In recent years, I’ve met several otherwise fun-loving adults who profess to hate Halloween. I suppose a person can have good reasons for feeling this way. One woman actually was mugged in the past by someone wearing a Halloween mask; others worry about threats to children who go trick-or-treating, or are put off by images of ugliness and gore that have gotten too realistic for comfort.
I can empathize with their viewpoints, but Halloween remains my favorite holiday. In fact, the Halloweens of my youth probably helped nudge me down the slippery slope to writing paranormal fiction.
Some of my happiest and most vivid childhood memories involved visiting our small-town 5&10 in Cranford, N.J., in October. The store always devoted a huge section in front to Halloween costumes, accessories and gag gifts. I looked forward for months to this unveiling–the first day after school when I’d walk through the door and find many samples of garish, day-glo and glittery costumes hanging from the store’s tin ceiling, topped by their grinning masks.
If you didn’t like any of those, you’d find plenty more choices boxed and stacked on the counters below. And of course, there were always a few rubber, full-head monster masks that were extra scary and extra expensive. Just looking for something to complete your homemade costume? You had your pick of eye masks — from glamorous to sinister — along with greasy makeup in lurid hues, gaudy jewelry, fake teeth, plastic weapons and other props.
Of course, you still can find all of those things and more at Halloween and party stores, and I still make it a point to drop by Party City during the spooky season, if only to gawk. But because I’m older and more jaded now, it’s hard to recapture the thrill of poking around that old 5&10, its dim lighting and musty smell more like the atmosphere of an antique shop today.
For anyone giving a grown-up Halloween party, I’m the ideal guest. You won’t have to beg me to wear a costume—I’ll dress up at the drop of a witch’s hat and make a total fool of myself. I have cloaks and other regalia hanging in the closet of my guest bedroom and small props in a trunk in the basement. I’ve gotten more restrained over the years, though, paring these down to just a few things that can be adapted for various characters.
If other people can give their reasons for hating Halloween, I can easily list my chief reasons for loving it:
1. Make-believe. Children get to play fairly often, but when else do adults get to shed their workaday identities and take on alter egos? Become a villain, a vamp, a monster or a superhero? I write fiction precisely because make-believe is a big deal to me. I discovered long ago that my acting chops are pretty lame and that I have better luck stepping into another character when I’m writing. But Halloween lets me toy with the idea in person, too.
2. Costumes. I’m fascinated with clothes and the impact they can have on identity. I can sew a bit, and I’ve often thought if I couldn’t be any type of writer I might have become a costume designer. (During my theater phase, in and right after college, I was more useful in the wardrobe department than onstage.) So once I conceive of a character, I adore figuring out the right clothing, accessories, makeup, etc. And I also love seeing how other people put together their costumes.
3. The Fear Factor. I was the only child of two highly sensitive folks, and they tried so hard to protect me from anything scary that I found it all the more fascinating. When I went to see the stage show of Peter Pan, at age 5, I was riveted by Captain Hook! I loved the old amusement park “dark rides,” where day-glo monsters would leap at me out of the nowhere to recordings of maniacal laughter. So I started toddling down that dark road at an early age, and Halloween fit right in. I never felt in actual danger going from house to house in our very safe neighborhood. But the illusion of danger–being one of a group of weirdly dressed creatures roaming the night to demand candy from strangers–delighted me. I also think that, like writing and reading scary stuff, it helped to empower me. Later on, I somehow felt better able to cope with real danger, even after my parents weren’t around to over-protect me any longer.
Because I write paranormal mystery and suspense, I’m often asked whether I believe in ghosts and other supernatural phenomena, and whether I’ve ever had an experience along that line. I haven’t had any clearly paranormal experiences, but I’m open-minded on the subject. Maybe, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. But it’s more like the line from the Fleetwood Mac song, “Hypnotized”: “Now you know it’s a meaningless question to ask if these stories are right/’Cause what matters most is the feeling you get when you’re hypnotized.”
In my books, I’m not out to convince anyone of the existence of any particular phenomena. I just want my readers to feel some of the awe I did as a child, when I looked up into the rafters of that old 5&10 and saw all of those scary, wonderful characters leering back down at me.
Now I want to hear your feelings about Halloween! Are you pro, con or somewhere in the middle?