The Tylenol scare and other incidents not least among them -- have dampened some of the incentive for celebrating Halloween this year through such traditional means as trick-or-treating. This is unfortunate. We all regret the loss of an opportunity for good-natured fun, particularly this year with economic difficulties besetting us on all sides. But Halloween and its special symbols and states of mind hold a particular appeal for me, for reasons that I think go a little deeper than the delight in seeing kids obtaining candy by ringing doorbells.
Although Halloween is for the little ones, it can provide a conduit for all of us to let off a little steam, swap stories with the kids or remind ourselves how,when poverty was a way of life, we managed to entertain and amuse ourselves, and to teach and learn some valuable lessons as well.
Thanksgiving and Christmas mean big bucks, but Halloween can be cheap laughter and diversion. Although society still supplies us with much that is dark and sinister, Halloween appears to be a means for learning to confront the sinister face to face, even to laugh at it, and at our own fears. At Halloween, the sinister seems often to be represented by the supernatural, and though fears of such a realm seem to remain with many of us to some extent throughout our lives, these fears are particularly prevalent in childhood. And it is at Halloween, it seems to me, that through the close association of parent with child, the sinister may be placed on display in warm and secure surroundings that help children come to terms with fright, to find amusement in it and in our own reactions even while being thrilled and chilled by stories of goblins,ghouls and other elements of the macabre.
It was in that spirit, in the belief that Halloween is more than mere prankishness, but is also a time to give expression through fantasy of some of our childhood fears and terrors, that I decided to reassure myself that ghosts and ghouls still live, by telephoning a couple of folklorists. They had no trouble in summoning up whole universes of supernatural beings.
One of my calls was to a childhood friend, William Wiggins, now a folklorist at Indiana University, who referred to "Dog Ghosts," a collection of stories by J. Mason Brewer, based on the belief that the spirits of the deceased, particularly mothers, return to the world of the living as dogs to guard their children. Wiggins told of a musician who leaves his child in an abandoned house while he goes out to perform all night. When he returns, the child tells him that he was protected from any possible harm by a large dog that arrived mysteriously to lie beside him all night.
Told with full embellishment in the atmosphere of Halloween, there can be a certain thrill of excitement conveyed by a story of this sort, and there can be more. As Wiggins reminded me, stories of the supernatural, although they may seem designed merely to frighten, also have an important secondary effect of demonstrating and emphasizing the importance we attach to courage and the ability to endure and survive difficult and unusual experiences no matter how harrowing.
Wiggins, who also reminded me of the importance of good humor in the face of the unknown, told me another story, that might on one level be seen merely as an attempt to terrify, but on another to be yet another demonstration of the therapeutic effects of laughter, particularly at our own fears and foibles. It is a gruesome and grisly story, and yet perhaps not unconducive to the development of a certain rough and lively humor. Briefly, a hungry man in search of food, possessing vegetables but no meat, somehow comes upon a large toe, apparently severed in an accident. Soon the toe is in the stewpot, and in time, dinner is on the table. But that night, as the cook lies abed, he hears an approaching voice demanding: "I want my big toe," and though he cowers in the bedclothes, he is quickly confronted by a man with nine toes and a large knife. As the intruder approaches, he cries "You have my big toe," and at that point, the teller of this bizarre bedtime tale, suddenly grabs for the large toe of his youthful listener.
If all goes as might be hoped for, a sudden cry of alarm should be followed by peals of appreciative laughter, appreciative of how easy it is to become frightened, and how patience and steadfastness often prove more appropriate reactions than panic.