Will ghosts, ghouls and goblins haunt our streets tonight, lurking about, shadowing between the princesses, hoboes, superheroes? Fun. Those store-bought or homemade costumes, our Halloween alter egos. A horrifying costume tonight would be a marionette wearing dark suit and red tie, the strings operated by someone wearing a Putin mask. Reality always is scariest.
Fun too that we’ve turned Halloween into a child’s festival. Alas, less Edgar Allan Poe, more what will darling child be this year? Then candy. Bags of loot.
Today wasn’t originally a day for children. No sir. Nor for young adult parties and sexy kitty costumes! From the Celtic Samhain to the Dia de los Muertos, from the Roman Feralia to the Sumerian Month of Ghosts, we humans have nursed our soul’s fear and apprehension of death and darkness, of the macabre and mysterious. Tune up the eerie music, please. Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-win’) was a New Year Festival, marking twilight time when the harvesting was spent and the realm of darkness ruled, a time when the barrier between the spirit world and reality became porous. The time for spooky visitations, goosebumps of death and danger. Poe would ask: Would you care for some Amontillado sherry?
The radio series “Hidden Brain" discussed our fear of mortality, describing our ritualistic ways of avoiding, denying, softening this fear of death, for, evidently, no human yet has ever been able to avoid death itself. Although, it really won’t matter as Greek philosopher Epicurus quipped: “Why should I fear death? If I am, then death is not. If Death is, then I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”
Still, we do fear. We cherish beliefs in hopes for some form of continuity and fulfillment on the other side. Some people strive in life so they may gain a legacy remembered. Still, few achieve being remembered even by their great-grandchildren. There are those who see in mortality a gift, divine comfort, for immortality would be a curse. In “Gulliver’s Travels,” Swift describes Gulliver discovering the immortal struldbruggs in the land of Luggnag. Gulliver is thrilled at the prospect of certain babies born as immortals, until the leader of Luggnag shows him the dreary reality of endless life and increasing decrepitude.
The wiser gain incentive from our finitude. If this is all we got, use it well. Pay attention. Notice what we ignore. Cherish what and who we’ve been given. Stop worrying about making yourself happy; do your best so that no one is unhappy. Do good, lest, as Ray Bradbury warned, by doing bad dread ghosts will haunt us.
Mirrors and mortality. Perhaps we bipedal ape-descendants envy those insouciant kitty cats. It’s the price of being a higher species. We know too much. We know we know. We know we are. We know we won’t be. Cats don’t know that. Such is the price of self-consciousness, self-awareness. The higher species talk about death. The higher the species, the more we are religious and comfort ourselves with ritual, tradition, belief. We bury our dead. Cats don’t. The higher species invent clocks so, recklessly, we can number our days. The higher the species, the more we look at ourselves in the mirror and realize time. Tick-tock. I think I’m not paralyzed by fear of my own death. I say that now, however. What I really dislike about death is how I’ll miss out on seeing my granddaughter growing up. Keep beating, tell-tale heart!
Mirrors and mortality. Folksinger Stan Rogers sings about the housewife looking into the mirror as she readies herself for the Legion dance with the man who’s loved her all her years, and then she sees all those lines in her face: “The pretty maiden trapped inside the ranch wife's toil and care.” Lines and lies, along with the accumulation of what we lose over the years. Instant bifocals when you turn forty. I didn’t leave soccer, it left me. Twitchy knee and strokes. Harder to drive in rainy nights with all the lights. Mortality and rear-view mirrors.
Years ago an old lady observed how as you age your walls get smaller and smaller. On her windowsill in the nursing home was a black and white photograph of a beautiful young woman wearing flowing chiffon sitting on the windowsill as sunshine beamed upon her. I asked: “Who is that?” She said: “It’s me.” She spoke in present tense.
Morbid? Macabre? Chills up your spine? There be ghosts. Tick-tock. Happy Halloween.
The Rev. Robert Andrews is retired pastor of Grove Presbyterian Church in Danville. Read more of his work at robertjohnandrews.com.