Among the Dead

Day of the Dead Participants

This is kind of a coda to yesterday’s post entitled “Dia de los Muertos.” Many of the attendees at the Day of the Dead Festival in Canoga park wore nifty costumes and frequently had very professional face painting jobs. There was a booth at the festival where most of the work was probably done.

As much as Martine felt intimidated by the size of the crowd, I wound up enjoying the artistry of the costumes and makeup, and the obvious sincerity of the ofrendas (the little altars to a family’s dead).

A Gathering of Skeletons

I will probably have to go by myself, but I wouldn’t mind traveling to other Day of the Dead observances next year. As much as I like Halloween, I also admire the Mexicans’ celebratory confrontation of their own future demise.

Family Life in America

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, first of all, it’s a big family dinner with all the trimmings in which all the participants are openly delighted with one another. And they’re actually listening to one another. Where’s the strange uncle wearing the red MAGA hat? Where are the scowling teenagers? On the plus side, there isn’t any food on the plates yet, though there’s a big turkey at the far end of the table waiting to be carved. So perhaps there’s still time for the expression of discontent.

Martine and I both agreed that we liked Halloween better than Thanksgiving or Christmas. There was no need for any pretense of a closely-knit family. One just pretends to be someone else and pigs out on candy. Americans don’t do family well. We talk about it a lot, but most families at best have the appearance of an armed truce.

Read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy or Tara Westover’s Educated to get an accurate picture of family life in America. Oh, I’m not saying that the disaffection is universal, just that it’s dismayingly prevalent.

It wasn’t that way for my own family: but, being Hungarians, we did not care that much for American holiday traditions. Except my brother and I really got into the Halloween sugar rush. We never had turkey for dinner in Cleveland, as both my father and I did not like it very much, and I still don’t. We usually had Christmas dinner with my aunt and uncle in Novelty, Ohio, but it was usually as much Hungarian as it was American. Come to think of it, back then we enjoyed the holidays without feeling in any way obliged to grin and bear it.

We now usually go out for Thanksgiving with friends. But over the last several years, Martine and I celebrate Christmas with home-cooked beef stew served with a Hungarian red wine, preferably Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood of Eger).

Pumpkins and Skeletons

This last Saturday, Martine and I visited the Grier Musser Museum, which had just re-opened to the public after the Covid-19 lockdown. I have always particularly loved their Halloween antiques, art, and other displays, such as the above throw pillow. Martine wore her witch costume (see yesterday’s post: Decidedly a Good Witch). We both resolved to re-visit them just before Christmas, when their displays will be less horrific.

Tonight, I watched four horror films in a row, three of which were the original Universal Frankenstein releases:

  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • The Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  • The Plague of Zombies (1966)—a Hammer horror film

I waited by the door just in case some trick-or-treaters would come. As usual none came. I don’t think any have climbed the stairs for upwards of thirty years. I thought this year would be different because my downstairs neighbors are Ukrainian refugees with two young daughters.

Now that Halloween is almost past, I realize we are in the HallowThanksMas Continuum, where three Holidays seem to come one after the other like falling dominoes.

This October, I read four horror-related books in celebration of Halloween:

  • Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine (1817-1834)
  • Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), the first half of which is set in a spooky abandoned monastery
  • Edith Wharton’s Ghosts (1937), selected by the author
  • Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008), a re-telling of the original Mary Shelley story

Decidedly a Good Witch

Above is Martine dressed as a witch—but as a good witch, to be sure! On a whim, she bought a great witch’s hat and dress at a Santa Monica costume shop and has been wearing it everywhere the last few days. The comments she has been receiving during that time have been overwhelmingly positive.

Beware of making any negative comments lest she wave her magic wand at you and turn you into a batrachian (tailless amphibian of the order Anura; a frog or toad).

Allhallowtide

If you were to look closely at the word Halloween, you may notice that it means the Eve of All Hallows Day, November 1, which is also called All Saints’ Day. In fact, the period from October 31 through November 2 is sometimes referred to as Allhallowtide. In a way, the period is a kind of liturgical trifecta, in that November 2 is All Souls’ Day, also known as the Day of the Dead.

The idea of All Saints’ Day was primarily to commemorate the nameless martyrs who died for their faith at the hands of certain Roman emperors who persecuted them. Perhaps the largest single group is the Theban Legion, commanded by Saint Maurice, who was ordered by the Emperor Maximian to defeat rebels in what is now Switzerland and, in the process, to make sacrifices to pagan gods. Maurice and his men refused. As punishment, Maximian ordered the legion to be decimated, that is, to have every tenth man executed. After two rounds of decimation, it was decided to execute the entire legion, which consisted of some 6,700 legionaries. Their martyrdom took place in AD 286.

