Halloween but why…?

When I was young the main feature of this time of year was called ‘guising’ and was pretty embarrassing. You had to go round people’s houses and ‘do a party piece’ for them and in return get some sweets. I never wanted sweets that much! I couldn’t do more than tell the lamest joke. You’d never have got me singing in public (I faced enough family ridicule when I tried to sing in private) and there didn’t seem much else a five year old could do to entertain the neighbours.  Especially not when dressed up in some lame costume.

The first film I saw (stick with me here, this will all come together) was The Wizard of Oz and it terrified me. I had nightmares about the green faced witch for months. I convinced myself that if I lay still, on my back, in my bed I’d be safe. I misinterpreted the line ‘and the dreams you dare to dream really do come true’  to mean that if I dreamed about the witch she would come true.  This was my first introduction into a fear of witches, ghosts and the supernatural.

But for me, that time of year was more about building a ‘guy’ and going round asking for a penny for it (easier than guising!) and then burning it on a bonfire in which we baked potatoes (so it wasn’t all bad!).  We at least knew who Guy Fawkes was (and I always felt kind of sorry for him, so quickly gave up on the effigy building)  And ‘Fireworks’ night was not without its own fears.   I remember going to a family friends fireworks party held in their garden and the dad wasn’t that careful and a spark got into the box of fireworks and I remember being chased down the garden into the house by a load of horizontal rockets.  It may not have been the same day (childhood does tend to merge such memories) but the daughter of the house (as I remember, on that day) ran through the glass fronted door and was carted off to hospital amidst much blood and had a lot of skin grafting on arms and legs.

Okay. Maybe now you can see why I’m a bit nervous of Halloween and fireworks and this time of year in general. Or maybe this is exactly the kind of tale you enjoy at this time of year?

I was not much older when things happened that meant that my life changed irrevocably and I subsequently grew up in circumstances which today would be called ‘domestic abuse’ but for me were just years of constant fear interspersed with random acts of extreme violence (often around ‘events’ such as Christmas and, yes, Halloween). So I became somewhat ‘risk averse’ and disinclined to engage with anything that promoted fear – I had enough fear in real life  not to go seek it out in fiction.

Which brings me to my real point. I’m wondering what it is that makes people so enamoured of the whole ghosty, Halloweeny thing?  It’s a genuine question. I’m not disparaging it, I just cannot ‘get’ it. I accept this is because of my own unique and strange ‘personal’ life experience.  But I want to know.

I have always worked on the premise that people like ‘horror’ stories because they come to them from a ‘place of safety.’ That they don’t believe these awful things could actually happen, or not to them.  Is it just a bit of fun?  I find it hard to understand how one can engage with the notion of zombies or ghosts or whatever as a rational adult other than as some form of escapism, and I cannot understand why one would ever want to ‘escape’ into fear.  But I’d really like to know. Because I can never find out for myself.  I’m still too scared of the whole thing. It took me into my 40’s to find a ‘place of safety’ in my life and I’m not inclined to leave it.  I have nothing I want to escape from any more.

When in my late teens I tried to ‘man up’ and engage with the genre, I watched a Stephen King horror film -‘Carrie’ and it left me a complete gibbering wreck.  I still get completely freaked if anyone stands around behind me. I tried again. I read my way through the Gothic Horror Novels of the 18th and 19th century. Actually I liked them. I liked Frankenstein and Dracula in their original forms because they didn’t seem about ‘horror’ to me but about society and sexual repression.  The ‘fear’ factor wasn’t there for me. I didn’t think any of this would happen ‘to me.’  But point me in the direction of anything resembling intense psychological fear and/or horror and I just can’t handle it. So I’ll never learn what it is and why it is that people write and read these genres unless I ask people to tell me why they read/write the things.  And I do, really, want to know.

So if you are into zombies, ghosts, horror, or psychological thriller and can explain to me why films and books of these genres are so compelling to folks, please leave a comment and start a debate.

And if anyone can explain why it is that ‘guising’ has turned into Trick or Treat and the entire world seems to become swathed in cheap plastic (and other materials) crap for a month when we are in a time of economic recession and why we choose to ‘entertain’ ourselves by parties where ‘fear’ is the key, I’d be glad to hear about that too!  Me, I’ll be staying indoors until long after the last firework has sped its way vertically or horizontally into space.

