It took me about forty-five minutes to put the facial make-up on. It was a painstaking effort, especially round the eyes. I certainly didn’t want any make-up accidentally going into them, though I didn’t want any flesh color remaining around the eyes either. For some things, I do like to be meticulous, and this as one, just for the fun of creating the effect I wanted. I used two colors for my face, black and white, and needed to be careful to not smear one into another. I actually enjoyed trying to get it right.
I put on my costume, and was ready for the venture. It was my mission to make the neighborhood children nervously smile…to make them wonder…to draw them into the then popular fantasy series. I didn’t want to scare, scare them. That’d be cruel. But if a child here or there got a bit scared from a distance, I’d be okay with that. Being Halloween, so would the parents. In fact, they would smile, expecting such normally inappropriate behavior on this hallowed eve.
“By the power of Grayskull….” That was the popular phrase in the eighties from the lips of Prince Adam in the fantasy series Masters of the Universe—which became a popular utterance from the lips of my son…and me, as well. With a magic sword in hand, lifted high toward the sky, those words transformed this lazy, clumsy, and cowardly youth into He-Man. But I didn’t dress as He-Man. No, I was drawn to the other side. I wanted to be his nemesis—and toy a bit with the ubiquitous darkness that resided in the mind of every child’s psyche. I wanted the neighborhood children to see and hear and, if courageous enough, touch that darkness…even if for just a brief moment. Some children had already faced that symbol of darkness on television. Years later, as adults, they just might get the spine to face the real thing within themselves. But, with me, they’d have an opportunity now, as children, to meet that darkness personified, up close and personal—much closer and more nervously so than watching him in the safety of their living rooms where they could turn the representation of evil on and turn it off at will. On the sidewalks of our neighborhood, they’d not be able to turn me off…at least not so easily.
And they knew that. You could tell. But I kept a distance so as to not overwhelm them. Some children would anxiously smile—which was my signal to gently and slowly approach, inching my way toward them. Grasping a parent’s leg was my cue to judge, “Ok, that’s enough,” and just as slowly and gently back it off. The parents smiled. One little boy, however, ventured to touch me. I let him…without scaring him; I didn’t make a sound or move quickly. You could see the look of sober pride on his face. He got to touch evil, while secretly knowing I was not evil because it was Halloween. While evil is real, his brush with its personification that night was not; he knew that…somewhere in his mind. Besides, his father approved. His dad shot me a knowing smile.
Interestingly, and unexpectedly, I succeeded in momentarily drawing the little girl within my dear adult friend Hope into my Halloween fantasy. I went to Hope’s front door, with flashlight in hand, directing the beam of light from my chest up toward my chin, splaying around my red hood and altered black and white face. She opened her front door, though not the screen door…and as soon as she got a fix on me, she screamed. I immediately declared, “Hope, it’s Frank!” She quickly calmed down, did a triple-take, laughed, and exclaimed how scary I looked—even though she knew it was trick-or-treat night for our area. She wondered who I was made-up to be. I explained I was He-Man’s nemesis, the skull-faced evil wizard Skeletor who wished to rule Eternia and conquer Castle Grayskull. Hope didn’t hate me for the prank. After all, we were good friends. And it was Halloween.
Halloween is a strange mix of historic practices from various parts of the world whose content and richness of meaning are interesting projections of the human psyche. Those projections are still with us today—and with us in various forms in varying contexts other than Halloween.
While we do not know the precise historical development of “All Hallows Eve,” it is believed to have its roots in an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. Samhain marked the end of the summer harvest, as well as gathering resources for the winter, bringing animals back from pasture, and preparing for the dark winter ahead.
Some researchers think that the Celtic people held the belief that this transition time opened a cosmic door to the “other side,” and the souls of the dead came back on this eve to visit homes. Places at families’ dinner tables were even set for them. Sometimes the dead appeared as apparitions, or as animals, especially as black cats. The community also sacrificed crops and animals to the full range of spirits on the other side in an attempt to appease them. After all, not all spirits were well-intentioned. The appeasement was to keep the spirits from causing mischief as well as to help with surviving the winter. Many believed some spirits demanded things in return for good fortune. Playing off this imagined pattern, people would wear costumes to confuse the spirits and go door-to-door offering to pray for the dead or reciting songs and verses in return for food. The homeowner would give the food in payment for good fortune. Another practice was imitating mischievous spirits with the belief that such mirroring would ward them off. Imitating spirits who might perpetrate pranks gave rise to actual pranks, so much so that the eve got the name “Mischief Night.” In Scotland, for example, young men went door-to-door with masks or blackened faces threatening to do their pranks, finding their way through the night by using turnips as lanterns, carved out with faces to look like spirits.
The Romans influenced Samhain with their own holidays, one honoring the dead and another honoring a goddess of fruit and trees. Likely, bobbing for apples comes from this practice of honoring the goddess. Then Christianity brought “All Saints Day,” which was to replace Samhain with honoring saints and martyrs. Later, the name All Saints Day was changed to All Hallows Eve, eventually shortened to “Hallowe’en.”
