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Flirting With Death

It seems that, as time goes on, Halloween is becoming an ever more popular holiday. It has moved from being a children’s celebration to one that is equally observed by adults. In the Catholic liturgy, it is merely the eve of All Saints Day, which continues to diminish in importance as Christianity slowly recedes. The next day, All Souls Day—November 2—is the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

What with all the horror films and Stephen King novels and Jack O’Lanterns, Halloween tends to flirt with death without really facing it. As a culture, we tend to stay in the outskirts of death without descending into the center of it. The skulls and skeletons we affect are free of putrefaction and stench.

When I was a student at Dartmouth College, I spent four years in the remote Middle Wigwam dormitory (later re-christened McLane Hall). To get to the center of campus, I had to pass along the northern edge of the Hanover, New Hampshire cemetery, which has tombstones dating back to the 18th century, as Dartmouth was founded in 1769. It was an eerie experience, especially when walking home at night after a movie, play, or visit to Baker Library. Yet it looked nothing like the fantasy cemetery pictured above. Even the much older Copps Hill Burying Ground in Boston, where Cotton and Increase Mather are interred, is nowhere near as nasty as a typical horror film cemetery.

We like to keep our cemeteries on the neat side else no one would want to visit them. That’s because we are forced to acknowledge death, but we’d rather not think about it. And when we do, we use typical horror themes to frighten ourselves before returning to normality. Among these are vampires, zombies, Frankenstein monsters, ghosts, hauntings, mummies, shock operas like Hitchcock’s Psycho, demons, goblins, and so on. In fact, most of these themes are wildly fictional and outside the experience of most everyone.

Absent from most of these themes is the real sting of death: a numbing sense of loss of our loved ones and the realization that we will not escape the same fate.

So celebrate Halloween by all means. I certainly do. This month I read Thomas Ligotti’s stories in Grimscribe and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. And I just started Sheridan LeFanu’s Uncle Silas (1864).

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