The Honesty of Halloween

Cat on a branch in front of a harvest moon.

For as long as I can remember Halloween, I have loved it. Consistently. Faithfully. Deeply.

Halloween was often my favorite holiday, and it remains so. It was easier than the bigger holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, which required me to be shuttled back in forth between my divorced parents. Half a day with only family, half a day with another, always waiting for the tension to boil over. Always waiting for my biological dad to find a way to let me know that I ruined yet another holiday simply because I missed my mom.

I dreaded both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I never knew how either would turn out but I was always waiting for something to go wrong. Often, something did. I was blamed. In some ways, I still dread both holidays, my mind and body primed and preparing for the worst.

Each year, I pined for Halloween.

Halloween was easier, so much easier, with its jack o’lanterns, black cats, ghosts, witches, skeletons, monsters, and all the other wonderfully creepy things. Teachers would decorate our classrooms with paper black cats and let us make construction paper jack o’lanterns. Sometimes, we even got to dress up in elementary school or have a party with candy, cupcakes, and two-liter Cokes.

When I was a kid, I loved the costumes and candy. I was mostly caught up in the fun of Halloween, even as I was fascinated by the scares and fear that the holiday brought. I loved figuring out what or who to dress up as, often pulling the costume together from what we already had at home.

When I was five or six, I was a princess with a long blue velvet shirt of my mom’s, a tiara and make-up. My mom tried to add a beauty mark to my cheek with eye liner, and I burst into tears. I had a particular vision of what kind of princess to be, which wasn’t the same as hers. She relented and wiped the mark from my face as I sobbed. I likely trick or treated with a tear-stained, red face. (I can’t quite remember.) An agitated princess instead of the beautiful one that I wanted to be.

Even better, some years, my mom would let me pick out a pattern for a costume. I would twirl the rack of Simplicity patterns to see what I could be. We would head to the big, beige metal cabinets and look for the number of our pattern. Sometimes, it was there. Other times, it wasn’t, so I had to choose something else.

When we finally found the pattern, we would pick out the fabric to create it. She would figure out how many yards we needed, and then a nice lady would cut the fabric for us. She was always a nice lady. Then, my mom would sew it in those hours not dedicated to work, making meals, cajoling me (and later my sisters) to do homework, or getting everyone ready for bed.

Stitch by stitch on an old sewing machine, in the stolen moments of time, she would make me a costume that I knew I would love. I would wear it with pride, knowing that it was made just for me. It was something that was truly mine only.

Small jack o’lantern on the road.

I loved trick or treating in my costume. I loved walking through neighborhoods that weren’t our own. The neighborhoods with houses, rather than trailers, with neatly trimmed grass lawns and concrete driveways rather than a sandy road that looped our trailer park and the sparse grass that popped up around it. These neighborhoods had the name brand treats. They had all of the good candy because they could afford it.

Of course, I loved getting candy and filling a plastic bag with treats while keeping my fingers crossed that some houses would be passing out my favorites, Reese’s Cups or Snickers. I didn’t love waiting for my mom to go through my bag of candy at the end of the night. She feared that there might be razor blades in some of the pieces of candy or something else that could harm me. Candy held the potential for horror, so my mom had to assure herself that it was safe.

After her thorough perusal of my bag, I would hunt for the candy that I liked best and eat it immediately. I didn’t want to save my Reese’s for later. I wanted to get ahead of my stepdad who would eat the candy while I went to sleep. He had a habit of eating any sweet treats in the house, so we would hide the treats we wanted to eat in places he wouldn’t look in the kitchen. It was the only way to keep them away from him. Otherwise, we would return home from school to find them gone. An almost empty bag of candy and disappointment awaiting our return.

But mostly, as a kid and later teenager, I loved Halloween because, for one night, you could be someone else. You could be a witch or a princess or Peter Pan or Dorothy or a pirate or a pirate princess or a clown (maybe not a clown…shudder). You could be anyone else. Anyone.

For one night, you didn’t have to be you. You could be someone better or worse. You could be someone scarier. You could someone braver. You could be a princess who saved herself or a witch with magic to protect herself from her foes.

A costume could make you into anyone except you. And I didn’t want to be me: a fragile girl who didn’t know when the abuse was coming from my biological dad but knew, with a dire certainty, that it always was. For one night, I could focus on costumes, candy, and fun. For one night, I could imagine a life beyond what I had, a life that maybe I wanted, no, needed, instead. I could imagine a different present (maybe even a future) and get candy too.

Halloween was that moment out of time that allowed me to be anyone but me. It wasn’t just fun. It was freedom. It was also survival.

Even as a girl, I could appreciate the honesty of Halloween. I could appreciate the very real brutality lurking underneath the playful horrors of Halloween. Its darkness spoke to me. It sounded an awful lot like truth. The truth can so often be cruel. The world is so often not a safe place. (Our homes aren’t either.)

Halloween offered up warnings to children about the world we inhabit, not directly but through fantasy. After all, witches aren’t friends of children in so many fairy tales. They would rather eat them. Skeletons aren’t just decorations to hang on classroom doors; they are the remains of human bodies. Ghosts aren’t friendly like Casper; they stalk and haunt us with vengeance and purpose. Monsters do more than frighten us. Black cats appear as the bearers of bad luck. If they show up, calamity follows.

Halloween gestures to all the terrible things that could happen to us. It’s a reckoning with how things can quickly go awry. It shows how some shit is just scary. It tells us we should be afraid. It tells us that nothing is all in good fun.

Halloween is about so much more than costumes, candy, and fun; it’s about the horrors of every day life.

Perhaps, this is why I still love Halloween. Its honesty about the darker side of life still speaks to me. I’m still drawn to the creepiness. (My kids tell people all the time “Mom likes creepy things.” They aren’t wrong.)

But, Halloween’s truth helped me survive.

And today, Halloween reminds me of that girl I used to be. It reminds me of her fear. It reminds me of her intimate knowledge that some shit is just scary and supposed safe places can be anything that safe. It reminds me how a costume was more than a costume for her. It reminds me that she could someone different than she was. It reminds how this was a respite for her, a temporary escape. Halloween let her imagine something more for herself than what she faced.

Now, Halloween reminds me that she survived. She no longer needs that costume. I no longer need a costume because I survived. I survived. I no longer need to become someone else. Instead, a costume is just a costume.

Halloween is becoming more fun than horror, though I still know — I still know — that things can go awry.

Happy Halloween.

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