1. In industrial culture, children want to know about stuff their parents often don’t want to talk to them about, namely sex and death, two of the most natural things in the world. While Halloween has long had the association with death, the association with sex has come about in its later decades, as the holiday has continued in popularity as a party night for adults. Risque costumes became just as common as the ghastly, and the two elements combined in a lurid display of those powers still that are still repressed in our so-called "enlightened and open" society. Halloween allows for death to come to the cultural conversation, where it would otherwise just be shuttered up in a hospital or old folks home.
2. Even in darkness there is something to see. Our society has been cut off from the dark. Electric lightbulbs, one of the first forms of electronic media, have cast their glow onto corners and streets that once contained mysteries after the sun went down. In the darkness there is music. In the darkness there is magic. In the darkness our imagination begins to see. Halloween marks a deepening point in the progression of the dark half of the year. That darkness needs expression and finds it in the popular custom.
3. Tales of ghosts have an ancient pedigree in the traditions of human storytelling. In the twentieth century films were one of the main mediums of storytelling in industrial nations and horror films were among the first moving pictures ever to be made. In 1898 George Mellies made “Le Manoir du Diable,” sometimes called the “The Haunted Castle” in English or “The House of the Devil.” The tradition of the horror film has been kept up ever since, and they are among the most popular forms of all films. As industrial culture dies its own death, horror will still continue to have an outlet in other forms of popular storytelling, the short story and the novel, where the genre had already long had a home.
4. Witchcraft is real. However much rational minded progressive people wanted to cast magic out, it has remained. Even in a world of full of (cue sarcasm) wondrous iPhones, magic, both benefic and malefic, is practiced, explored, studied, spelled. Halloween is a time when the black cat that is the reality of magic can be let out of the bag. Because many people fear magic, the malefic aspect of the art and science is what gets projected out by the collective into the public celebration of Halloween.
5. Magic involves and cultivates the imagination. The imagination involves and cultivates a sense of wonder. For children especially, the sense of wonder and imagination has not yet been squashed. In the liminal time of Halloween those children who are allowed to play and wonder in the dark, to dress in a costume, and see others in costume, become filled with the sense of wonder that is already easy for them.
6. The sense of wonder has become diminished the further corporate media imagery has been inculcated in children. Once they dressed up as folkloric spooks, devils and witches, with costumes they made at home. Now they as often as not dress as characters from cartoons, comic books, or other media being sold to them, with costumes sold to them at stores.
7. There are no treats without tricks. There is something in the quality of the American soil, something deep in the consciousness and the bedrock of the land, that lends itself to tricks and trickery. Some might call it the trickster spirit. Now the trickster spirit isn’t all fun and games, though to trickster it might all be fun and games. But without the trickster, there is no change. As Halloween evolved on this continent the trickster used it as a lively vehicle for the transmission of trickery and tricksterism. Children playing tricks on children. Adults playing tricks on children. Children playing tricks on adults. All the kinds of fun if mischievous shenanigans that can ensue have a way of releasing a lot of pressure off the industrialized human. Old man coyote strikes back at those who have been at war with the wild. Sometimes Coyote plays dress up to disguise who he really is.
8. A little sugar maketh the heart merry. In times when it was scarce it was a real treat. The Halloween stash was meted out little by little over the coming weeks. In times when it has become hard to avoid, the sugary Halloween stash becomes another opportunity to binge, just like the adults do at their Halloween parties. Bingeing itself can be seen as a way to blow off steam. Cutting loose in a society where the girders of mind control in the form of the spectacle have been arrayed against everyday people is one way to shake the chains and rattle the cage. The unfortunate side effect however, is sickness in the morning.
9. These days, adults seem to love Halloween almost more than kids. The eponymous Halloween party has become a staple of the calendar year. Though drinking a few pumpkin ales, or a few too many is a part of it, the adults who still love Halloween are searching for that sense of wonder, that sense of magic and phantasy, they’ve missed out on since childhood. Dressing up, believing in ghosts, ghouls and goblins, even if only for a night, is a way to recapture that sense, even if the needs behind the activity remain unconscious.
10. Haunted houses exists. Belief or disbelief is not required. The experience of the haunted house is commensurate with the experience of urban decay. Also, everyone has heard bad stories of dysfunctional families, of wife beaters, and child abusers. Those who live in this unfortunate reality abide in an everyday haunted house, and there are many of them all across America. Sometimes they leave behind ghosts.
11. We are surrounded by the Walking Dead. This may sound harsh, but its true. A softer term would be sleep walkers. Those who are only barely awake to their potential, subsisting on base appetites, wanting to eat everyone else’s brain. At least on Halloween, if you aren’t one of the zombies, you can pretend to be a mad scientist searching for the antidote that will cure this abysmal condition.
12. Things aren’t always what they seem. What is on the outer does not always show the truth of what is on the inner. The old scary witch may hide decades of wisdom behind her wrinkled pockmarked face. The monster pieced together from disparate body parts may be kinder and gentler than the soul who aimed to give him life.
13. In its current American incarnation Halloween allows people the chance to “choose their own adventure” to role-play, and see who they yet might be. This life that we don is temporary, worn like a mask over that which is eternal. While here in this costume of flesh and bone, we each have a unique part to play. We may belong to families, communities, tribes, and societies, but if life were a costume contest, surely one of the top prizes would be the one for “most original”.
