It cannot be said that a man endures death easily or uneasily when he does not think about it at all. He who feels nothing, endures nothing.

—Voltaire

When did I stop liking Halloween?

Was it when parents horned in and started dressing up along with their kids? When the previous director of my town library celebrated Hallowmas by showing up in drag? [Honest. He did.] When all the local merchants turned shop windows over to middle schoolers to paint—in washable gouache—ghosts, witches and tombstones that go BOO? Could it just be the sight of orange icing—ick!—on every cookie and cupcake in town? Or the loony spread of monster spider webs across the bayberry bushes on too many lawns? Those cheesy cardboard skeletons on view every which way from Sunday?

Bad graphics do me in every time.

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Jacob Lawrence. “All Hallows Eve” (1960). Private collection.

Maybe my antipathy grew when the frisson drained out of it. That was when flour socks started disappearing in a fog of grown-up disapproval. You filled up a man’s knee sock with flour and swung it at anyone you could. When their backs were turned. Then you ran like the dickens. The whole point of Halloween was to sock as many people as possible without getting socked back. There was some real danger in that. No fake creepiness.
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Anonymous. “Portrait of Young Man with Vanitas” (c. 1930). France.

Perhaps it was a tribal custom peculiar to my particular corner of the Bronx. But, back then, Thanksgiving was the day for dressing up. We did it ragamuffin style: Aunt Matty’s moth-eaten fox stole—the mouth opened and closed as a clasp—Grandpa’s old duty gear left over from his days on harbor patrol, that dingy crocheted beret my mother hated. Every shabby hand-me-down stuffed in the back of a closet was a treasure. They were taken out, appraised for decrepit effect, and the seediest chosen for begging: “Anything for Thanksgiving?”

Usually, the take was in dimes and quarters. To have candy fobbed off on us was close to insulting. Candy corn was the worst. Stinky stuff. Thank you, but we’d really rather buy our own candy. 

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Currier & Ives. “Snap Apple Night (All Hallows Eve).” Museum of the City of New York.

The ancient All Hallows Eve has lost its soul. It has become our silly, candy-grasping Halloween. The day has been bled dry of all reflection on mortality. The grin of the death’s head is no more than a cartoon. It neither poses a threat nor reminds us of our destiny. The wonderment and regard due the mystery of death—the buckling terror of it—is wholly absent from trick-or-treaters who graze from door to door, entitled to their treats. And who have no tricks to play. It is not that death is routed—an ancient chase inherent in the traditional pranks played on All Hallows Eve. It is that death, in waiting, is no longer even acknowledged in the frolic.

Articles by Maureen Mullarkey

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