The rich history of Halloween.
The Halloween we grew up with comes out of seasonal factors and traditions that stretch back for centuries. The time of year when it begins to grow dark again, the harvest is all in and there will be no more for several long months, wild game becomes scarce and winter is coming—these were all powerful factors for life and survival until relatively recently. In the last century, as we culturally tried to distance ourselves from superstition and the supernatural, and produced more universally accessible illumination and larger volumes of food (and better storage for it), the rich legacy of harvest/Equinox/Samhaim festivals and rituals became a single-day holiday for children.
As we knew it, kids dressed up in cutely scary costumes, went to parties with cupcakes and cookies, and trick-or-treated around the neighborhood on the thirty-first. Older kids put on or went through Haunted Houses, and some teens pranked the neighborhood with mean-spirited acts of eggings and the damage of private property. Adults mostly just put up a few decorations, bought pre-wrapped candy at the grocery store, and gave it out at the door. But in the last ten or fifteen years, Halloween has come closer to rivaling Christmas as a major holiday for everyone. Grown-ups are celebrating it for themselves, not merely for the sake of children.
The rise of Halloween.
Like Christmas, which encompasses almost the whole month of December with shopping, decorations, Christian traditions and parties, Halloween has become the month of October finally culminating in the day itself. While trick-or-treating by children has decreased since the seventies due to the fears of their parents of poisoned candy and abductions, adults purchase and wear almost as many costumes as children now, and homes are heavily decorated, inside and out, for weeks ahead of the Big Night. Scary movies and Halloween specials run all month, and large specialty stores open up for a few weeks all around the country (like the Halloween Super-Store). Blockbuster movie releases are set up far in advance, most TV shows feature Halloween episodes, and hosting costume-dress Halloween parties for all ages has become a tradition in a lot of households.
Why this new Halloween?
It can be no coincidence that in a time called the rise of the geek (those who gravitate towards using their intelligence and imagination), when supernatural fiction flourishes in all markets, and comic-cons and cos-play have become household terms, Halloween should soar in popularity. And I say it is because people maturing in my generation and on downward have held on to the delights of FCI (fantasy, creativity and imagination)—instead of forgoing them because society says it's 'just for kids' and you can't be an adult without giving that stuff up. We may have stopped trick-or-treating, but we did not feel the need to sit back and let kids have all the fun and excitement of the dark side of wonder.
Here are the Confessions of a My-Gen Halloween Fan:
At the beginning of Oct I make a quick list of all the movies I want to watch for (the month of) Halloween. It will include some yearly favorites, and some flicks I've never seen—either ones that came out earlier in the year I didn't go see, or older 'B' movies I haven't seen yet. Some favorites include the two Barry Levinson Addam's Family movies, Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, the fantastic Bugs Bunny cartoon 'Water, Water, Every Hare,' new episodes of The Walking Dead and now Sleepy Hollow, and maybe a random Simpson's Treehouse of Terror. Although I'll watch horror in Oct, what I'm really looking for is supernatural horror—not real-life brutality and death—where imagination intersects with fear. I also try to read some classic gothic/horror/scary literature like Lovecraft, Peake, or Poe.
My house becomes a place of skeletons, skulls, eyeballs, bats and masks. At night it turns into its own dark world with orange and purple twinkle lights, blacklights, a carved pumpkin and candles as the only illumination. I replace the wall clock with one that goes off with spooky noises at the hour. I have a yearly tradition of going to see a local improv troupe at the Brody Theater where they make up and play out sci-fi/horror B movies based on audience input. Halloween night itself I dress up in full costume including a mask, add some decoration to the outside of the house to advertise it's open for business, fill the house with ambient light and seasonal sounds and answer the door and give out candy to the adorable kids in their costumes. Once they stop coming I get serious and eat take-out pizza while watching scary movies or episodes, preferably sitting on the edge of my seat.
I'm usually too busy the first half of November to take everything down, so it stays up, and as we transition over to Christmas after Thanksgiving, I often have a bit of fun mixing some of the Halloween decorations with Christmas ones until Dec. A scary mask gets a santa hat. An over-sized Christmas stocking hung on the wall is 'stuffed' with a glo-in-the-dark skeleton. Eyeballs sit on sprigs of holly. And it's the perfect time to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas! So really it ends up being more like a two-month holiday for me.
Anybody else want to confess how much they love Halloween?
You could say we either love it or we hate it. And that's often true.
But it's much too complicated a relationship for such a simple dichotomy. Almost all of us loved fantasy as children. It's after childhood that we often come to fall into one of the love-hate camps.
You might have given it up as an adult, or you may have turned against it even as an older young person. Or you might never give up your love of fantasy. You might read SF or game or make your living as a film maker or screenwriter. But eventually it swings around, and even the biggest fantasy haters come to appreciate it again—for their children or grandchildren.
The odd thing isn't that some people give it up in adulthood, it's how much they come to hate it. They become fantasy haters.