Abbey veered her sedan to the right to avoid making roadkill of the skunk as they zoomed along the potholed Indiana back-road, causing branches from the hanging trees to scrape side of her ride, and her friend Sara to drop her cigarette on the floor.
“What the hell, Abbey!” Sara yelled.
Peggy griped from the back, “Chill out. We’re okay.”
“Sorry, all this ghost talk is working me up.”
“We all just need to simmer down,” Abbey said, as she re-centered on the narrow road.
“Well, slow down first. It’s not like we have to punch in when we get there.”
Peggy videotaped it all with a small camera. Later she’d edit the footage for their Midwest Psychic Quest channel on Witchtok.
Sara relit her smoke. They’d been in the car over two hours after a crappy day at the salon. Her boss had flaked out again, made her go pick up product on her own dime. As general manager the only perk seemed to be extra hassle and coworkers who talked behind her back. Maybe one day their channel would take off, they’d get some sponsors, ghost hunt and legend trip full-time. It was a dream, but it kept the encroaching winter blues at bay on the dull days of drudgery.
The legend tripping videos got the most likes and comments of all their content, and the episode on schedule was a visit to the site of the brutal circus slayings in Euterpe, Indiana, where the Wallbanger Big Top had kept its winter camp and quarters; those quarters now moldered in ruins on an abandoned property behind a strip mall whose last denizens barely stayed in business. They parked their car between Indie CBD and Dollar Discounts, got out, checked flashlights, checked pepper spray, and crept behind the building to look for the hole in the fence that led into the abandoned property.
Many others had been there before them. It was easy to follow the trail of beer cans, condom and candy wrappers to the husks of empty outbuildings whose only coats of paint were decades of graffiti.
“Let’s get the story on camera.” Peggy set up her light, and prodded Abbey and Sara into place, standing in front of a fading mural of a calliope sprayed on wall that slanted with decay.
Sara began. “Before the killings, Ringmaster George Wallbanger often complained he was being driven insane by the sound of the steam calliope. It’s piercing high pitched whistle haunted his dreams. Some researchers have wondered if it was just tinnitus, the gradual loss of his hearing as he aged. Maybe. But when authorities found his journal, a darker picture unfolded.
“Wallbanger wrote page after page about the calliope being possessed. He said it’s player Alan Dennison was a servant of hell and whenever he played, the infernal instrument reverberated with the shrieks of the dead and the damned.”
“Of course the police dismissed the paranormal connection,” Abbey said, taking her turn. “But the troupe didn’t have to be convinced. The fortune teller Madame Mori had seen the tragedy in her cards. Death. The Hanged Man. The Eight of Swords. Soon this land, next to Indiana’s cornfields, was all splattered with blood.”
“Alan didn’t see it coming, despite the arguments he’d had with George over the noise. Then the ice pick was in his neck. Alan’s lover Dolores the Clown tried to stop him. All she got for her trouble was an instant lobotomy when he stabbed her in the eye.”
“George poured kerosene over the bodies slumped against the tractor tow that pulled and powered the calliope then flicked the smoldering nub of his cigar to set it all ablaze. Next he pulled out his .22 pistol.” Abbey made a gun shape with her hand, “and blammo, he blew his fucking brains out.”
Sara finished it up. “Soon the whole camp was gathered around the fire. The tattooed lady and the merman pulled Dolores to safety. She was alive, but burned, and never recovered her faculties. She spent the rest of her life at the Fort Wayne Sanitarium.”
She let out her breath. “Legend has it, that if you come here and circle these ruins three times while reciting this chant, you can still hear Alan playing his calliope.”
Sara and Abbey walked around, chanted, hands held.
“See the freaks in a snow-white tent,
See the tiger and elephant,
See the monkey jump the rope,
Listen to the Kally-ope!
Hail, all hail, the cotton candy stand
Hail, all hail, the steam whistle band.
Music from the Earth am I!
Circus days tremendous cry!
My steam may be gone,
But my sound will never die!”
They chanted as they walked, and the late fall leaves crunched beneath their sneakers.
Peggy saw a flicker of red and blue through the camera lens, then a painted face smeared with tears in the haze of moonlight and billows of steam. She smelled sulfur as an acrid taste crept into her mouth, and felt a weakness in the knees, as if she’d seen a guy she had crushed on, but now knew he was a creep, a sociopath hiding behind a charmed smile.
She glanced at the ghostmeter clipped to the belt of her jeans and the numbers on its LED display jumped up and down. As they finished a third revolution around the circle, the ether blue outline of a faded canvas tent appeared with a whoosh of scorching vapor as the calliope released its high-pitched cry.
A whirling gyre of phantasmal and miasmic shades slithered into being, spinning, as if on a carousel of sound, whose piercing tones splintered the air in a babble of laughter.
Then it was gone, and only the smell of popcorn and sawdust remained.
Sara felt sick to her stomach, and wished she hadn’t ordered the fried pickles at Diane’s Diner. As they walked back to the car, she couldn’t shake the high-pitched buzzing that rang and rang and rang in her ears, following her the whole way home.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.