It’s Halloween! The time of curling up on your couch with a cup of tea, scrolling through all the pictures of your friends dressed up in costumes as they go out partying… well, maybe that’s just me.
Now, to be clear, from here on out I’m talking about the mostly secular version of the holiday. The one that has emerged over time, as traditions that originated from various religious and cultural rituals and beliefs merged together into a celebration that involves pumpkins, costumes, trick-or-treating, an emphasis on death and the supernatural, and an overall sense of ‘spookiness’.
Over the past month, we’ve all been confronted by ‘scary’ images as haunted houses and other halloween themed activities are advertised and decorations of severed limbs and cobwebs appear.
In marketing geared towards children, grotesque characters often make an appearance in the form of hunched over individuals, intense scarring, blood, missing limbs, wrinkles, crooked teeth, and bedraggled hair. In marketing geared towards adults we see similar characters stripped of their comedy and often in the process of performing deviant acts, shown alongside blank, staring faces, insensible screaming, and straight jackets.
These are the images that we, as a culture deem to be scary. More than that, we classify them within the genre of horror.
And that’s fine, as long as you don’t think too much about it.
But I can’t help noticing that these depictions of what our fears are supposed to be all seem to centre around themes of disability, aging, mental and physical illness, and death.
In many ways, I can understand that. It is a basic human instinct to be wary of the unfamiliar and the different. It is also at the very core of our collective being to shrink from death in our endeavour to survive.
But we aren’t cavemen anymore. We are living in an age of medicine where sickness often doesn’t mean contagion or death. One can be chronically ill and live with their condition forever. We are living in an age of constantly evolving mobility technology, where a differently structured body should not have to result in isolation. We are living in an age where people are living longer, and their wrinkled faces are something that we can and should aspire to. We are living in an age where we are increasing our knowledge and understanding of mental health conditions, one where we actively work to reduce the stigma.
Even death – have we not figured out by now that we’re all going to die? Can we not focus instead on making the experience less isolating and traumatic for ourselves and each other?
As I type this, I feel reasonably confident that most of us would not directly equate the ideas of disability, age, and/or illness, with fodder for a horror movie. I have faced many reactions as I’ve gone out and about in the world with a variety of mobility aids and the most extreme looks I received were those of discomfort and pity with a side of judgment. My simple appearance on a street corner has never been greeted with a gasp of fear.
But still, I have never seen anyone question the idea that a heavily scarred woman without legs belongs in a haunted house.
So, while I believe that we, as a society, have evolved to the point where we no longer consciously associate these things with outright horror, I do think that we still experience that underlying fear. I think that’s where those reactions of discomfort and pity stem from.
There is so much to be celebrated about Halloween. When done responsibly, getting dressed up in a costume can lead to greater understanding, empathy, and the chance to discover new things about oneself. As children go door to door and meet their neighbours, a sense of community can be established. The fact that we buy candy with the plan to give it away to strangers is fairly beautiful within itself.
And most of all, it’s fun. It’s fun to get that adrenaline rush when we’re scared inside a safe space. It’s fun to paint our faces and wear something that we normally wouldn’t. It’s fun to do all of that with our friends and family.
But as we celebrate today and watch the trappings of the holiday fade away within the next week or so, maybe we can take a serious look at what messages we are putting out into the world and absorbing.
And maybe we’ll be able to find the beauty in our scars, in our wrinkles, and in our unique bodies, instead of the horror.