I just can’t help but thinking that there must be plenty of other people (and not just animals) for whom the setting off of explosives (something we try to avoid all the rest of the year except in a war situation) and general ‘fear’ factor is quite difficult to take. And yet, all around me, everyone seems to be ‘getting into the spirit’ of Halloween and as usual, I am in danger of being a party pooper.  I hope at least you’ll understand where I’m coming from.  But do please, give me your best reasons why it is that this is such a GOOD and POPULAR thing.  It will serve as an education for me, and maybe even as therapy.


About callyphillips

16 Responses to Halloween but why…?

  1. Bill Kirton says:

    First, I think it’s hilarious that, whereas the USA celebrates Independence Day, the French Bastille Day, etc., over here we celebrate a failed plot by a relatively minor historical figure. So I suppose my reaction to all the things you mention is that they’re absurd. Not ‘absurd’ as in ‘stupid’ but as in theatre of the absurd. They give film makers the chance to show us their special effects (none of which as yet approaches in impact the ghastly moment in Bunel’s ‘Un chien Andalou’ when the razor approaches the eyeball) and they keep many academics in a job excavating our Jungian depths. And they’re good escapist fictions. But they seem, well, irrelevant.

    I’m sorry, but however good their make-up, I don’t believe in Zombies, werewolves, ghosts. Maybe I’m too much of a realist for my own good but they just can’t exist. Someone asked recently why ghosts wear clothes. Are there ghost clothes, too? Do they have wardrobes and choose outfits? No, the actions of sociopaths and psychopaths are far more scary; they have the extremes of ghouls and yet they’re in our real dimension.

    I like the idea of the frisson of horror, I used to seek it actively in books and movies but it only happened very, very rarely. I’ve asked friends to recommend ghost or horror stories which will scare me. Some have come with warnings and recommendations not to read them at night, etc. I’ve read them and just can’t understand how they’re supposed to work. They leave me baffled.

    The greatest horror is in the unexplained, the irrational fear engendered by a tiny or even an imagined noise at night. I think it’s part of the Baudelaire thing of ‘diving into the depths of the abyss … the foundations of the unknown to find something new’. (It’s much better in French.) In the end, it’s an antidote to the comfort of our routines. We need to be shaken and stirred now and then.

    • Why do we need to be ‘shaken and stirred’ now and then? Are you of the school that it’s ‘escapist’ from a ‘place of safety’ then?
      I agree all the zombie,ghosty stuff is just nonsense. But why do we WANT or NEED to be scared in our lives? You suggest its because we live lives without enough fear? So then, if ones life DOES have more than enough REAL fear, would that be a good justification NOT to have to engage with things that scare?
      And as to what we’re ‘celebrating’ round now, I suspect we are only ‘celebrating’ more consumerism opportunities – it’s sad to me how low we’ve stooped in this regard – any crap as long as it’s a ‘party’ or ‘celebration.’ But that’s not really my central point – the key one is the FEAR factor and why we need or want it?

  2. Mary Smith says:

    Interesting post, Cally. I don’t read or write horror and I don’t watch horror films either.In my teens I did go through a phase of scaring myself silly reading horror then decided I really, really, didn’t enjoy the scary feelings or the subsequent twitchiness evoked.
    I used to love going out guising. I always recited a poem as my party piece and would come with a bag full of nuts, apples, toffee apples, home made toffee and tablet – and at one house I always got a pomegranate. We lived in a home-baking street and no one would give out shop bought sweets.
    I hate that guising has morphed in ‘trick or treat’, which is an American import and has spoilt our tradition – but then we must have allowed it to happen so have only ourselves to blame. Lanterns were made, in my day, from turnips. I don’t think we’d heard of, let alone seen, pumpkins back then.
    Maybe people enjoy the scary things – stories, ghosts, witches, the dead wandering about – to appreciate all the more their own relative comfort and safety.

  3. Bill Kirton says:

    You’re right, Cally. I ducked your main point about there being enough real fear already without adding the perverse desire to experience more of it, especially when it’s artificial. My only excuse is that I’ve been lucky enough not to have been exposed to it. I’m writing from the perspective of a comfortable middle class existence where the biggest tragedies are that soufflés may not rise. I should have kept adding the words ‘in my opinion’ or ‘in my experience’. My contribution is therefore hypothetical. I want to get the most I can out of life and that means doing more than sitting at my computer being cosy. I’m not denying or glossing over the realities of abuse and pain, I’m stepping outside them to speculate.

