This is an oddity because, growing up, I was a particularly frightened child: the kind of kid who clings to cotton bedsheets at three in the morning as some kind of foolproof protection against the unknown, who would rather make a running leap onto the mattress than place a delicate foot within one meter of the dark space under the bed. The kind of kid who had learned the fine art of rationalizing away the inexplicable noises, the tricks of light and shadow. I couldn’t watch scary movies. Ghost stories left behind an indelibly deep and visceral fingerprint of fear — not that delicious, fluttering shiver that most of my friends got out of it.
So why Halloween?
The usual answers probably have to do with pageantry and costumes and candy and the like, and that might be part of it. I adored dressing up. I loved running around outside in a world that had suddenly turned crazy. Crazy, but not frightening. But I think that tiny spur of horror was still in Halloween for me, even then. Even with the candy, and the cold October rain that inevitably destroyed whatever costume preparations I had made, leaving me a soggy messy, unmasked, sweaty and freezing at the same time but still grinning like a Cheshire cat. Because it was fun to flirt with that otherworld that Halloween opens up to us: the kid world of demons and skeletons and chocolate bars and doors thrown open to you when you knock; but also that adult world bumping and colliding alongside it—that world of things waiting in dark alleys, smashed beer bottles and making out, high heels and getting up to no good.
Halloween is its own kind of Never Never Land. You grow out of it. You’re meant to grow out of it. It’s one of those strange threshold holidays designed to transmute into something else as you get older—if Santa dies when you reach your teens, then I’m pretty sure he’s got some sort of murder-suicide pact going on with the spirit of Halloween. They both go down together.
For some anyway. I remember my first Halloween as an undergrad: Will and I saying “Screw it!” as we dressed up and went out into the night (Will having the biggest challenge in that particular masquerade, built as he was like a cross between a Viking berserker and a grizzly bear thundering out, “Trick or treat!” whenever the door opened). We were supposed to be adults in an adult world, moved out, independent—but instead we were caught in that strange in-between of first year where professors condescended to us as if we were in kindergarten and I still couldn’t figure out the residence coin-operated laundry. We were grown up. We were kids. It was one of those freakishly warm October nights you get every seven years or so, red leaves splattered against dull gray sidewalks, children shrieking and whooping in the streets with plastic pumpkin bowls or garbage bags, and us passing a flask of something cheap and burning back and forth along with Kit-Kat bars and candy corn. And maybe it was the same then as it had been ten years earlier, but by that point I knew I was past the threshold and no amount of cheap liquor and stolen candy would make me eight years old again. Make me brave and wild and loved and safe as I had been back then.
I came late to the love of horror, but I found my way there eventually—because I discovered something. Sometimes it’s okay to be afraid. Sometimes it’s better to hold onto that fingerprint of fear. That slantwise way of looking at the world. That rush of adrenaline so powerful it makes your fingers shake and your heart stutter for just a moment. Just long enough to know the rules of the world are mutable. Things shift. Things change. But still there is joy.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: One paperback copy of Helen Marhsall’s book Hair Side, Flesh Side, North American shipping only. To enter post a comment in the section below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and put HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail.
Aurora-winning poet HELEN MARSHALL (manuscriptgal.com) is an author, editor, and self-proclaimed bibliophile.
Her poetry has been published in The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex and the long-running Tesseracts anthology series. She recently released a collection of poems entitled Skeleton Leaves from Kelp Queen Press and her collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side is forthcoming from ChiZine Publications in 2012.
Currently, she is pursuing a Ph. D in medieval studies at the University of Toronto, for which she spends a great deal of her time staring at fourteenth-century manuscripts. Unwisely. When you look into a book, who knows what might be looking back.