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How I learned to celebrate Hallowe’en

This time two years ago, I wished someone at university a happy Hallowe’en. Then I realised I’d never done that before.

Alom Shaha, an ex-Muslim, writes in his memoir The Young Atheist’s Handbook about not being allowed to celebrate Christmas as a child. For me, the forbidden festival was October 31st. ‘As Christians’, a woman named Doreen told us in school, who also ran the Operation Christmas Child collections, ‘we don’t celebrate Hallowe’en.’

Of course not: it was a celebration of witchcraft, demonic creatures and evil spirits, and thus verboten, as the Harry Potter series is to thousands of children. Oddly, I was never one of them, reading the books without any parental resistance and introducing one teacher to them – though that teacher, Mrs. Walker, did still issue me with a spiritual warning against Warhammer, when I mentioned aged ten that players could cast soul-rending spells. (She needn’t have worried: I was, and am, a Dungeons & Dragons purist.)

One irony of banning Hallowe’en, a festival of fear, was that I always spent it terrified. At school, I would join in the collective prayers with extra vigour. In the evenings, I would stay in my room, inwardly chanting ‘Jesus is Lord’. If my mother was at work and I was home alone, I would chant it out loud in the sitting room, with curtains shut and all the lights on that I could reach. All this, in a foetal huddle below the front window, so as not to be seen by trick-or-treaters peering through the curtain gaps.

Only once or twice do I remember ever opening the door. Perhaps I was absent-minded or determined to face down whoever was outside. In fact, all I managed was to meet the mask-clad pairs of eyes and retreat inside again, slamming the door after telling them ‘No!’ with all possible force.

You have to understand: to the ten-year-old me, these were not children in white bedsheets and Frankenstein masks. It wasn’t those which scared me. I honestly believed they were the devil’s unknowing servants, engaged unwittingly in his hellish schemes, glorifying the powers of night.

A part of my current self, especially whilst writing about it, still hates the people who raised me this way: rarely, if ever, have I since felt the abject terror that I did on Hallowe’en into my early teenage years.

I know that my upbringing was far more extreme than many believing children’s, and I generally stop short of calling religious upbringings child abuse, but when I make myself recall my own, few other phrases seem sufficient.

At the same time, I don’t doubt my parents and teachers believed what they preached, which means their victimisation, unlike mine, continued into adulthood.

Fittingly for today’s date, what I’ve just told you is a kind of horror story. (A scarier kind than most, in fact, since its central monster – faith – really exists.) There is, however, a happy ending: at 21, I love Hallowe’en, just as I’ve always loved Bonfire Night. These celebrations are my favourite of the year: the collective appeal of hot food on cold nights, fireworks and flames satisfies me on a very primal level. Moreover, since that first ‘Happy Hallowe’en’, I’ve learnt to love this carnival of monsters.

The sight of children dressing up as their greatest fears is, I think, an encouraging one. Put on the clothes of your nightmares, and you become them; take their power to petrify, claim it for yourself, and suddenly you’ll realise that being frightening is just as easy as being afraid. Confronted with our fears, that lends us hope.

Also, of course, Hallowe’en teaches skeptical inquiry as an antidote to terror.

In my post-religious years, my rebellion has stretched to becoming a seasoned horror fan – not so much of contemporary horror films, but very much of classics from the seventies and eighties. In Aliens, the hero Ripley finds a petrified girl, her parents violently killed by the titular creatures, about which both characters have bad dreams.

The girl, Newt, is played by the then ten-year-old Carrie Henn. During the picture’s filming, which includes a slew of gruesome and highly graphic deaths in a dimly-lit abandoned structure, rumour has it that Henn was guided through the puppets and special effects used by producers. The finished movie, as a result, wasn’t frightening for her.

Show child actors the mundane fakery behind chest-bursting aliens, and suddenly their wellbeing is at much less risk. Teach five-year-olds to dress as Dracula, and the sinister powers of the Count are much less imposing. Teach my teenage self the baselessness of Christianity, and the demons at the door are no longer such a threat.

We can use Hallowe’en to teach valuable lessons about fear – namely, that scrutiny rather than panic is the best response to ghouls, including the emotional kind: it was skepticism that stopped Hallowe’en from traumatising me.

At the end of Aliens, monsters vanquished and planet escaped, Ripley and Newt are settling into their cryochambers for the journey back to Earth.

‘Are we going to sleep, now?’ Newt asks Ripley.

‘That’s right’, she replies.

‘Can we dream?’ tries Newt, still wary of nightmares.

‘Yes honey,’ Ripley says. ‘I think we both can.’

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