By Kat Freydl
Here is what I know about Halloween: it began as an act of fear, please, spirits, leave us alone, please let the ghosts stay away from me tonight, the veil is thin and I feel the ache of it in my bones, please, take this offering and leave. Medieval Christians went from door to door begging for soul cakes in exchange for a prayer to the dead, and Celts left food offerings on their doorsteps to placate wandering spirits. In a desperate attempt to make sure the sun would return after winter, people lit bonfires, Druid priests tossing in bones of cattle to ensure that there would be both a successful harvest and a plentiful spring. There were no fake-fanged Draculas or bedsheet ghosts here. Instead, there was raw, guttural, fear, and the prickling feeling that maybe anything is a ghost if you are desperate enough.
I digress: Halloween--the commercialized, corporate-sponsored version of it--is something of a tradition in my family, and when you come from a family like mine, you take anything even faintly resembling a tradition and you hold onto it with both fists. You hold on so tightly you leave claw marks. You carve all the pumpkins and dip all the apples and wear all of the costumes and traumatize all of the siblings in haunted corn mazes and hayrides and listen to “Monster Mash” 600 consecutive times. You spend twelve hours helping your father hang fake cobwebs and skeletons and spiders on your porch and two more setting up the fog machine and strobe lights. You do these things, and you learn to love them.
There is, of course, the costume to consider, then. Yeah. When you come from a family like mine, the costume is important.
I have never come face to face with a ghost in the traditional sense. I’ve only ever carved jack-o’-lanterns for fun, and I beg not for souls on Halloween but for candy, let’s go to North Green I hear they have full size candy bars, trade me your Junior Mints for this Snickers, come on, don’t be selfish, but I can say free of guilt that I have felt the bone-grinding fear, the sensation of being watched, the eerie manifestation of everything I’ve ever been scared is crawling in the dark. I felt it when I was seven and dressed up as Scooby Doo, eight dressed up as a ladybug, nine dressed up as a horribly appropriative Geisha that I would spend the rest of my life regretting, ten dressed up as ‘evil’ while my friend dressed as ‘good,’ eleven dressed as ‘black and white and red all over’--the list goes on, but the message remains. I’ve felt the fear in the leering of men who should be too old to look at me that way, boys leaping out of the shrubbery in Michael Myers masks and holding half-drunk Bud Lights, cackling as they hooked their fingers in the elastic of my tutu, in the murmuring and the side-eyeing, is she really wearing that? I was objectified before I knew what objectification was. (I was objectified before I realized that people could actually be viewed as objects.)
This is what I’m getting at, here: the costume is important, and for how many years did I put off being Cat Woman and all the pun potential it held for me because I was terrified of what people would say about my legs, my arms, my face? How long did I spend in the bathroom debating whether or not one sweater was enough to layer under my short-sleeved costume, or if maybe I should add a second one for protection from more than the cold? How many invitations to Halloween parties did I turn down, and how many years did I spend passing out candy on the porch rather than lingering in the streets with my friends because I was afraid?
Go find a Halloween catalogue. Go find any Halloween catalogue. You will find the costumes inexplicably gendered, and you will begin to see a pattern. If a woman wants to be Spiderman for Halloween, she will not be Spiderman. She will be Sexy Spidergirl With Only Faintly Recognizable Attributes of Spiderman. At least once that night, she will be hazed by a man. Maybe he’ll be dressed as Spiderman, too, except his legs will be fully covered and his costume will actually leave him with a full range of motion. At no point during the night will he be quietly called a slut, and at no point at that Halloween party will he be expected to put out because he’s wearing a costume.
For women, Halloween is frightening not because of the cheesy, the time-tested, the corn syrup blood and the prosthetic wounds. It is frightening--it is positively terrifying--because despite warnings to wear a jacket, to dress modestly so we don’t accidentally look like we’re “asking for it,” we are encouraged to dress sexily, to entertain. And if we dare embrace that--if we dare take advantage of the one night we can wear miniskirts and thigh highs, lipstick and fake eyelashes--we are sluts. We are asking for it. Like everything else about being a woman, it is contradictory and damaging. Most of all, it is impossible to adhere to.
So this is what I’ve learned about Halloween: we take the fear, a fear that’s been bred into us by years of burned witches and ghost stories and bumps in the night, and we celebrate it. As women, we put on miniskirts and thigh highs and we call it what it is: a risk. That is the world in which we live. We do not go around begging for souls on people’s doorsteps. We go around with mace in our pockets and we keep our heads down. Halloween is no longer penance, something done to keep us safe from ghouls. It is an acknowledgement of fear and the celebration of it. The ghouls exist, but we are not afraid to go out on the streets anymore.
This Halloween, I will be going to a haunted house. I will have mace in my pocket, and I will be with at least one other person at all times. The ghosts I’m trying to avoid won’t be scared off by jack-o’-lanterns. That’s not what they’re haunting me for. Elvis croons that I’m the devil in disguise, and he is not wrong. Call me the devil. Call me Lucifer, an angel who fell a rather long way down. Call me fearless. Call me jailbait. Call me something that could spit fire if I wanted.
Call me tired.