As the colors creep into the leaves, and pumpkin spices up everything from scratch and sniff crayons to martinis, we see that summer is over and we prepare for Autumn’s grand fete.
It is at this time of year, that I negotiate watching a certain number of rom-com movies in exchange for convincing my wife, Julia, to join me in performing a musical Halloween show. My childhood enthusiasm for Universal monster movies overflows in autumnal delight as we get to pull out the songs that are usually filed under what we call, “The Levins Get Sidetracked.” Instead of The Levins usual uplifting songs of compassion, forgiveness, and love, we get to sing about cereal, bony chins, and monster matinees. It is not only fun for me but, paradoxically, seems to uphold a greater cosmic balance. Celebrating both light and dark, the inspirational and the absurd, somehow seems to allow for a fuller inclusiveness. At least, in my heart.
The playful aspect of children transforming into characters, and going from door to door, is a ritual that reminds us that we are always more than meets the eye. There is a delight with deep roots in dressing up and celebrating all sides of ourselves. Beyond the superstitions that led to burning bonfires on All Hallows Eve to ward off evil spirits, there is a part of us that knows that we are not confined and defined by form.
Our fascination with Halloween goes much deeper than the harvest, the need for candy and strutting our stuff in a costume. Now that we are publicly wearing masks all year round, you would think that there would be no interest in donning another covering. Yet, the spooky spirit is already overflowing all around us.
It is significant that, at this time in history when there is a seeming divide and preoccupation with painting one another as villains and monsters, things such as gender fluidity and deeper conversations about race, equality, and cultural consciousness, have become so prevalent. Social norms are being challenged, redefined, with supportive shifts and new understandings. It is as if the subtle essence of the universe is singing, “Lighten up, it isn’t about form, use your imagination to be bigger than your current definition of yourself and all that is around you.”
Of course, by and large, we aren’t using this holiday to examine ourselves and our penchant for hiding away. Halloween is often seen as a chance to escape into fantasy and indulge in indulgence. Yet, as with most customs, there is always an opportunity to delve deeper into why we may love and cling to this holiday.
With wave after wave of disasters, political upheaval, flagrant corruption, inequalities, and health concerns, we may have become numb out of necessity. We can convince ourselves that we do not have time to sit with our own personal concerns let alone, handle the woes of the world. We tend to hide behind the convenience of saying, “I’m fine,” when we are internally wrestling with grief or becoming overwhelmed with our concern for one another and the planet.
Since it is a responsibility to recognize that we are all interconnected, and dependent on one another to survive as a species, we often choose to burrow into the idea of separation. If we can convince ourselves that we and, maybe our select family or group, are not bound up in the fate of humanity as a whole, we can achieve a form of security that will protect us, or at least insulate us.
Because we have subscribed to the idea of separation for so long, we have developed a fear of the “other,” that has become linked to our apprehension around death itself. Out of this dread, we tend to act abominably. It is at the root of our atrocities and enmity for one another and has built up the specters of intolerance that lead to persecution and war.
Horror movies, books, and legends, associated with Halloween are reflections of our clinging to this idea of separation. They project our capacity for cruelty and injustice into the supernatural realm. They are a means of portraying that which prompts dismay in us into forces that can be resisted and even vanquished. They are a creative way to face our fears and not become overwhelmed by helplessness and hopelessness. They are also reminders that monsters, ghosts, and demons can be created, even by us. We each have the capacity to create or become something frightening or kind-hearted.
We love to call the beloved and menacing green monster with a flat-top and bolts in his neck, Frankenstein; however, Frankenstein is actually the name of the doctor who gave this creature life and then shunned him without any nurturing love to guide him.
Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray is another fine example of a horror tale that offers us a valuable perspective. It holds the mirror up to our society, which often values appearance over substance. Dorian Gray turned to cruelty and callousness in times of hardship and struggle which was mirrored in his mysterious portrait as it aged and became hideous with each thoughtless act. That painting remained hidden away in an attic, while Gray presented a youthful, almost angelic image in public.
The thought that cruelty can leave a supernatural imprint, such as this portrait or ghosts, also opens the possibility that our natural kindness could have a rippling effect, as well.
Halloween, isn’t, of course, our only chance to examine our shadow side. Our popular stories and movies, from Star Wars to Marvel, draw from various rituals embedded in our various cultures that give us the opportunity to reflect on our foibles, so that we don’t become like the Creature Feature fiends wreaking havoc on the world.
For example, there is a Judaic ritual, called Tashlich, in which bread crumbs or pebbles are thrown into moving water to represent the mistakes that we may have made during the year. It is a gentle meditation and a chance to admit our imperfections.
One year, I stood on a bridge with my parents performing Tachlich. With each piece of bread that we tossed in, to cast away our shortcomings, my mom rolled her eyes. Spontaneously, she took a piece of bread and threw it into the water declaring, “Here’s for what you did good!!” My dad, in turn, rolled his eyes, and we all erupted into laughter.
It is in the balance that we become whole. Yes, we are imperfect; yes, we have to guard against becoming villains and monsters; but we also have a fathomless capacity for healing, generosity, upholding the dignity of those around us, and sending out good will and love. It is a moment-by-moment choice.
Perhaps the merriment and revelry of Halloween is our annual reminder to not take ourselves so seriously, to parade around and display fantastic diversity while we visit our neighbors for a bit of sweetness. It can be an outlet to laugh at our fears, investigate our shadows, and, just maybe, embrace a little healing change.
For those of you interested in joining our Halloween show with our friends Scott Wolfson & Other Heroes on Oct. 30th at 7pm EDT, tickets can be purchased at: ScottWolfson.com/events
Written by Ira Scott Levin/ edited by Julia Bordenaro Levin and Susan B Katz