When I was a young mother and my children were afraid in the night I used to address their fears as best i could. I remember stomping on the “tigers” that lurked in the closet. Whatever they feared no matter how silly it sounded, I treated their trepidation as real. Because of the way children were brought up then, my own childhood experience was very different. I didn’t want them to go through what I had as a young child of five, six or seven.
I suffered from what is now known as night terrors. Something I read, was told or heard would affect my active imagination. For instance, a radio tale of the collapse of a tunnel and the subsequent drownings became an irrational fear for me. For months afterward I would lie in bed shaking, afraid of death or what seemed worse, the death of those I loved. My most powerful fear as a child was of my parents dying. If I went to them with my fears they would ridicule my them and send me back to bed. Eventually I outgrew these episodes, yet at the time they were very real and painful.
When it came to Halloween my experience was also very different. When my children were little we lived in a small town where children dressed up for trick or treat and went door to door to the neighbors. I used to make them amusing costumes and even dress up myself to give out candy at our kitchen door. Occasionally they would be invited to a party.
Halloween for me as a child was mainly about carving up a pumpkin. I lived out in the country, where trick or treating was not an option. I did not really understand what Halloween was until I grew older and became interested in mythology. Then I learned that Halloween is a seasonal celebration of death. When people were closer to nature, death was everywhere and more natural. The fear was of spirits and the harm they might do. The holiday itself was celebrated as a sacred time, a kind of New Year dedicated to change of seasons.
Many of the customs surrounding Halloween evolved from observances dedicated to fearlessness. The pumpkin faces, the scary costumes, and many of the rest of the traditions surrounding this playful holiday proceed from the idea that at this significant time the gates between this world and the next are open. It was believed that spirits of the departed were free to come and go and perhaps to appear in some way. This could be good or bad, depending on the nature of the spirits. What was important was to protect oneself.
The Halloween traditions of games originally about contacting spirits for information or of practicing divination has pretty much removed the element of fear from the day. As people took Halloween less seriously, it became more of a party holiday. The emphasis on games and costumes, candy and trick or treating has turned the feast of the dead–one of the sources of dressing up and seeking treats, to something for fun. Whatever fear remains lurks somewhere deep inside. Occasionally it might even come out and say, “Boo!”
by Tasha Halpert