Above is a painting by Fra Angelico of various saints and martyrs, not including the entire Theban Legion. In fact, none of the saints depicted look particularly like Roman legionaries.

All Saints’ Day (November 1) is still considered a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, during which all Catholics are required to attend Mass or commit a mortal sin for failure to comply.

Although I continue to hold warm feelings about my Catholic upbringing, I am pretty much a lapsed Catholic and am probably doomed to the fires of Heck.

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).

Happy Halloween!

In this truly ghastly year of 2020, I sincerely wish all of you a happy—and safe—Halloween. It happens to be one of the more meaningful holidays on my own calendar. Unlike Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, or even Christmas. I mean all of us are on a journey, and the holiday commemorates the destination of that journey, for all of us, even for “billionaires” like Trump.

It’s followed on November 1 by All Saints Day and on November 2 All Souls Day, known in Mexico as the Dia de los Muertos.

Mexican Folk Art with Skeleton

Although no kids have come Trick or Treating at my place for over thirty years, I’ve always liked Halloween. (Kids don’t like to climb stairs, even though I’m only on the second floor.)

House of Horrors

Mummified Corpses in Guanajuato’s Museo de las Momias

In this month of Halloween, I thought I would make mention of the most horrific museum I have ever visited, the Museo de las Momias (that is, Mummies) de Guanajuato.

Imagine to yourself a museum consisting of corpses dug up in a Mexican mining town that have been naturally mummified because of the mineral content of the soil. Many were interred during a cholera epidemic which filled the local cemetery to such an extent that the town had to charge a fee for the right to remain buried. According to Wikipedia:

The human bodies appear to have been disinterred between 1870 and 1958. During that time, a local tax was in place requiring a fee to be paid for “perpetual” burial. Some bodies for which the tax was not paid were disinterred, and some—apparently those in the best condition—were stored in a nearby building. The climate of Guanajuato provides an environment which can lead to a type of natural mummification, although scientific studies later revealed that some bodies had been at least partially embalmed. By the 1900s the mummies began attracting tourists. Cemetery workers began charging people a few pesos to enter the building where bones and mummies were stored.

When I visited Guanajuato in the late 1980s, my introduction to the museum was itself grim: A young father was carrying a child’s coffin on his shoulders to be buried, with no one else in the family following him.

Shades of Edgar Allan Poe: The Wikipedia entry continues with this grim fact:

One of the mummies who was buried alive was Ignacia Aguilar. She suffered from a strange sickness that made her heart appear to stop on several occasions. During one of these incidents, her heart appeared to stop for more than a day. Thinking she had died, her relatives decided to bury her. When her body was disinterred, it was noticed that she was facing down, biting her arm, and that there was a lot of blood in her mouth.

The only way I kept the contents of my stomach under control while I was in the museum was the extent to which I busied myself taking pictures. None of these are in this post, as they have yet to be converted to JPEG files from the Kodachrome slides I was then shooting.

Even a writer like Ray Bradbury had trouble seeing the displays of mummies in the museum:

The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.

A Poem for Halloween

Jack O’ Lanterns

Here is a poem redolent of the season by the U.S.’s new Nobel Prize Winner in Literature for 2020: Louise Glück.

All Hallows

Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:

This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.


Poet Louise Glück

Looking Back at Christmas

The Grier Musser Museum in Los Angeles

The Pico-Union District of Los Angeles is a tough neighborhood with heavy concentrations of Central American immigrants. Yet there on Bonnie Brae Street lies the Grier Musser Museum with its huge collection of antiques and seasonally related memorabilia. During the key holidays of Halloween and Christmas, there are fascinating exhibits of decorations, music boxes, pop-up books, greeting cards, postcards, and other popular culture highlighting the present and past.

Although Martine and I have visited only during those periods, there are also special exhibits for Valentines Day, Chinese New Years, and Independence Day.

Susan Tejada with Christmas Elf

On Saturday, we spent several hours viewing the Christmas exhibits and chatting with Susan and Rey Tejada, the owners (and inhabitants) of the museum. Christmas is now safely in the past, but it was nice to see the constantly growing exhibits that Susan has collected. They represent what we all want the holidays to be like, far from the mayhem in the parking lots and department stores in mega-malls which it has become. Visiting the Grier Musser Museum gives you a picture of what we all want Christmas to be like. It’s actually a nice feeling.