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The Shadow Selves of Halloween

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I hate Halloween. When I was a little girl, anything that made people look at me usually led to humiliation, so a costume was definitely not something I felt good about putting on. I had one costume I liked: a gypsy outfit (I guess even then I was into ethnic exoticism and cultural appropriation). Actually, I liked that costume because I got to wear my hair loose and put on makeup. I still had to wear my Coke-bottle-thick glasses, which sort of ruined the effect; but the costume made me feel better than usual—like I might one day be pretty. I was also proud of the year my brother and I went as Dracula and a ghoul, because I thought it was pretty inventive, what we did with some sheets, charcoal, and a dime-store set of fangs.

But aside from these few years, Halloween, like all other holidays that demanded social interaction with other kids, caused me great anxiety. What Do I Wear? really became about How Do I Look? And since I knew that under normal circumstances I already looked bad, I couldn’t bear thinking about that.

I still hate putting on costumes. Now I’m not really sure why. I feel ridiculous and conspicuous—and not in a good way. I feel as if I’m a kid again—in a bad way—an embarrassed, self-conscious kid who would like to be invisible. I don’t find it amusing or liberating or exciting or FUN.

When Halloween approaches, I pretend it doesn’t exist until the day of. At that point, with people wearing costumes to work and police blocking off the main thoroughfares in the city, I can’t live in denial any more. When I realize this, I try to finish my work as quickly as possible, with the goal of quietly going home and hiding.

When I moved to the East Coast I had my first experience of the American urban adult Halloween scene. In Montana, I had long since left Halloween behind. I thought Halloween was for little kids. (I still do.) The parties, the drinking, the raucous exhibitionism, the late night/early morning wandering around the streets—all of this was very strange to me. The first year I was in New York I went to the big Halloween parade because everyone told me I should see it. I feel silly saying this, but I didn’t enjoy myself. I felt scared. The crowds of people, many drunk or high, aggressively pushing through the streets, wearing masks or makeup that hid their humanity—all this slowly fed a growing discomfort that became anxiety and then almost panic.

In the years since, I’ve experienced some of the same discomfort and anxiety on a smaller scale, because I am older and wiser now, or at least I know what to expect. The little kids are still adorable and make me laugh. The teenagers wandering around in gangs late at night looking for things to fuck with make me nervous. I don’t want to be around when they find what they’re looking for. I wonder if their parents know where they are. Or care.

The enlightened part of my mind wonders why I can’t let go and join in the Bacchanalia, the chaos, the Day of Misrule. I do believe the destructive, chaotic forces in our lives should be celebrated and acknowledged. I believe death and the spirit world deserve their day in the calendar. Why doesn’t the American celebration of Halloween appeal to me?

The holiday originated (as so many of our holidays did) in a pagan festival. On the equinox, the Celtic year ended, or died. This day of the dead, when ancestors were to be honored, was also a time when the boundaries between the world of humans and the other world became most permeable.

Halloween used to be a day of magic and transformation. I should love this day, celebrate and embrace it, drawn as I am to any extraordinary event. But the actual presence of the destructive, chaotic forces emerging from the urban landscape makes me want to hide.

How can I reclaim this holiday and its original purpose for myself? When I try to visualize my holiday, it is in a village. The countryside is very present. There is fire, either in the hearth or outside. But most importantly, the people who surround me (and there must be people) are familiar. They need not be intimate friends, but I should have at least a sense of familiarity. I feel as if I need the safety of people I know around me. I need a community to stand beside me. This provides both safety and clear parameters to cross. When boundaries are fragile, cracks in the fabric of reality are dangerous. And if I know my community well (in an everyday day-lit fashion) there will be more meaning in seeing them transform or unleash their shadow selves on Halloween.

We recognize our separateness from the dark forces by celebrating them. In many cultures, the actual manifestation of dark forces is known as possession, and usually occurs within a highly controlled and structured religion. This makes the situation sane, and contains and acknowledges the dark forces while also giving them a platform on which to appear and perform.

Maybe that’s what bothers me about the partying, chaotic adults and adolescents wandering through modern American Halloweens. There is no sacred structure that contains and uplifts any manifestation they may unthinkingly invoke. Rather than a celebration of forces of darkness or the Other World, there seems to me to be a lack of consciousness that is disrespectful of those old forces. Rather than using this holiday as a theater that permits us to link with other, older worlds outside our individualities, we are exhibiting our own narcissism and preconceptions. Unless we step outside ourselves, no real magic can happen. Without that, the darkness we invoke is only the shadow of our own small, petty egos.


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