  4. No, this is theoretical/hypothetical in nature of discussion as well. Understanding that people ‘like’ or ‘need’ this to ‘shake them’ out of ‘cosiness’ is fine. But it’s an interesting point ‘do more than sitting at my computer being cosy’ – a whole new ball game I’ll not go into – if one wants to be ‘challenged’ are there not lots of better ways than Halloween and ghosts? That’s a general point not a personal response to you Bill! I’m not sure why I find it reassuring in one way that peoples lives ‘are’ so safe and secure that they ‘want/need’ to be frightened. Used to be that thought would drive me mad but now the important thing is to understand the alternate point of view, not to make judgements on it. Helps keep blood pressure lower that way too! [Hope your blood is doing well now btw!]

  5. That’s 2 out of 2 for my theory then – that people like it because it takes them out of their comfort zone or makes them appreciate their comfort or whatever – place of safety anyway. What will be interesting is when/if I get a response from someone saying they read to be scared to reinforce their life experience.

    • Susan Price says:

      Hi Cally. I think there’s a confusion of terms here. First there’s horror – an all out attempt to ‘gross-out’, terrify and sicken. Sometimes this uses Zombies, sometimes serial killers.
      Then there ghost stories and other tales of the supernatural, whose purpose is different. The great ghost story writer M R James made this distinction. He said that he could sicken anyone in a few words, but it was too easy. Instead, he set out to haunt, to unsettle, which was something much more difficult and subtle.
      I think gross-out horror has much the same appeal as contests to see who can eat the hottest curry – it’s a macho thing. I can watch a a bloodier gore-fest than you, and still eat my popcorn and laugh (while denying the fear that underlies the whole contest.) I think this is the horror genre’s appeal to most young people who haven’t experienced real violence, fear or distress. It’s a sort of initiation, a test. They’re venturing out on independent, adult life, and they wonder: Can I cope?
      As for Hallowe’en – it’s an ancient tradition, and people follow it because of that, just as they do all the ancient Christmas practices – putting out a feast for the returning dead (wine and mince-pies), decking the 3-bed semi with symbols of the returning Sun and life.
      Hallowe’en has been debased by commerce jumping on the American ‘trick or treat’. Retail has to make a buck – and keeps thousands in work – so they’ll jump at any sales opportunity. But, in a few years there’ll probably be a reaction, and an unearthing of older traditions.
      Hallowe’en is the ancient festival of Samhain – and it’s true appeal – and the appeal of ghosts, werewolves, and vampires is ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy…’ It’s the same appeal as Quantum Physics, Cally – the weirdness, the uncanniness of life, the Universe and everything.
      Werewolves and vampires have been debased in recent years, but go back to the folklore, and you find archetypes, dream-figures. The werewolf is the animal in us, our kinship with beasts. The vampire was made sexual by the Victorians, but the original, folkloric vampires embodied the mystery and terror of death, and the fear that the dead may come back for us.
      These are the stories that appeal to me – stories that give you the shiver, not of fear necessarily, but of the unknown, the unseen. In Scandinavia the Elves are called ‘The Hidden Folk’ (and we talking powerful, dangerous spirits here, not twinkly things with wings.)
      So, why do we want fear?
      I think some – those who’ve never experienced real fear – want to test themselves. It’s a kind of rite of passage.
      Others, aware that there’s an awful lot more going on than they’re aware of, both inside and outside their heads, want something that celebrates that. On Hallowe’en, the hollow hills open and the Elves ride… Our dead return to us, for good or ill… The witches’ power is greatest in the dark, and now the year turns towards its darkest nights – towards Yul, when the celebrate the turning towards Summer again, and once more the barriers between worlds grow thin…
      That’s my two pennorth anyway.

