Printed in the Bucks County Herald 11/9/09
Every night, my nearly two-year old nephew sleeps next to a floppy Eeyore doll. His bedtime ritual involves snuggling into Eeyore’s softness as he dozes off. For Halloween this year his parents dressed him up as this loveable character from Winnie the Pooh. For his first independently mobile Halloween he strolled in the New York baby parade, gray ears lolling and pink-bowed tail swaying. By all accounts he enjoyed the experience despite a requisite meltdown late in the parade. There is very little about the world to a child’s eyes that is not strange and remarkable (my nephew is transfixed with going up and down stairs), but how peculiar it must have been for little Liam to find himself transformed into the doll he adores! Its not quite Kafka’s metamorphosis but its still rather absurd.
Dressing up as a beloved icon or acting out a fantasy is not a novel occurrence for children, nor is it rare for adults on Halloween either. Halloween is all about blurring the lines of normality. The origins of Halloween are in ancient Celtic tradition which observed the new year on November 1st after the providence of summer and the harvest had ended. The Celts believed that on the night before, the distinctions between the worlds of the dead and the living became confused and spirits could “cross over”. In childhood we have a propensity to believe that the inanimate can come alive on a regular basis. The distinctions between the worlds of the living and the dead are blurred for the child as though in a perpetual Halloween. Children cannot quite conceive of death and yet they are wary of the dangers in the world around them. Halloween must be quite a treat to have a day when the world is seemingly in agreement with the strangeness of their viewpoint.
In the process of growing up, experience and rational thought should straighten out the distinctions between the worlds of the dead and the living. Yet irrational fear is still present in all of us. Freud discussed this in his essay on the Uncanny. The Uncanny is a tricky concept with which Freud wrestled to describe as an umbrella of our irrational fears. He related it to the German idea of unheimlich: that which is un-homey or unfamiliar. Basically, the umbrella of our fears stems from the loss of what is familiar. There is nothing so unsettling as when our assumptions of what is true, absolute and good are turned on their head. The epitome of this fear is that the dead can come alive, or that the living can die. It is the uncertainty of death that is unsettling more so than the fact. Uncertainty is the real feeling of those distinctions between worlds being blurred.
Children handle the uncertainty of their worlds by playing “make-believe” with their fantasies. They invent invisible friends, construct fort worlds and as their most potent tool—they enact. The essence of “make-believe” is bringing to life what is impossible. By becoming a fantasy it’s easier to accept its impossibility. In other words its easier to set uncertainty aside by looking at a fake. In this regard “make-believe” and painting have a lot in common. Representational paintings bring the uncertain ideas and images from an artist’s head into a physical illusion. The illusion of the painting seems at once real and not real—this is the perfect example of the uncanny. When a painting conveys an intimate sense of reality it can give one a shudder, like seeing a ghost.
Halloween is a celebration of the uncanny providing an element of social “make-believe” for all ages. The ritual of donning costumes allows us to externalize those fears of uncertainty in a celebratory manner. Most cultures have some variation of Carnival as a method of digesting societal concerns. Dressing in costume and upsetting our assumed roles is a way to let go of the uncertainty we have for our identity and our safety. On Halloween we see costumes that sexualize, horrify, spoof and perplex. It may seem like a stretch to say that someone wearing a ghoulish mask is reaching to dominate a fear of death, or the sexy cat costume compensates for feelings of inadequacy but certainly there is some significance in our choices for impersonation. I don’t have a clue what was beneath my choice to dress as a pineapple, but I won’t rule out a deep-seeded fear of Hawaii.
Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, currently in theaters, tackles issues of childhood fear and uncertainty with artful accuracy. The film’s titular Wild Things are far from the impotent monsters of Disney. These beasts have literal and figurative teeth—they feel truly primal and erratic, yet they inspire affection. Even Max, the child lead is not polished up, but careens about the screen with unchecked ferocity. The Wild Things serve as Max’s personified childhood emotions and their hulking forms convey how unwieldy those feelings can be. The wolf costume Max wears throughout the film further illustrates his need to externalize those raw emotions. The wolf costume made me recognize that the whole film operates much like Halloween. The uncertainty of growing up is made visible in the fantastical wild things. It is difficult to articulate complex emotions at any age, but especially when one is young and those feelings are new. Kids are better at working things out physically and so too did the film by not relying on dialog. It allowed the inexplicable to remain murky.
The feelings aroused by Autumn’s transition from days of warmth, light and bounty into harsh winter are equally inexplicable. It is a melancholy beauty that tells us time is moving forward out of our control. In a peculiar way, Halloween let’s us move through Autumn and prepare for the uncertainty of the winter ahead.