Halloween is a celebration of death, of dead things and things that kill—vampires and werewolves and zombies—but also a time of literal death, first the leaves and the grass and the millions of mosquitoes and the creatures that feed on the mosquitoes, then the end of the hopes one always pins to summer, the plans to get organized, to spend a romantic weekend in Cape Cod, to finally finish that novel manuscript, to get that scuba diving certification, to go on a safari and watch a lioness as she stalks an antelope. Also the time of year when my dog died, when I took two elderly Welsh Corgis to the local groomer in preparation for a pumpkin carving party and then returned from the groomer with two elderly Welsh Corgis, but Otis, the tri-color, the one with the little patches of brown fur like eyebrows, which invited us to attribute all sorts of human characteristics—empathy and understanding and high-level cognitive skills—was quietly suffering from a ruptured spleen. I didn’t know the spleen was ruptured then, and I ignored his abnormal behavior when he wobbled across the room wheezing and flumped in front of me with the force of a sandbag dropped from the ceiling; I patted him on the head and then left to drink beer with my friends in the city. While I was out, my wife returned home from work and called to tell me Otis wasn’t standing and could barely breathe. My wife—a nurse, normally calm and rational and never panicked (see also: PANIC ROOM PROCEDURES)—was sobbing and I knew that the dog was dying, had been dying in front of me, that his flumping was a cry for help, that the other dog was at home watching him die and was incapable of understanding why she would never see Otis again, and so, four beers deep, I drove to meet them at the animal hospital, speeding at ninety, ninety-five, checking my phone at the same time for directions, and knowing I was endangering others’ lives, hoping only to arrive in time to see the dog one last time and to be with my wife who had grown up with this dog and who had made many unbreakable associations between the dog and her own long-deceased mother, and I remember thinking: I hope if I get pulled over, the cop is a dog-lover. I remember thinking: I hope he understands.
The defining emotion of my youth, the relentless anxiety, the certainty that I was not good enough, the guilt for feeling depressed when I knew, compared to most people throughout world history, I had no right to feel depressed, and in fact had more comfort and luxury and entertainment and safety than anyone has a right to dream of, and still, day to day, there was the creeping dread. Every teenager feels it a little bit, the dread, but I fetishized sadness, sometimes sharpied angry words on my arms—I didn’t have the conviction to be a cutter, but I wanted people to know I was tormented—and I entertained sexual fantasies that began with me overwhelmed by the world and addicted to opium and meeting girls who were intrigued by my worldly ennui and my flimsy grasp of existentialist philosophy. It’s possible I played at being depressed and dark and moody for so long that my personality changed permanently, the psychological equivalent of making a funny face and having it stick that way. It’s also possible there’s just something fucked in the chemistry of my brain, and I was born with a predisposition toward pessimism and self-doubt and isolated misery. I have an inherent appreciation, therefore, of Halloween and its contrived gloominess, my general objections to all mass-produced commoditized holidays, with their kitschiness and costumes and manufactured traditions, notwithstanding.
A villain in the G.I. Joe universe, an arms dealer who wears a steel mask. Responsible, presumably, for the deaths of thousands of innocents. A costume I wore for four consecutive Halloweens until my mother told me it was time to move on to something “a little more fun.” (see also: COSTUMES)
What you do when you want to fit in with the cool kids and don’t think you have anything else to offer besides the willingness to engage in so-called mischief on so-called Mischief Night (see also: UNPOPULARITY, Solutions To). You collectively bombard the first house, but run away so fast and with such an adrenaline rush that you can’t hear the impacts of egg on vinyl siding over the thumping of your heart, so at the next house you force yourself to wait, peeking over the hood of a parked car to see the homeowner, a tired-looking man in v-neck undershirt and sweatpants, standing in his front yard, suddenly spinning in hopes of catching a glimpse of the god damn teens who did this to his house, and you’re afraid but it’s a safe kind of fear, like being on a rollercoaster, because you all know, and he probably knows, that there’s nothing he can do: he’s too old and fat and slow to catch you and even if he does somehow catch you, what’s he going to do? Beat all of you up? He walks turns his back and retreats toward his house, all slumped shoulders, and then you hurl one more egg, which incites your friends to unload the rest of the arsenal on him; for weeks afterward you will laugh about the daring of your mischief, and only a decade later, when your own house gets egged, will you consider that moment from the homeowner’s perspective. Only at that moment do you understand that you and your friends were responsible not just for ruining that man’s night, but for acting as a cruel reminder that his day had passed, that he was beaten and, whatever exuberance and hopes and dreams he’d once had, they’d been abandoned one by one over the years until eventually all he had left was his house and his dignity and then he was egged—egged!—by some shitty kids who thought of him only as a prop in the low-stakes play of their lives.
