell. Heading for the front door with record in hand, I was holding the sleeve with the opening facing downward. The album slipped out and shattered on the kitchen floor. I wept bitterly. (A few years ago, I procured a copy on eBay; now I listen to it with my four-year-old daughter.)
So let’s talk about why at least some of us like scary things. And I don’t mean humdrum, day-to-day scary things — not the stuff they scare you with on the news 24-7, nah-uh. Let’s talk about that sort of slowly building dread you may have once felt as you contemplated what was behind the basement door. Or: Walking alone down a dark street at night, have you ever suddenly got that chill down the spine and the raising of the hairs on your arms?
Quite without warning it comes, and it can affect even the big, the strong, the brave, because the sort of fear I am talking about is not a fear that some mundane threat might be lurking — a burglar or a paparazzi stalker — but something else entirely. It is as if you’d stepped through a sort of veil or barrier — maybe when you passed beyond the pooled illumination of that last street lamp — and crossed over into a shadow side. A distorted reality where natural laws and scientific explanations are not the only games in town; a place where something that only happened in horror films, scary stories, and nightmares might be about to happen.
And we love that feeling, don’t we? Oh, maybe not at that very moment, right at its peak (but maybe even then a part of us does — because how many other times do you feel so alive?), but we — or at least you and I, horror junkies — are always trying to recapture a bit of that feeling. Call it paranormal, supernatural; it is as Lovecraft said: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” That’s the key, folks, isn’t it? We sure as hell don’t want an Edward Cullen stepping out of the shadows (well, unless we’re a teenage girl); we want something from outside, from above or below, from beyond this material world, something that cannot be tied up in a tidy definition and trotted out, all sparkly, for the kiddies.
C.S. Lewis identified the distinction in an essay he wrote on fantastic literature. The fear generated by a story about being home alone when a burglar is trying to break in is quite different than the fear generated by a story about being home alone when a ghost appears. The burglar offers up a genuine physical threat; the fear is for one’s physical safety. A ghost, on the other hand, may offer no physical threat at all. But the fear of seeing something that should not be (according to our known laws of science), something that cannot be defined or explained, an emissary from the great mystery of what we are and where we might go after we are no more…that particular frisson is the best kind for a night like this, when the day grows shorter, the shadows creep up with a chill and skeletal branches emerge from the falling leaves.
Even heroes are prone to this sort of fear. Conan would not cower before an army of foes, but anything that smacked of the supernatural, well, that powerful barbarian knew better than to mess around with such things. What good is brawn and a blade against that which has no human heart?
Is there a skeptic among you? Good. Every good horror story needs a skeptic or two. Those are often the characters who wind up stark-raving-mad at the end: As Dr. Markway warned in the 1963 film The Haunting, “A closed mind is the worst defense against the supernatural… If it happens to you, you’re liable to have that shut door in your mind ripped right off its hinges!”
Whether you believe in ghosts or do not (or, like me, you are an undecided skeptic who hopes there is some truth to whispered rumors and folktales), you can certainly enjoy such tales at this time of year. To entertain the notion of spectral haunts, non-physical entities, and inhuman powers is to feel that Lovecraftian fear that is in itself a kind of pleasure. It is also somehow reassuring. Dr. Markway was looking for the key to another world; the existence of such things would, indeed, assure us that something survives on after physical death, that death is not the end of the story. And what stories are there to come?
There goes that wolf howling again. And do you notice that the Winnie-the-Pooh pumpkin curses in a dead language when your back is turned?
The evening draws near, the eve of All Hallows. Hallowe’en, when people have long believed the veil or membrane separating our world from the other world grows especially thin. Watch where you step tonight. You never know where those boundaries are.