      • You pretty much said what I would have said too, Susan, except that you got there first. I would distinguish between ghost stories, horror in movies, fiction (and video games!) and the mildly ‘scary’ but strangely moving rites that mark the passing seasons. I believe in ghosts because I’ve seen one and I know what I saw. I don’t, necessarily, think he was a returning spirit, mind you – so much as an imprint. But I love the Victorian and Edwardian ghost story in all its manifestations with a passion. I’m no fan of modern horror and the bloodier it is, the less I like it. Mind you I’m very fond of Stephen King as a writer – because he’s such a fine storyteller and he consistently engages me. I’m not sure, though, that his books translate to film all that well (although I might make an exception for The Shining) because the books are more subtle than the movies. Bonfire night – we celebrate it in our village each year and it does, somehow, retain something of that old festival. I’m not sure how or why this happens. We’re a small community and when we come together around a fire, at the start of winter, I have always seen something ancient and important in it. It’s as though the people that come along do too. This year, we had a summer bonfire for the Queen’s jubilee. I’d lay bets at least half the people coming along, probably more, weren’t remotely royalist – but the bonfire on a summer’s night, drew them in and it was all curiously satisfying. Yes, I agree – a lot of it is to do with perceptions of the unknown, the numinous, the frisson of something unseen. I like your description of the ‘uncanniness of life’. It helps to be reminded of that sometimes. That sometimes, we have an inkling that there is more than meets the eye and this feeling is at once frightening and oddly comforting.

  6. I’m with you Cally – I’ve experienced enough real horror in my life (living through 3 consecutive military coups in a west african state for instance) and I really can’t take doing it again for pleasure. People must be insane. I never want to re-experience those emotions ever!! so horror movies aren’t for me – in fact these days I can’t take any kind of emotional mangling in what is supposed to be an enjoyable recreation. But maybe that’s not entirely it – as a child I was afraid of the dark(still am) and imagined all sorts of ghoulies and ghosties and frightened myself stupid. Maybe I’ve just got too much imagination to cope!

  7. I should probably add that it’s pretty clear that people have liked to tell and listen to horrifying tales of ghosts and monsters at a time when their lives were a very great deal less safe and secure than we are now! The people who sat in the meadhall listening to Beowulf and the appalling – even now! – details of Grendel’s mother chewing up warriors – why were they so keen on such stories? Their lives were short and brutal and they were pretty likely to die in battle, even if no monster came along to eat them up. Or the Icelandic sagas where ghosts are very real, so real that they can come back and murder people and have to be killed all over again. I always find it curious that the rest of the sagas are so totally realistic, and then the parts about the ghosts are totally realistic and matter-of-fact as well. But horrifying. These people were civilised, but still life was no picnic and bloodshed, sickness, murder, all were fairly commonplace. Is it a way of imposing some structure on grim reality? Because these people weren’t in much of a place of safety..Were those stories like superstitions, (I studied fishing superstitions, way back when I was doing a Masters in Folk Life Studies) a way of imposing some kind of order on a precarious and unpredictable world? And might that be what we like about them, even now. Not so much the reinforcing of our own comfort and safety, because people don’t seem to need that to appreciate ghost and horror stories – but the imposition of some kind of structure – story – on the random quality, the haphazardness of life?

  8. Susan Price says:

    This is a fascinating discussion. I can see where Cally and Kathleen are coming from. I’ve led a pretty safe and unscary (unscared) life myself, but it’s been my observation that it’s the safe and sheltered folk – today, at least – who revel in ‘strong meat’ in film, tv, books, etc. Those who have actually experienced terror and brutality don’t want to go anywhere near it. (I can get all that at home.)
    I think Catherine raises an interesting point about the telling of very scary ghost stories in the past, when lives were much less safe. I wonder if it was so different. Life was less sheltered in past centuries than it is in Western Europe today, but even so, not everyone would have been involved in a 60-year blood-feud. Maybe there were those who, when the story came to the frightening part, quietly got up and went to spend some time in the stables.
    I think one of the best explanations of why the Icelandic sagas are full of violence and revenge was the comment, ‘We write about what scares us.’ Wish I could remember who said it, and give credit – his point was that 12th Century Iceland was a turbulent society, and anyone could find themselves involved in a feud. So it was in the air, it was something that worried and scared them. So they told stories about it and wrote about it, as a way of exploring the situation and preparing themselves for it. Those who actually HAD experienced it probably didn’t want to hear those stories.
    But also, our view of the past is distorted by the Science lens. We look back and marvel that the Icelandic accounts of ghosts are so matter of fact, because we constantly make this distinction between what is real and what is scientifically impossible and therefore imaginary. I don’t think they did make that distinction. The Icelandic ghosts are matter of fact because that’s what they were, to the original tellers and listeners. And if such ghosts are part of your world, and might turn up at any time, doesn’t it make sense that you want to hear about them, so you have some idea of how to cope, should one start riding your house-beam?
    And Catherine – I’d love to hear about the ghost you saw!