EVERYONE I LOVE IS DEAD
A song by the gothic metal band Type O Negative, who called themselves “The Drab Four” and whose catalogue is filled with titles like We Hate Everyone, Bloody Kisses, and Halloween in Heaven. A band I took very seriously in high school and college, in the way all myopic and depressed teens take their music very seriously. I wore mostly black clothes then, and assumed a disproportionate amount of pride in the fact that I’d been to and survived the pits at metal concerts headlined by groups with names like Fear Factory and Hatebreed. While some of the bands I loved then were deeply sincere in their anger and alienation, it took me a disappointingly long time to recognize that Type O Negative’s image was performed sadness, that brooding lead singer Peter Steele was just playing a character. The misery was all external. The band was self-aware and dark and funny, but I wasn’t in on the joke. Without the sense of humor, the performance is almost unbearable.
Halloween is the start of a massive cultural weight gain that continues until the last stale Christmas cookie has been stuffed into bloated cheeks, and then suddenly there are New Year’s Resolutions about weight loss and love handles and bikini bodies, and with each passing year this pendulous bodyshaping routine becomes codified as tradition rather than the reckless support of a sick economic system that cannot function if people reach anything like contentment. I don’t like giving candy to fat children on Halloween, because I was a fat child and am intimately familiar with the shame cycle of binge eating, and I know some of these children are going to go home with their pillowcases full of chocolate and eat until they’re sick—maybe they’ll even be encouraged by parents because it’s a special day—and then the next time they see their peers they will be acutely aware of only one thing: they are different, they are less valuable, they do not belong, which either leads to a few days of frenzied workouts or instead more binge eating and so on. It seems cruel to indoctrinate children into this system so early, but still on Halloween I’m at the door with a bowl full of treats, handing them to obese children, who immediately appraise the quality of the candy because not only is there an expectation of free food but also that the food will be up to a certain standard, but I opt for healthy treats—pretzels, fruit snacks, the lesser of evils. Still, I give the food away because it’s in the social contract and I know parents on the block expect me to give candy to their children. I also know that if I don’t pay the Halloween tax, then local teens—in their half-assed costumes, their smirky self-confidence itself a mask—will egg my house.
My father-in-law, a surrogate father to me in the decade since my own father’s death (see also: APPENDIX II, “Index of Dead Relatives”) and also the central figure in my wife’s life. A man who represents for me the possibilities of all that can be good in the world, who is more generous with his time and energy than anyone I know, who likes people, and who, unlike me, can effortlessly see the good in them even while they’re doing terrible things (see also: CANDY, That Time Some Older Kids Stole Mine). Fred has often said that he would give up every other holiday if he got to keep Halloween and the family’s annual pumpkin carving party, which has evolved over fifteen years from a small, three person affair to a forty-person blowout at with an octuple-batch of homemade chili and a few gallons of wine and five cases of beer and a full month of pumpkin stockpiling. The ritual of preparation—Fred joining me and my wife the night before to chop onions and peppers and simmer the chili on medium-low heat and set out pumpkin carving tools and so on—is hard work but also one of the most important traditions in our family. The party itself is great fun, although I tend to annoy my wife by drinking too much and talking too loudly. It’s the one time each year when we’re able to gather almost all the important people in our lives, unless there’s a wedding or funeral to attend. The annual group photo both promises stability and denies it. Roughly the same crew is there every year, but there are always minor changes: new spouses, new children, new plus-ones, people aging, gaining weight and losing it, hair graying and creases forming around our eyes, ex-spouses disappearing, broken friendships and deaths. This year, uninvited, but still attending, there is a tumor. There is always a tumor somewhere, even if you’re not yet aware of it. If you manage to live long enough, you get a malignancy to call your own, to nourish against your will, to name and to hate. This year, Fred has a tumor in his breast, still growing, and his surgery is scheduled for only four days before the party, so he may end up missing out on the one day he would trade for all other days.
Your past and future selves haunting you as reminders of the mistakes you’ve made and warnings about the ones you will eventually make. The fear comes not from rattling chains and flickering lights and creaking floorboards but rather from the moment you come into contact with a vision of who you actually are. The contrast between your invented self and your material being. One of you exists and the other does not.
