Essay

Halloween: Transformation of Night

By Elizabeth Hand, author of Last Summer at Mars Hill, Black Light, Waking the Moon, and The Winterlong Trilogy: Aestival Tide, Icarus Descending, Winterlong


Originally published in the
Washington Post (2003).

A few years ago, I was walking home to where I used to live on Capitol Hill. It was late afternoon, a week before Halloween, one of those chilly golden days when cracked asphalt and broken bottles are hidden beneath oak leaves and horse chestnuts, and you can taste the air like Armagnac in the back of your mouth.

Suddenly, a strange noise stopped me in my tracks. I looked around, saw no one, then turned and peered through a hedge to glimpse a very small boy, maybe 4 years old, standing all alone on top of a rock in a leaf-strewn yard.

He was wearing a Dracula cape and fangs. As I watched, he lifted his arms, timidly, and began, in a very, very tentative voice to croon, “Booooo . . . Booooo . . .” I observed him at vampire practice for a while, long enough to note that as the shadows grew longer, and night descended, that shaky little voice grew louder and more confident, until he was shouting, “BOO!” at the top of his lungs.

I think of that little boy every year at this time. Part of it is recalling the intensity I felt as a child (and an adult) while in costume, the sheer exhilaration of being inside another’s skin—so this is what it’s like to be Dracula! Catwoman! Marilyn Monroe! —but also an accompanying terror: What if I can’t get out of here? What if I can’t get back to myself? There was also, though, something more primal—the sense that night was falling, and maybe not night but Night, when something might say, “Boo!” back to me. And did I really want to be out there facing that alone?

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. Like Christmas, it has always been a season for me, and not a mere day. But not a season measured by sales of candy and decorations, Wal-Mart and Martha Stewart notwithstanding. For me and everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere, the Halloween season is signaled by the dying of the light. This is what spurred the ancient Irish to mark the day as Samhain, when the veil between our world and the other—Faerie, the Land of the Dead—grows thin enough that a mortal might pass through to the other side. Once there, you could become trapped: A single night might pass, but when—if—you returned to our world, hundreds of years would have gone by, your home would have become unrecognizable, your loved ones would be dead, the face that met you in a mirror a skeletal vestige of your own. “Rip Van Winkle” is the most familiar American version of this tale, but its roots are deep and buried in the dark matter of myth.

The ancients believed this traffic between the worlds moved both ways, and not just at night. On Samhain, the entire day was fraught with danger. The dead walked, faerie women snatched human men as lovers. One could look through a hedge and see the past, toss nuts into a fire and in their burned husks read the future. Oh, and you could dress up and go door-to-door, begging for sweet soul cakes to eat.

Halloween isn’t about evil; it’s about the dark, about disguising ourselves and our most secret impulses so that, if we do succeed in momentarily passing through that veil to the other side, we won’t be recognized or held accountable for what we do there. And I think that most of us do want to have a glimpse of what’s down there in the dark, in spite of, or because of, our fears.

I’ve always loved costume parties: When I was 16, I talked my parents into letting me have a Black and White Ball, modeled after Truman Capote’s notorious 1966 masquerade. My party was fabulous—even if sitting around in the rec room in the dark listening to Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” probably wasn’t how Tru and Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol had spent their evening. But it wasn’t the Halloween party of my dreams. The veil was still there; the wall between our world and the mysterious otherworld remained way too thick, though not thick enough to keep my mother from bursting in and turning the lights back on.

This is what today’s schlock-and-goremeisters don’t get: that down there in the basement, in the dark, there is a mystery, and not just hormonal teen-agers and a puddle of fake blood. The English historian Ronald Hutton is a great debunker of Celtic mysteries—ley lines, Wiccan ceremonies, Druidic sacrifices, the provenance of many so-called ancient rituals that in fact are only a few hundred years old. But Hutton is surprisingly sympathetic to the neopagans themselves, and to the impulse that drives their belief—the impulse to lay claim to an ancient part of our psyche and acknowledge that, whether or not there is actually a veil between the worlds, it seems important for us to have a symbol of one. It’s important to draw a line to separate the everyday from the mysterious, while still sanctioning our need to engage with the latter, whether by dressing up, rereading “The Monkey’s Paw” for the hundredth time or staring into a candle flame until things start to move at the corners of our eyes.

The ancient Roman Lucretius said: “It is in autumn that the starlit dome of heaven throughout its breadth and the whole earth are most often rocked by thunderbolts, and again when the flowery season of spring is waxing. . . . These then are the year’s crises.” Crisis: literally, a turning point. Halloween is our annual crisis of fear. Late autumn is when the Earth tilts toward the dark and, seasonal creatures that we are, we feel it shift beneath our feet. Whether or not we like it—whether we’re even aware of it while we’re buying candy at the mall and worrying about our kids being out alone as night falls—our world moves in a circle, and we’re part of the cycle.

This is the time of year to remember that, to go outside, all by yourself as the shadows are falling, and very, very quietly practice saying, “Boo.”

Elizabeth Hand is a novelist who lives on the coast of Maine. Her favorite ghost story for Halloween is the classic 1911 tale “The Beckoning Fair One,” by British Gothic writer Oliver Onions.

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