    • Sorry haven’t replied to these threads… life interfering. However, I really think this ‘works’ as a sort of thread and it’s exactly the kind of discussion I think writers (and readers) should be having.

      The next one of these why do we read/write? discussions will be on 7th November on the IEBR site. You’ll find out why several writers have used child abuse as a key theme/part of their work. I look forward to all opinions!

      Thanks everyone


  9. What a fascinating thread this turned out to be. Could do with more like this! Lots of very interesting food for thought, Susan. As for my ghost story – it isn’t very scary, but it’s true. Some years ago, we were looking after my parents’ dog and I took her out for a walk one evening. We went on our usual hike out of the village and back again, and were heading for home when I saw an elderly man walking along the other side of the street. It was just about twilight but by no means dark. Not even dark enough for the street lights to come on. I crossed over to pass the time of day with him, because that’s what people do in this village, and (oddly enough) the dog tugged me over the road in his direction, wagging her tail, because that’s what she would do. And when we got to him, he disappeared. Like somebody switching a television off. It was the strangest thing that has ever happened to me, in a really matter of fact way. I thought, ‘where did he go?’ But I was standing in a part of the village where there’s just a low stone wall, with the ‘glebe field’ on the other side and there is quite literally nowhere to go. There’s a driveway which leads to the old manse, and I found myself ducking into the driveway to see if he had gone in there, but the sensible part of my mind knew that he couldn’t have gone in there, because the wall is only a few feet high and there was nowhere for him to be without crouching down and sure enough, there was nobody at all there. It wasn’t frightening. I just felt foolish. But when I got home and described it to Alan, he said ‘It sounds like Jock’. He was an elder of the kirk, he swept chimneys and he was the local handyman who knew how every house in the village was constructed. And he liked to walk about the village in the evening, just to check that all was well! He’d died before I came to live here, but Alan knew him. I don’t know if it was Jock, I saw. All I know is, I saw him and the dog saw him – and then … we didn’t !

    • Bill Kirton says:

      (Gulp.) OK, I’m a total sceptic, I can explain away just about all the things I’ve heard and claims people have made, but when someone like you says something like this, it bothers me. Not because I doubt my assessment of you but because I believe you and, despite your story-telling skills, trust you to separate fact and fancy. So where does that leave my scepticism? Yet again, I’m affected by some Czerkawska words.

      • There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in YOUR philosophy Mr Kirton. I know what you mean though. I don’t believe in such things either BUT I have to also admit that in my life some things happen to me that I DON’T BELIEVE IN – they happen irrespective of my belief (not ghosts and such in my case) and my conclusion is Wu Wei – some things you just have to accept, not to think your beliefs have any control over. Things happen and things don’t happen. Different things to different people. How, why, what etc… not for me to question, if I can’t make sense of it, I’ll just accept it is a ‘happening’ which may not accord with my beliefs but is ‘true’ in some other sense I can’t work out. Mind you of course we could always just suggest Czerkawska was ‘one over the nine!’ – (only joking!) Reasons are not always for us to understand. Belief can’t always do it. What I like about it is that it reminds us we are not so flipping clever or central to the universe as we think!

  10. Susan Price says:

    Thank you, Catherine! I loved your entirely matter-of-fact, and yet numinous, ghost story. I blogged last Hallowe’en about my family’s constant struggle between an entirely hard-headed scepticism and tendency to tell true, family ghost-stories at every opportunity. My aunt, my father’s sister, in particular, froze my warm blood and caused each particular hair to rise on many occasions. I’ve written at least one ghost story based on one of these family stories.
    And then my mother had second-sight. It ran in her family – but we’re pure rationalists, honestly!

    But further to ‘Why horror?’ I was watching Mark Gatiss’ excellent programme on European horror films, and he was making a very good for the horror being a way of exploring, in Germany, the aftermath of WWI, in France, the aftermath of WWII, and in Spain, the aftermath of Franco. None of these were subjects which could be tolerated, at the time, in ‘straight’ form – but the fantasy and extravagance of horror-film could be used a a distancing metaphor.

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