I was surprised one night at Toastmasters to hear a gentleman in our group come to the front of the room during Table Topics and declare that he hated Halloween because, in his words, “It encourages people to be violent”.
As I was Table Topics master that night and I’d presented an exercise to the group involving pulling Halloween-themed words from two cups with which to create a story, I initially took this a bit personally. All Hallow’s Eve is my favorite holiday, and I have a storied history with costuming (both wearing and creating garb, even before I got involved in theater), cooking, decorating and contemplating what, to me, is a most spiritually significant day.
My brother and I attended a strict religious school until 6th grade. Each day began with the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible and ended in prayer. Secular forms of entertainment were verboten, and at our school, October 31st was known as History Day. Scary masks and costumes were not allowed (and were cause for suspension) but one could come to school dressed as, say, Winston Churchill or Mary Magdalene (because, of course, the Bible was our main history textbook).
As a result, I never dressed for Halloween as a witch or ghost (until I was in my 30s, anyway), but I did win my school’s costume contest the year I came as Eve, in a beautiful, leaf-covered dress my mom had sewn.
So on the one hand I grew up with the message that ghosts weren’t real and believing in them was sinful, Halloween was a holiday created by Satan to lead good Christians astray, and kids eat too much candy anyway.
On the other hand, there was my grandmother. A devout Catholic all her life, by the time I was 5 or 6 years old, even before I’d ever heard of a medium, I knew that my grandma saw dead people. Not only that, but when she was very ill once as a child herself, she’d seen and talked to Jesus, who appeared as an apparition at the foot if her bed and assured her that her time in earth was far from over (she turns 91 next month, so he was right).
I loved and revered my grandma and her awe-inspiring abilities and it wasn’t long before I had a couple of life-changing experiences myself.
I was about 6 or 7 years old and we were visiting my grandparents, who lived on a farm in Alamogordo, NM. I was in one of the bedrooms one day, looking at a framed sheet of paper in the wall. This piece of paper – I remember it as some sort of certificate – had script on it and a dark blue oval near the center. As I stared at the oval, I noticed the face of a woman superimposed onto it. The face then became the face of a child. Then an old man. And so on, and so on and so on.
I told my mom and grandma about the faces and they replied that only the pure of heart could see the face of the Virgin Mary in the blue oval. Didn’t explain the many faces I saw, but at least no one insisted I was imagining things.
Not very long later, my family moved into a 3-year-old house that had been built on an old apple orchard. Over the 8 years we lived there, all of us saw, heard or felt odd things, but nothing quite compared to the night I looked into the hallway from my open bedroom door and saw a black figure silently wandering around. I never forgot it, and felt silently relieved when we moved.
In my experience, not all hauntings are terrifying experiences, however. The night after my brother’s best friend committed suicide, he appeared to me in a dream to apologize, and to say goodbye.
Four years ago, during Labor Day weekend, another dream visitor, my husband’s mom (whom I’d never met) appeared to me as I’m told she looked toward the end of her life to reassure me that my then 5-year-old son would be just fine and that she was always watching over him. At the time I didn’t understand the message. The following Tuesday, though, began the chain of events which ultimately led to C being evaluated for, and placed in, special ed. After several shifts and much trial and error, he is now a happy, well-adjusted fourth grader who earned a scholastic award last week.
The person who had the most touching experience with the other side, of course, is my grandmother. She awoke in the middle of the night to find her favorite great-uncle unexpectedly standing in the doorway. She asked what he was doing at her house and he replied “I came to say goodbye.” Her great-aunt called just then to inform the family that he’d passed.
This brings me to my point. In October, when the day and night trade lengths and the veil thins between the living and the hereafter, Halloween (and its sister holiday, Dia de los Muertos) serve as a timely reminder of our fragility, our mortality, and, ultimately, our connection to others.
To me, Halloween gives license for fun and revelry but also a celebration of our humanity.