Obsession, Avoidance, and Halloween

My favorite week! I love Halloween. I collect plastic skulls and other Halloween-ish or “creepy” decor, so this is a great time for me to pick up cute pieces that I’ll keep up year round. You know how some people like to celebrate Christmas all year? It is always Halloween in my mind.

I think that might be more common for my age/social group, so most people don’t really notice. It’s a nerd thing, we all have our quirks and collections. But some think it’s weird and morbid. I’ve been asked a few times why I’m “obsessed with death.” I’m not, but I do think there might be a connection between my love of Halloween and my interest in ministry with often forgotten or ignored groups like those in hospitals or hospices, or anyone who can’t do typical church settings.

See, there’s this tendency to push away whatever makes us uncomfortable. Things that challenge our assumptions, that make us afraid, that are too big for us to handle. And I think we actually become obsessed with avoiding it.

I was much more obsessed with death when I was a kid trying not to think about it than I am now. I think we’re all a little obsessed with death. We all know it’s coming, we don’t really understand what it means, and it puts this great big timer on everything we want to do. It’s terrifying, and so much easier to just pretend it isn’t there. Call it “morbid” when someone admits they want to know more and want to discuss this big scary thing. Cover over it with flowers and platitudes when it actually happens. Anything to just get past it, move on, forget it until next time.

Except at Halloween. At Halloween, we watch scary movies and tell scary stories, we surround ourselves with things like skeletons and ghosts as constant reminders of death (and the hope of life after death). We acknowledge that we’re afraid and then we let ourselves laugh and have fun. All year long we bring kids in after dark and tell them not to talk to strangers, then this one night we dress them up in fun costumes and walk them around to strange houses at night collecting candy. It’s so bizarre when you think about it, but I think it all comes down to this need to confront the big scary unknown and laugh with it, at least once in awhile. We all need Halloween. (Or what it represents, there are other ways to do this.)

And I’ve been hurt by being part of groups no one wants to see or talk about. I’ve seen the damage in myself that came from being afraid of other people or things. I believed that autism was a big scary epidemic and didn’t want to have kids because I’d be ruining their lives. I developed complex rituals to undo things I said or to ward off the impending doom of the apocalypse or just ordinary death. (Anxiety and taboos don’t go well together, folks, at least in my case.)

I believed that Alzheimer’s made somebody scary and dangerous because I wasn’t allowed to see my great-grandmother when she was at her worst, so I didn’t actually talk to anyone suffering from dementia until I was in my 20s. Guess what? Not so scary. Sad. But sadder still to leave these people alone because we don’t want to think about it happening to us or to people we love. We do more damage to ourselves and others by trying to avoid them than by being with them and seeing them for what they are.

I don’t want to avoid things anymore. I want to be with them and acknowledge their place in our lives and communities. So Halloween means a lot to me, and I love it for its ability to blend the scary and the fun. It’s a time when I experience the world as being most whole, when I think we’re all really, fully human, embracing all these disparate parts of ourselves.

At its core, Halloween is about hope. With things like ghosts and dancing skeletons, there’s this underlying assumption that the dead aren’t really gone. That we can hope for something more after we die, or at the very least that some part of us lives on in the world even if only in memory. That we can acknowledge the scary things in the world without letting that stop our fun. We can go out into the dark in silly costumes and ask for candy and trust the world around us just a little. It’s important, and definitely worthy of attention and respect.

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