Is Halloween a Dress Rehearsal for Death?
Even—maybe especially—in a pandemic year, it helps us practice and prepare.
Posted October 29, 2020
What if, next June, we baked cakes shaped like skulls?
What if, next February, we festooned our doors with paper skeletons and drizzled fake blood on our kids?
We do it blithely now.
But only now, in this liminal season when the lights go out.
This time of year—and it alone, throughout much of the world—is when the living dress up like, and decorate their spaces with, reminders that they'll die.
Is that because, right now, nature-at-large with its departing migratory species, early dusks, and falling leaves mirrors the fate awaiting us and all we love?
Sliding chill fingers down our necks, October whispers: Frailty. Separation. Hopes and dreams and friends and moments we believed would last forever crumpling, crumbling, tossed.
And we say: What?! All year we half-wish, half-assume-while-knowing-better that whatever we love will simply forever be. Whoops, October smirks: Nothing stays.
In these truncated days we stand, outthrust arms pricked by brittle shards of sunlight, cool and fickle, fading fast.
About this, about everything, in October we ask: Where did everything go?
This happens every year. In world-ravagingly viral 2020, this season of forecast sorrow seems sadder than most.
Each October, we feel assailed by twenty thousand tiny thefts which always seem unprecedented, sudden, and by stealth but, this year, feel particularly criminal as this year, arguably Halloween started in March. Birdsong. Beach parties. Poof.
Each October we are outraged, ashamed, at being caught off-guard again, at having hoped. But autumn, even in non-viral years, echoes what happens after our pets, pals, and parents pass: We fear sadness will kill us. We become accustomed to bare branches. Ice.
Seasons are clues leading us all into the biggest mystery. Cultures worldwide have sanctified this summer's-over shift with rites asserting that, this time of year, dead souls draw near. Samhain. All Souls' Day. Chuseok. Día de los Muertos. Pchum Ben. Fiesta de las Ñatitas. All those graveside picnics. Altars thronged with photographs, flowers, and cake.
Is Halloween a gift? Is it a yearly rococo rehearsal of those tragedies that are the only thing we know for certain we will face—which, this year, nearly all year, have suffused our very air and every broadcast? Bang. Bones. Boo.
At Halloween, we dress up as our own dead selves. We dress our kids as corpses. Imagine doing that in July—or any other time, for fun.
But now, we do. Green-gray skin, gaping wounds—even during a nightmare year when Halloween feels duplicative, default, never done.
As autumn closes in each year, we panic: Can't I seize back summer just a bit? I failed to hail its roses when they blazed. I did not bask.
Autumn scoffs: Bear up, babes. Last call. This is your final warning before darkness falls at five.
This is the season to rehearse, practice, prepare, play, pre-forget. Someday when sorrow strikes home, we will have already mocked it, worn it, feasted, screamed.
We will have gazed into at least rubber and sugar versions of its face.
A different version of this essay appeared at Spirituality & Health Magazine.