GRISLY GOTHIC GABLES
A haunted house where I worked when I was thirteen years old, my first actual job, which I took because all of the cool guys in my eighth grade class were working there, and I’d concocted an elaborate fantasy that this would result in me meeting girls and talking to girls and eventually kissing a girl. My first assignment was a spotlight gig that I got for reasons I don’t understand, maybe I volunteered or maybe, I wanted to believe, the manager at Grisly Gothic Gables saw something special in me that warranted such an important responsibility. At the end of the tour, when each group thought they’d safely escaped the haunted house and let their guard down, my job was to plow through a collapsible wall dressed like Leatherface and charge them, screaming, chasing them away from the house, reminding them there is no such thing as safety and security, and no matter how many precautions you’ve taken, there’s ultimately nothing you can do to protect yourself from a lone madman. The sound of the wall crashing against the ground startled them, but after that I was not a good pursuer, was too afraid to unleash the requisite horrifying scream, because a scream like that requires levels of honesty I was not yet capable of achieving. The lack of conviction drew laughter from one group of high school girls, which shamed me in the way only the laughter of high school girls can, and even though my face was covered with a mask, I wanted to hide and never be seen again. After several subsequent failures, I was demoted, then demoted again, until I was wearing a zombie costume and standing inside a haunted jail cell with a half-dozen other zombies who couldn’t hack it anywhere else—as if the thing that would make jail scary is the presence of zombies and not the fact of imprisonment itself. When a group of cool-seeming guys strutted through, and we were rattling the cell bars, I made eye contact with one of them, who laughed and then, through the bars, punched me right in the face.
(see: OTHER PEOPLE)
When my cousin—thirteen years younger than me—learned I self-identify as a writer, he asked me to write him a scary story. Which I said I would, because I tend to make promises I cannot keep. I forgot about this promise until a few months later when his mother, my aunt, asked for the story. Just a few more weeks, I told her. Give me a few more weeks. She gave me those weeks and then a few more and then he graduated from elementary school. I said then that his gift would be the scary story, but still I never wrote anything. The thing I couldn’t figure out: what could I write that was age-appropriate and still actually scary to a fourteen year old? I thought of the classic horror films, the ones that had knifed through my cynicism and terrified me—Amityville Horror and The Shining especially—but I couldn’t replicate those even if I tried. He’s older now and just started college, still periodically reminds me of the promised story, and I realize now the problem is I was caught up thinking about ghouls and goblins instead of allowing myself to face the true horrors of the world, which prevented me from writing an honest scary story, and now, finally, after years of empty promises, I have for my cousin the scariest story I can write:
The universe is larger than anything you could ever conceive and you’re smaller than you’ve ever conceived, and so the universe is indifferent to you at best and openly hostile at worst. You are bad for the Earth—we all are, the planet is much better off without us here, it would exist regardless. We are an inconvenience, a wound that needs healing, a scab the planet wants to pick, and this is why monsters exist; they are nature’s antibodies designed to eradicate the illness by destroying us. Monsters aren’t the stuff you read in stories, the furry beasts hiding in your closet at night. The monsters are in plain sight: they are the high school senior who torments you during your freshman year, making you get on your knees in the cafeteria and bark like a dog in front of everyone; the friend who tries, the moment you leave the room, to steal your girlfriend, who you weren’t planning to marry or anything but come on; the people who you will love but who will reject your love and who will later with their friends laugh at how pitiful you looked when you exposed your soul to them; the once-beloved uncle who creeps into your bed at night and presses against you, whispering that you’d better be silent or your parents will hate you forever; the neighbor who seems nice enough but as a young man committed wartime atrocities, which memories he tries to suppress with a combination of prescription painkillers and cheap vodka; the anonymous strangers on the internet who, in a matter of seconds, can destroy your identity and everything about your carefully curated life; frightened men with guns and no other options; the strangers who wouldn’t even help you if they saw you being pummeled in the middle of the street by a gang of idiot teenagers; gangs of idiot teenagers, who exist only to create mayhem and to record themselves creating mayhem so they can post videos of mayhem-creation on the internet; the governors and congressmen who hold you in contempt and don’t even pretend not to be robbing you; the world powers stacking nuclear weapons on top of one another and using their stockpiles as obvious surrogates for their penises. True horror occurs the moment you acknowledge your own helplessness and allow this newfound self-awareness to cripple you. The world itself is a nightmare from which you cannot wake, and, over time, you become increasingly aware of the monsters who surround you, are forced to recognize that life itself is a series of almost unendurable terrors that we’re conditioned to endure because what other choice do we have?
Tom McAllister is the non-fiction editor at Barrelhouse. His memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey, was published in 2010, and his shorter work has appeared in FiveChapters, Black Warrior Review, elimae, and some other places. He is co-host of the Book Fight podcast and you can find him on twitter @t_mcallister.