Though guided by light, I have always been more drawn to the allure of shadow. As a child, I spent hours gingerly untangling the frosted wings of blue moths from the spaces between our porch screens. My mother once told me that they’d come to flit between the tongues of candlelight on the dinner table—not to bathe in the warmth of the fire, but to better trace the shadows beneath.
I have mild mydriasis in both eyes, a benign condition in which the pupils are fixedly and unilaterally dilated, deficiently responsive to light exposure. I always attributed my predilection for the unearthly and occult to this idiosyncrasy. Most little girls didn’t scrawl little mantras and spells into their palms. Most little girls didn’t carve talismans out of oak branches. Most didn’t spend hours reading excerpts from a ragged copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But I had reason to engage in such an excavation of the more nebulous side of human existence.
From a young age, both of my parents perpetually hung on the precipice between life and death. When one parent received a terminal diagnosis, the other’s cognitive faculties and physical health began dissipating at an agonizingly slow, yet measurable rate. Death was inextricably bound to my being. That is not to say that I was not a happy child. In fact, I experienced more instances of familial bliss than most individuals with whom I am now acquainted. The anomaly was not that I was dark or depressed but that my capacity to experience enjoyment hinged crucially on my familiarity with the universal fears and aversions of humanity—primarily death.
And so, it shouldn’t be so much as mildly surprising that Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. I revel in the morbid elements of that tenebrous dimension which, on this one particular occasion, is disentangled from the veil of fear beneath which it rests. But on this particular Halloween, I had the opportunity to host a French friend of mine as he was exposed to the holiday for the very first time. His mild confusion and bemusement were foreseeable, seeing as the French observe nothing of the sort. It thus became my task not only to explain the holiday to him but also, ultimately, to glean its significance within my own life.
A number of cultures, both internationally and domestically, have varying means of acknowledging death and shedding light on the realm of the occult. Different sociocultural groups have distinctive perspectives on the anathematic, somewhat taboo notions of death and the afterlife, and dramatically different means of acknowledging them.
The Obon, or Japanese festival of the lanterns, celebrates the return of the dead to the realm of their living loved ones. Food is prepared as tribute to the benevolent spirits, and paper lanterns are sent down the rivers and bays of Japan to guide the dead back to the supernatural realm until the next year.
Similarly, the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, the nationally recognized celebration of the dead, is a joyful celebration of death personified. Saccharine skulls, Technicolor skeletons, painted amulets, and wreaths of fragrant flowers are offered to the living in celebration of an imminent death that is not to be feared.
Many cultures across the globe have means of celebrating death as both an intimate, personal experience of mourning, but also as an ultimate, inevitable fate that is to be regarded with respect and reverence, yet simultaneously without fear. And yet, though it has its roots in celebratory practices, it would seem that the contemporary western observance of death and the dead differs in some significant way from that of other cultures.
Halloween is, itself, a fetishization of fear. The secularization of the North American celebration of Halloween has had the effect of converting fear to a marketable product, an article of consumption. Rather than appeasing the organic, intrinsically human anxiety and apprehension surrounding the imminence of death, Halloween as we know it today seeks to heighten our dread and render our fears wildly irrational, incarnate in monsters and ghouls. We are encouraged to consume our fears as we do Tootsie Rolls and Jolly Ranchers, plastic tombstones, fake blood and “Monster Mash” mixtapes. On one hand we render our fears so irrational and unreasonable, whilst on the other we engage in an orgy of mass consumption of Hallmark proportions. Ours is a culture of unrealistic morbid fascination, of fetishization as an escape from the dread of that which is altogether real and imminent.
One cannot help but speculate as to what sociological and psychological effects this phenomenon has had on our personal conceptions of death and our intimate experiences of mourning. Is it desensitizing us to our fears?
On this particular Halloween, I pondered this question with a heightened degree of interest. I can’t help but recall with an unsettling flurry of doubts and regrets the manner in which I mourned the loss of my own parent—I didn’t. I was struck by the paralyzing fear that I would not live up to the melancholic, romantic role of the tragically motherless daughter, that I would make those around me uncomfortable with my own comfort in mourning. The bare-boned truth is that I was struck with grief, that it forever altered the chemistry of my human experience in unimaginable ways, and yet that I had become at peace with it.
Death was the natural end to a life, no matter how familiar I’d been with it. I wanted to be able to share such a transformative and reframing experience with my community without having to watch lips pale, chests cave in, and bodies recoil, without hearing “I’m sorry” stained with a strange, diluted kind of rage and discomfort.
I have no means of resolving what I believe to be an unsettling facet of American culture. I value Halloween not for the candy or for the costumes but for the acknowledgement of our shared and unavoidable future. I believe death has stagnated far too long in the darkness, and, with open eyes and dilated pupils, I encourage one and all to examine it rationally, in candlelight and in shadow.