Happy Halloween! It’s just occurred to me that I’ve never uttered those two words before. I’ll admit it- I’m 27 and I still have no idea what Halloween is or why we celebrate it. Is it some kind of ancient pagan ritual re-purposed to modern consumer sensibilities? Is it a nationalist commemoration celebrating some long ago genocide of broomstick-toting Maggie Smiths? The world’s oldest sci-fi & fantasy cosplaying tournament? Or is it simply the product of some very shrewd people in marketing? I’ve honestly got no idea. I’ve never actually taken part in it myself. Maybe it’s the kind of thing that, if your family are into it, then you’re into it. Growing up I never went out Trick-or-Treating or pumpkin carving. I’ve never gone to a costume party or anything like that. I have no idea who Jack Skellington is. And I know there will be people reading this that will probably spit their pumpkin spice lattes all over their keyboard as they scream “Michael, how could you?!” but hear me out- I’m not bashing Halloween, I’m just saying that I was raised in an environment of apathy towards it.
I’m aware that strangers come to the door every year and ask for candy, the same way I’m aware of other strangers that come to our door to sing Christmas carols or talk about the apocalypse. I have a distant memory of teenagers pelting my grandma’s living room window with eggs when I was a child, which is about as close as I’ve come to experiencing Halloween myself. And it’s not like I can’t get onboard with a celebration of the macabre and the spooky- as a child I loved R.L Stine’s Goosebumps books and The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes. I just always figured that Halloween was a communal event, and neither my family nor my friends seemed interested in it when I was growing up. I was never aware of any wild Halloween parties going on in the neighborhood. In fact the only time I’ve ever seen an adult wearing a costume is when they’re chaperoning the sugar-addled gangs of children that hold us hostage every year. And each year that number seemed to diminish, as though those chaperones couldn’t summon the effort any more. I distinctly remember people saying the amount of Trick-or-Treaters they received got less and less every year. But take that for the purely anecdotal evidence that it is- I have no idea how fervent the celebrations are in other parts of the UK. I live in a small town with an average age of about 96. And I live on the shittier side of the town too, so it’s entirely possible things are different in the clean neighborhoods of the new-money commuters.
I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find out that Halloween is an American tradition that’s made its way over here like school proms and Black Friday. When I first lived in the USA I was struck by how big a deal it was over there. I get that Americans in general are way more enthusiastic, but seriously, the level to which they take this strange holiday is insane. First off, Halloween isn’t just a single evening over there- it’s a whole season. As soon as summer ends, people across the country begin decorating their houses with fake skeletons, bats, and spiders. Bakeries and donut shops bring out Halloween-themed pastries. Schools, colleges, and even workplaces host a plethora of fun activities. People dress up- not just for Trick-or-Treating, but throughout the week. You’ll find Draculas and zombie schoolgirls waiting in line for the photocopier. In places like Target and Walmart, there are entire sections devoted to Halloween decorations. They love it. The Americans I’ve met (all of them adults) can’t get enough of Halloween- their hyperactive excitement is infectious.
This year I’ve been thinking about the fascination we have with being scared. I’ve never been a huge fan of the horror genre- but I’ve found in recent years there is a cozy spot I enjoy occupying within its boundaries now and again. Historically I’ve found it hard to get scared by threats that are supernatural in nature. I remember everyone saying how frightening Insidious was meant to be, but when I finally got around to watching it I found myself bored to fucking tears. I appreciated the overall production, acting, and camerawork, and the first half hour or so did a decent job of creating a tense atmosphere, but as soon as the threat revealed itself to be nothing more than a mid-tier monster-of-the-week from Doctor Who, I couldn’t take it seriously. All the suspense was sucked out of the experience. It was like someone had taped over the second half of Vertigo with “The Face Painter” episode from Seinfeld. I just can’t get interested in demons and ghosts. What I wanted was a realistic human threat. That’s just me though- I know plenty of people who are the other way around. And I totally get it- they are more unnerved by a villainous force that can’t be reasoned with, that’s beyond our understanding. There will always be exceptions, but generally speaking I get more frightened by things that are mundane and familiar. I’ve watched supernatural horror movies and been startled- but that’s not the same as being scared. Or at least, it’s not the type of scariness that I’m interested in. I’m more interested in being instilled with a kind of dread. Call it what you want- creepiness, terror, fear. I can’t feel those things if I’m nervously anticipating the next jump scare. I want something that’s going to make me see shadows and hear creaking floorboards where there are none. Something that’s going to make me scared to shut my eyes.
I’ve encountered that feeling more often in gritty thrillers like The Bone Collector, Seven, Jagged Edge, and Single White Female. What I find even scarier lately are documentaries. Now and then I’ll watch Youtube videos about unsolved mysteries, serial killers, or strange disappearances before I go to bed. Among my favorites are Criminally Listed, FactFaction, Mr Nightmare, and Cold Case Detective. My favorite features are those where they discuss true (or supposedly-true) stories. I’ll imagine what it’s like to be in that situation. I’ve always been very nosy person. I like to know what other people are up to, and what they’re feeling as they go through it. Anything that feels authentic has a striking effect on me.
