I can tell it’s October on Cape Cod. Still warm days, coolish nights and the quiet, insistent refrain running through my head, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…” Something wicked good, that is. Hello Halloween! That was a quote from Macbeth, by the way, and also the title of one of my favorite books by Ray Bradbury, which I read when I was 11. The expression was first noted in a 1739 book, “The Numbnefs (numbing) of the little Finger.” Early superstition warned, “If the nose itches, company is coming, if the thumb itches, unwelcome company will arrive.”
Halloween is second in popularity only to Christmas, and over eight billion a year is spent on it. It is also a holiday people either love or hate. It’s pretty easy to see why some do not appreciate it. After all, the depictions of costumes and haunted houses can be quite graphic and gruesome. However, I think it goes deeper with the Halloween haters. Maybe a bad Halloween experience at a tender age, perhaps an unfortunate encounter with a clown—you know how the clown thing goes—but clearly there are lots more lovers than haters.
Halloween offers something for everyone, the music is funny and spooky (remember “Monster Mash”), partiers have a built-in excuse to hold a soiree, and creative costumers can create their best work for prizes and certainly admiring glances. Little and big kids have fun dressing up and trick or treating. Decorators go gaga with witch, skeleton and vampire decor, foodies prepare hot dog mummies, spaghetti or cheese dip brains, peeled grape eyeballs and cookie fingers and bones that match up with the real thing. Front door wreaths, with a bit of planning, transition to harvest/Thanksgiving with the removal of a few ghosts or goblins. Skeletons take up residence in front porch rocking chairs and amuse passersby for the month, and a normally well behaved lawn can suddenly erupt with whimsically epitaphed tombstones and boney hands grasping from the grave.
The poster child of the month is the Jack or Jackie O’Lantern. Carved, painted or bedazzled, genuine pulp flesh or faux foam, the orange orb invites you into the creative world. Pumpkin Festivals in Keene, N.H. and the Roger Williams Zoo in Rhode Island offer premier destinations for carved pumpkin viewers, presenting thousands of illuminated, carved pumpkins. Chatham exhibits its yearly collection of pumpkin people in all their funky glory. Harwich, it’s obviously time for you to step up your game. Kudos to the merchants having Halloween fun, like Murphy’s General Store's fabulous front window pumpkin display and Dr. Gravity’s skeleton man on bicycle with wheels that spin in the October breeze, and all the others that give us cause to smile as we go by.
Who doesn’t enjoy passing by Chatham’s First Congo Church, and now Harwich Port’s Pilgrim Congregational’s massive pumpkin displays raising money for good causes. There are haunted houses all over the country each year, in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Missouri and myriad other states, raising millions of dollars for charity while scaring the heck out of us. Turns out, after we receive a good scare, we compulsively laugh right afterward. Fun and fear come from the same neurotransmitters, and when you laugh, you get a shot of dopamine, a feel-good chemical. Finally an addiction that doesn’t add pounds or distress in our lives—oh, there is the candy corn, Milky Way, Reese’s. Well, it’s only once a year.
But what is it that really fuels our love for this mysterious season of ghosts and goblins? Perhaps it is its primeval nature. For centuries past, as the seasons have changed and winter approached, daylight grew shorter and night longer. Old pagan rituals gave way to newer customs. It was believed that on All Souls Eve, spirits rose from the grave and roamed the earth. The recent zombie invasion actually began hundreds of years ago as the playing out of light versus darkness, good versus evil. In those days, they carved out gourds and placed a candle within to scare off the demons. How do we attempt to control the evil around us? We illuminate it, laugh at it and dismiss it. What should we really be afraid of? Some of my favorites: the IRS, too tiny hospital jonnies, relationships, climate change, religion, or no religion, selfish people, bad hair days, cilantro (for those of us with the hate cilantro gene), sharks—if we’re stupid enough to jump into their swimming pools—and under-cooked chicken, just to name a few.
Why is Halloween such a hoot? We tease the foreboding and the forbidden from the twilight, then tame it with torches and laugh at our good fortune and domination over evil. It is hard to argue with the popularity of a season which offers a chance for parties, no gifting, good food, raising money for charity, comforting colors, and finally a good use for brooms, other than housework! Just as Julia Donaldson’s “No Room on the Broom” children’s book reveals, there is, in fact, room on the broom for everyone. Fly with us on our mysterious and creative adventures this Halloween.