I stepped out into the bright sunlight to discover a coffin on the front lawn, the bones of the skeleton sprawled next to it.
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Well, to be more accurate, it wasn’t my front lawn but my neighbor’s. The family living there had also planted a small mock-cemetery (including a few crosses), tombstones marked R.I.P., and skeleton hands crawling out of the ground as if recreating a scene from the horror movie “Carrie.”
I’m back in the United States after nearly 20 years away and, somehow, Halloween – celebrated on October 31 – seems more macabre than I remember it. Has America changed, or did I just forget?
Halloween was a holiday I enjoyed as a kid, but didn’t exactly miss while living in parts of the world where it was virtually unheard of. In Israel, of course, there’s no need for “Christian” Halloween when there’s Purim. In the other countries I’ve lived in over the past two decades, people were either Muslim, Buddhist or Shinto, and Halloween was seen as a quirky American thing.
Even though many scholars believe Halloween to have Celtic or pagan roots, most Europeans I met considered the candy-and-costumes hoopla as something that happened on the other side of the Atlantic. That’s largely true, says David J. Skal, an Los Angeles-based scholar of all things to do with horror and the author, among other books, of “Death Becomes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween.”
“The familiar, modern traditions of Halloween are largely American in origin, or at least American in evolution,” Skal says in an email interview. “The pumpkin jack-o’-lantern is also an American development, based on the ghostly little lanterns carved out of turnips that were popular in rural Ireland and Scotland. The phrase ‘trick or treat’ is also American, and the whole custom of begging for candy – which was popularized after World War II – was driven by corporate candy manufacturers after the end of wartime sugar rationing. Trick or treating had its biggest growth during the postwar suburban expansion. While America borrows and builds on European holiday customs, Europe itself hasn’t borrowed much back.”
Growing up, my parents were Jewish enough to let us know this was “not really our holiday” – and thus we shouldn’t “get too carried away with it” – but American enough to decide there was no harm in letting us join in the fun of dressing up in costumes and going trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. We were allowed to decorate the front stoop with a jack-o’-lantern or a friendly looking witch, but signs of the occult or anything ghoulish were out of the question. My mother was more concerned with us devouring too many sweets than us celebrating a secular holiday. And, embarrassingly, she often dished out boxes of raisins or granola bars to the trick-or-treaters in her own quiet protest against the deluge of sugar and chocolate.
In fact, it’s these seasonal confections – the candy corn, the pumpkin mallowcremes, the autumnal candies that only make an appearance in October – that I sometimes hankered for in my years abroad. When Sayed Kashua wrote last year about the plethora of pumpkin-spice lattes and pumpkin pie and pumpkin decor, I found myself turning orange with envy, longing for the flavors of my childhood and what seemed like good fall fun.
I had, however, forgotten about the dark side of this holiday. It’s a thrill to get dressed as something you’re not. And it’s even funnier to see the parade of the latest costume trends – like masks of Donald Trump with his fluffy blond pompadour.
Horrifying and monstrous
But what of the morbid decorations – and the Grim Reaper on the neighbor’s lawn? Is this a way of laughing death in the face, or does it ultimately make Americans think death and gore are somehow cool? What’s the lure of costumes that are downright horrifying and monstrous? Stepping into a Halloween megastore in my neighborhood this week, there were more than enough images to give me nightmares and make me regret that I’d come with my small children.
Yes, despite many reservations, we’re doing Halloween Lite. Yes to dress up; no to scary stuff. My kids have been seeing signs of Halloween for six weeks now and, while at the public library last week, I let them choose from among the Halloween books on a special display rack. They are new in the United States and I want them to feel part of something American, not to experience mainstream U.S. culture as something I am constantly shielding them from.
But what really clinched it was the family get-together last Sunday. The grown-ups were asking my kids what they were going to be for Halloween, assuming that we would surely be celebrating.
That, says Skal, is also as American as apple pie.
“America is the one place on Earth where people are absolutely obsessed with the question, ‘What are you going to be?’ Or the far less aspirational, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Not just for Halloween, but during the rest of the year as well, Americans like to think we live in a country of endless personal possibilities and limitless options. But it’s only Halloween that gives us the actual chance to remake ourselves as endlessly and imaginatively as we wish,” he says.
What harm could come from letting them dress up and do a bit of trick-or-treating on Saturday night – a little post-Havdalah Halloween? Our kids’ eyes lit up with excitement when we agreed. What did they want to be? They answered unhesitatingly: the boy, a pirate; the girl, a witch. A witch? I asked, surprised. What made you want to be a witch? The chicken in “Dora,” Mommy. The chicken in “Dora”? Yes, in the book the chicken is a witch. Lo and behold, I opened our “Dora the Explorer” book on loan from the library, and the big red chicken was dressed as a witch. She looked big, powerful and happy.