S. Lee Manning:
I love Halloween – although my perspective on it has changed over the years.
It was my favorite holiday when I was a child, and when my children were young. It wasn’t just about the candy pumpkins and candy corn – okay, a lot of it was about candy pumpkins and candy corn and Snickers bars and Milky Ways bars and it being the one night of the year that overindulgence in candy was, well, indulged. But beyond the candy, it was the thrill of dark things that went bump in the night – without actually being in danger.
When our kids were small, my husband and I enlisted them in painting pretend tombstones for our yard. Corny tombstones. I Wuz Murdered.
Bones R. Us. Dead A. Doornail. Morty D. Arthur.
(Morty was my contribution – a little sophisticated for a ten year old and a five year old. My neighbor with the BA in English lit got it.)
We painted a black cat and a witch in a black hat to hang from trees, and every year the decorations became more elaborate. We stuffed clothes with leaves to make a headless man and squirted red paint in appropriate areas. We put up orange lights.
On Halloween night, I would dress in one of my capes left over from the 1960s – with green face paint and black lipstick to take the kids trick or treating – or, once they no longer trick or treated with Mom, to scare the children that came to our door.
When our son, Dean, reached in his early teen years, we would go with him to the annual Fright Fest at the nearby Six-Flags,
Great Adventure – when costumed actors jumped out with fake axes and noisy simulations of chain saws.
It was all fun, all pretend terror. There’s something in the human psyche that revels in this mockery of the terror of death
– perhaps until we actually experience it.
The irony still strikes me sometimes – that I was with Dean and my husband at a Fright Fest simulation of horrors – October 4, 2008, when I got the news that my mother might be dying. She wasn’t supposed to die – she went into the hospital on Friday night for back pain. Saturday morning, I was told that nothing was serious, and she would be home Monday morning. She lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and we were living in New Jersey, and given the distance and what I thought was a minor illness, I didn’t fly out immediately. I was planning a visit in two weeks. So, instead, we decided to spent the afternoon with Dean, who’d been having a bit of a rough spell, at Fright Fest – and there, amidst the actors dressed as zombies and vampires, with fake fog wafting over the crowds, I got the call that they were working on my mother, but it wasn’t looking good.
The difference between pretend fear and real terror was never clearer.
We ran to the car and drove the twenty minutes home. I tried to call airports on the way to get the quickest flight I could to Cincinnati. There was nothing until the next morning.
A few minutes after we arrived home, while I was on the phone still trying to find a way out to Ohio, my sister called Jim with the news that my mother was gone. And like that, everything changed.
The year after her death, Halloween wasn’t quite the same. The pretend graves were no longer funny; the children dressed as zombies or vampires no longer amusing. I have never since been able to set foot in Six Flags.
We all know intellectually that life is uncertain, that people we love could leave us at any moment, without any warning, but we don’t really feel it – that primal terror at the uncertainty of life. We can’t feel it all the time – life would be almost unbearable. Instead we plunge ahead in the belief that life will go on, and things will be okay. That was in fact my mother’s attitude towards life – everything will be all right – until it isn’t.
Because otherwise, it’s hard to live. It’s hard to breathe.
I felt it then –that primal terror –and for several years – that something terrible could happen at any moment.
Adrenaline was constantly pumping. After my mother’s death and for the next six years, I was responsible for my father, who suffered from dementia. Every time the phone rang, I’d panic, worried that something had happened to him. And it wasn’t just fear for my father that could set me off. I would have panic attacks and trouble breathing constantly. I have always been afraid of heights – but suddenly, I had trouble driving over bridges. I’d always wanted to drive a motorcycle – my husband, an avid biker, bought me a small one – but I was too terrified to drive it – or even ride on the back of his. Sometimes, I didn’t even know what I feared – but I’d feel it – a formless dread of existential nothingness rising from my gut.
But over time, my anxiety began to decrease. I found ways to cope – and to live without expecting catastrophe at any moment, even while remaining aware of the possibility. With my father’s death three years ago, I felt deep grief, but the anxiety at every phone call disappeared. Bridges for the most part are no longer frightening. Yesterday I rode on the back of my husband’s motorcycle – and it was glorious. I sometimes still experience that formless dread at “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” – but it’s rare these days- and thankfully brief.
Now, in October, it’s almost Halloween. I feel sadness in the fall – my father died in the middle of September three years ago and the anniversary of my mother’s death was a few days ago, but there’s a beauty here in the change of light and the colors of the leaves. We have several pumpkins and may get more. I still love the candy – although I’m trying very hard to refrain from buying bags of candy pumpkins.
I live in rural Vermont, where houses are too far apart for children to trick or treat, but I plan to go to a nearby town for the Halloween parades, and maybe I’ll even dress up. There’s still a thrill in the pretense of danger and darkness – why else would I write thrillers –even if I sometimes see the true fear behind the mask. And maybe that’s the point.