I was going to do a Halloween post where I listed several incidents from my own life where I’ve felt scared or in danger. But then I realized that most of the stories I was thinking of were in fact other people’s stories that had had such an effect on me, I’d tricked myself into thinking they were my own first-hand memories. My own memories, it turns out, are quite boring. Obviously I’ve felt afraid before- ascending the stairs to that massive slide at Bay Beach in Green Bay, WI, going to my first Tae Kwon Do tournament when I was a teenager, my first day of class at City of Bristol College, et cetera- but those don’t really count. I was never in danger, I was just nervous. And that’s not in the spirit of Halloween. Halloween is about peril, right?
Looking back, I realized that there has only been one instance in my life where I’ve thought of myself as being in some kind of danger.
I was fifteen years old and my friends and I had just discovered alcohol. It was a Friday night and the four of us congregated in a nearby playground that we used to play in when we were younger. The place was completely deserted and the playground itself had no source of light. Any passersby would only have been able to know we were there by the lights from our shitty mid-2000s NOKIA phones as we sat on the swings. The park was quite big- its various climbing frames, swingsets, picnic benches and zip-lines separated by large swaths of concrete. It was bordered on one side by a series of enormous grassy fields that served to give us a sense of distance from the rest of the town, and a line of tall trees on the other. The further you went into the park, the more you disappeared into the shadows of those trees. From where we sat on those swings, we could make out the other end of the field that buffered us from the sleeping houses. There was a lamppost there, and now and then a shadow would pass through it. Sometimes it was someone walking their dog late at night. Other times it was a rival gang of teenagers on their own midnight adventure. Not too infrequently it was a local eccentric staggering about babbling to himself. Once it was a pair of illicit lovers that we vaguely knew of from our school- their silhouettes dashed through the soft glow of the lamp and disappeared into the lightless void that was the field. Somewhere we heard them fall in the grass, giggling, as we walked home we could just about see that one shadow was straddling the other.
On this particular night, everything was still. Any shadows that passed through that distant glow were silent- they were but a flicker in our periphery. At the time, alcohol was still new and exciting. We weren’t quite sure what it meant to be drunk. All we had planned was to drink until we found out. I realize as I’m typing this that this all sounds thoroughly lame and unoriginal, but at the time we didn’t think that we were being stereotypical teenagers. Far from it. The experience of consuming this mysterious and unpredictable liquid felt unique to us, like we were playing with fire. We weren’t celebrating any particular event or anything like that- we simply knew that drinking alcohol made you feel excited, and we wanted to feel excited. It never seemed silly at the time, because the curiosity of stepping into the unknown, and the natural politics that comes with teenage friendship groups, had us on edge.
As you can imagine, we got drunk pretty fast. I can’t remember exactly what we were drinking. I think vodka mixed with coke. We laughed at each other’s antics as we paraded about the dark doing comedy accents and hooting like lunatics. For some reason, when we finished a bottle we decided to throw it as far as we could. Back then you did things just for the hell of it. You didn’t calculate guilt and regret. You just did things without thinking them through, and you figured out how you felt about them afterwards. Glass crashed in the far corners of the park.
Then we heard someone calling to us across the field. We looked over and saw a large man walking a large dog beneath the lamplight. He was yelling something at us angrily, but we couldn’t make out what he was saying. There was something disturbing about his disjointed gait- like he had some kind of war injury or something. He also seemed like he couldn’t quite control the dog, which seemed to want to stray from the path and run across the field.
We fell silent and comforted ourselves in the knowledge that we were invisible to those outside the playground. The man continued to yell at us, but eventually went off in another direction. After he left, we continued being drunken assholes for a while, until one of our group got so inebriated that he couldn’t stand. We grabbed a hold of him to prevent him falling to the concrete, since he seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness. His words blurred together until he could hardly form a coherent sentence, just wet sounds with his lips like a baby trying to talk. At this point we didn’t notice that the man with the dog had come back and was staring at us from across the field. I’m pretty sure I threw a bottle in the night as far as it could go. Looking back, I’m not exactly proud of it. It was pretty stupid. The glass smashed everywhere and all of a sudden the man started screaming at us- only this time with more purpose.
We looked over and saw that he was heading towards us, yelling “Oi!”. His dog barked with him, smelling blood. At the time I had a real phobia of canines, so I could feel myself sobering up in an instant.
We grabbed our friend and carried him into the darkness at the far edge of the park. We hoisted him over the wooden fence and started down a country lane with gnarly, overhanging trees either side. Behind us, the man had started into a run. He chased us into the darkness with his pet Kath hound and we realized about halfway to the other side that there was no chance of us outrunning him. Certainly not when one of us was unconscious. One of our group was a black belt in Karate, and told the rest of us to go on without him. He stopped and turned around to face down our pursuer while we kept going. Moment of truth. We looked over our shoulders, wondering if we were about to witness a gruesome murder. Eventually we stopped running and just watched.
As it turns out, nothing sinister happened that night. The guy ended up just being a concerned citizen that wanted to tell us to stop throwing glass bottles around. It just so happened that he had an unsettling demeanor. We worked out our respective differences, apologized for being reckless, and walked back into town side by side. Seriously. He noticed one of us was unconscious and puking everywhere, and decided to help us get him safely home. So we weren’t in any real danger I guess, but for a minute, it felt like we were. Running into the dark that night was the closest I’ve come to feeling in any actual peril. It’s probably the only time in my life I’ve ran out of fear, and not as part of some sporting event, or in search of the correct train platform. It’s not much, but it’s the closest thing I have to an authentic Halloween story.