This is part one of a three-part series about Halloween, and what it is that is really scaring you when something goes bump in the night.
Halloween is a time when many people toy with the fringes of what is comfortable and familiar, and explore those things that we are warned to avoid the rest of the year. Goblins and ghouls, playing pretend as something we are not, and intentionally scaring ourselves just to laugh about it an instant later because we knew we were safe and secure all along. It’s a fun, healthy release that has had traditions since the dawn of time when ancient storytellers would loom over the communal fire and warn the younger generation about the dangers of going too far from camp, and what lays out there waiting for them.
Today, we still enjoy the scares and spookiness, that subtle hint that there is something Other out beyond the periphery of our known world. But we’ve actually forgotten the source of many of our monsters, and why they exist in our culture in the first place. Like many images that are passed down the generations, there is a practical and pragmatic basis for why these creepy-crawlies affect us the way they do. We see mummies, Frankenstein, witches and ghosts; but beneath the Hollywood veneer is an instinct that tells us to draw away from certain monsters without our rational, adult mind ever needing to be engaged. What does this base, primal instinct see under the gloss and glitter of Halloween? It recognizes the original images, the purer reflection of true danger, and it remembers the warnings of the old shaman behind the fire pit.
Big teeth, big claws, beady eyes, or just weapons in general are obvious things to make our primal ancestors jump within us. Rubber masks with oversized jaws, hollow eyes, and flared nostrils are very popular every single year, for that subset of the community that wants to play at being a monster but don’t have much creative power to bring to bear. Slap one of these pre-fab scare-faces on, and you are set to jump out of the shadows, or from around the corner, and send sorority girls scattering with polite squeals and screams. A plastic meat cleaver with painted blood and a Made in China sticker works just as well, and makes a great addition to that torn up flannel shirt for which you couldn’t find any other use. These are obvious, and silly, and hearken more to the bright orange jumpsuit that says ‘Escaped Convict’ on the back than some primordial terror stalking the shadow of your room long after the party is over.
Deep inside our brains, those instincts lie dormant from a time before antibiotics or sterile operating rooms and even polite mortuaries and funeral homes where deceased family members are dressed up for one last goodbye. We live in a world where signs of danger are literally signs posted warning of this or that specific harmful thing. But those instincts still survive that remember the only warning you may receive of life-threatening danger is the corpse of someone who had come before you. Something terrible happened to this one, and it’s just waiting to get you too. These are the true threats and fears that linger in the corners of our horrifyingly practical minds. The things that prick at instincts not-quite-forgotten.
Poison. Sickness. Disease. Death.