Fleeing famine, the Irish brought Halloween to America in the early 1800s—so you can blame my ancestors for this day, I suppose. (While my name Barbehenn is Germanic, I discovered when my father passed away decades ago now that my blood line is O’Reilly!)
Once Halloween took root here in America, likely the tradition of the Jack-O-Lantern became tied to Halloween at the time of the Civil War. Many European cultures had a “Jack story”—folktales about a trickster named Jack. Making a long story short, this Jack tricked the Devil into making deals with him. One was that, when he died, the Devil could not take his soul. But when Jack did die, he was too sinful to go to Heaven. Yet the Devil kept his word to not take him into hell. So Jack wandered the world. But Jack complained that it was just too dark during his wanderings. So someone tossed him a hot coal, which he placed in a carved out turnip. He used his turnip-lantern to guide him. Thus the name “Jack of the Lantern,” or Jack-O’-Lantern.
The mixing and matching of rituals and meanings melded together to make the American Halloween celebration what it is today. By the middle of the twentieth century, Halloween became focused primarily on young children, in part, to limit the problem of “Mischief Night” that had become part of Halloween’s tradition over centuries. For young children, “trick or treat” became “treat” without the “trick.” The range of costumes now includes ghosts, goblins, witches, zombies, and fairies to super-heroes and anti-heroes, princes and princesses. Even evil politicians. Communities grant themselves permission to indulge in ghoulish practices from front lawn coffins to community center houses of horror, mixing the themes of the paranormal, the dark side of human nature, and death.
I said earlier that Halloween’s historic richness of meaning is a collage of projections of the human psyche. And so it is. After all, life is like a Rorschach inkblot.
The Rorschach is a test psychologists use to expose the more secretive, or unconscious, workings of the mind. The psychologist shows the person a series of blots of ink whose form has no particular meaning. The psychologist then asks the person, what do you see? What the person sees is what he or she creates with the blot in his or her imagination. Both the perceived form and the meaning of the blot is a fabrication of his or her own mind. Some men with repressed sexual feelings see various female anatomical parts. Some people with deep emotional pain and turmoil see injured creatures. One client saw a butterfly with torn wings. Some with buried rage see violent scenes in nature or between people.
All of life is like an inkblot. Both life and inkblots are ambiguous enough, ill-defined enough, that we can and do use them as movie screens onto which to project the inner dramas and phantasms of our minds. Starting in childhood, we see “out there” what our minds are already seeing “in here”—powerful cinematic scenes in our mind’s eye emerging from our conditioning histories, our fears, beliefs, hopes, dreams, and even our inherent inner conflicts. Children’s projected fantasies may be the more obvious. But we all project onto life’s inkblots. And we do it powerfully, from our fear-driven distortions of our spouses, other races, gays and lesbians, to rape and murder fantasies, to our beliefs about ghosts, alien abductions, paranormal phenomena, and God.
We are not nocturnal animals. We are not so equipped. While our eyes can see at night, they cannot see well…not like an owl. An owl can see 35 to 100 times better at night than we can. So, as the curtain of darkness falls around them, children feel a heightened sense of their vulnerability. Their main defense against harm—vision—has been taken away. Such vulnerability comes from the child’s mere existence. She is thrown into the world unable to fend for herself. She is dependent on others for survival. As I discussed in a recent Coach’s Corner, as she engages reality in the bid for independence, reality will hurt her. In a metaphorical sense, the child lives life a bit like an animal in the wild, poking its head out a hole looking around carefully for a predator before venturing out to play. This basic insecurity reveals itself especially at night. A child isn’t scared of the dark. She is scared of what lurks behind the curtain of darkness draped over her little world, because she cannot see there well, if at all. She is also threatened by what lurks in the family’s dark shadows, behind the curtain of denial draped over her parents’ and siblings’ relationships. The darkness of their denial blinds her. And she feels an inner disequilibrium by what impulses lurk deep within her own growing psyche, from pre-school sexual feelings to covetousness to outright hatred for a parent. When my middle son was just a wee little guy—and upset with his mom—he told her he wanted to cut off her head and bake it in our oven. At least he was forthright and honest! To manage these various impulses and fears, the child projects them out right in front of herself—where she can better see them. Sometimes, she projects them out as ghosts—just like the Celtics did with their fears. Other times, she projects her fears onto other threatening images borrowed from the culture, like Skeletor—just like the Celtics did through costumes. She looks around her room for the predators who are pensively waiting for her in her closets or under her bed, just like the Celtics did in their neighborhoods. She will make room for the projected friendly spirits of her stuffed animals to help her feel more secure—like the Celtics made room for the dead around their dining room tables.
As the child grows to an adult, she may drop some of these projections. But the cinematic, artistic, and poetic ability of her psyche to project will continue to expand.