But I say those people still subject themselves to as much fantasy as someone who reads fantasy novels. They are addicted to romantic comedies (pure fantasy), or to pornography (total fantasy), or any number of other socially accepted pass-times that are clearly desperate wish-fullfillment fantasy playing out underneath a false veneer of reality. And personally, I think that kind of fantasy is actually harmful, or at least dubiously helpful, as it tries so hard to pretend to be reality that people get confused and disillusioned and become deeply dissatisfied because their life doesn't look like the lives in those fictitious fantasies. No one carries shame because they aren't as bad-assed as Conan the Barbarian, but how many people are emotionally crippled because they don't look like models?
For several years I tried to capture an idea for a short story based on this dynamic of love/hate, in notes and outlines. Every time I'd work on it, I would come up with ideas for how to turn it into a story, but they never felt right. That's because the concept behind it is so personal to me. I want to champion healthy, uplifting, refreshing, empowering and entertaining use of the imagination for people of all ages.
So it sat and languished, a spark of potential always flaring but never catching fire [tiny violins play a wailing pity concerto for me. Grin].
A couple years ago there was a writing contest I really wanted to submit to, so I sat down and—finally—was able to write the story. Partly I think because the contest was max. 2,500 words. I'd never written anything that short before, fiction that is. And in some ways it was easier to try and get it out in so few words than when I was imagining a much longer short story, or a screenplay. There is always power is trimming something down to its bare essentials to really get at the heart, or the meat, as they say, of the matter. I thought: 2,500 words is five 500 word sections. With only five short sections to convey the whole story in, I realized I could move the narrative forward in time, rather than explore the characters in more depth at one point in time, and the whole thing worked much better. I started with the characters as children, advanced to high school, then on to when they are post-college age young adults, and at the twenty year high school reunion time, and ended twenty years after that. That way the story came full-circle as those children, who had all loved fantasy in their play, were now past all the hate and just wanted to see their grandkids having fun.
I've submitted it three or four times to contests and publications with no success. I know it's too soon to say no one wants to buy or publish it, but I guess because it's so personal, I wonder if anyone else gets it. Maybe it's too...me.
If anyone is interested in the subject matter of the story, and would like to read it, let me know. I'd be happy to share it with you. I just don't want to post it anywhere and lose the possibility of having it published one day. I'd be really interested to know how it comes through to people who are not me, but who care about the topic.
Teach an adult to play, and they'll have fun for the rest of their lives?
We teach children to play, then we tell them to stop it because they're grown up now. And they do.
We stop playing. We forget how to have fun. Our fun becomes passively being entertained by something or someone else, which for the most part we experience alone. Even if we're in the same room as other people, sitting next to them, it's still usually a predominantly private pass-time. Credits roll, people get up and move on to the next thing. If we're lucky, we find some friends or family we can laugh with while we sit around and talk, because as an adult, sitting around and talking is about as much fun we are supposed to have together. Unfortunately, when we're doing nothing but talking as an activity, a fair amount of self-conscious behavior tends to run. People often only talk about what's safe and easy. Usually certain personalities tend to dominate. And all too often, a fair amount of talking occurs, but relatively little listening. People end up competing for the next turn to talk to tell their stories. There's nothing wrong with sitting around talking, but sometimes it's what we do because it's the accepted fallback, not because it's actually a good time.
But something changes when you add a fun activity to the mix. While playing a game and talking, people interact differently.
For many years I went to visit my grandparents regularly. I would fly there and stay with them for a few days, but that's all it was. I stayed at their house, along with my parents, while my grandparents did their everyday routines—meaning whatever it was they would normally do if we weren't there, except for going out to eat once or twice. The TV was always on. Conversation was mostly at the supper table, and evenings were either spent with my father in silence in front of the TV with my grandmother watching whatever she wanted to watch while she knitted or crocheted, or quietly in the kitchen where my step-mom and I sat at the kitchen table with my grandfather—all playing Solitaire.
The one big thing we would all do together while we were there was to go to the riverboat casinos. We'd all load up in the car and drive there together, and enter the casino together. But once inside, everyone would go off by themselves. Everybody played, but they played alone.
I was always happy to see my grandparents, but other than that it was, frankly, dull and boring, and there wasn't much interaction or connection between us. So we didn't really have much of a relationship.
Dissatisfied for so long, I didn't know what to do. But over time I became more determined to try to do something about it. So I thought long and hard, and the best thing I could think of was to try to do something with them that would be different, and fun.
The next time I went to visit my grandparents, I suggested to my grandfather and step-mom that instead of Solitaire we play something else. They were a little hesitant, but willing. I suggested Crazy Eights and we started playing. Within a half hour we were smiling. Laughing. And talking. We enjoyed each other's company that night and for the remainder of the trip. There was more warmth, more animation, more connection.
A year or two after that my grandfather passed away. But in the meantime we had better conversations on the phone, better visits, and found more commonality. Just one evening of doing something really fun together improved our whole relationship.
I remember that night, playing that card game, and I will remember it, long after I've forgotten all the other ones in front of the television. And I'm so thankful I suggested it before it was too late.
That's what adults playing can do.
Children are literally force-fed wonder. And all too often, the dose is administered with a spoon full of sugar.
It's everywhere in their lives. In stories, in school, for the holidays. In their games and toys. In their books, movies, and computer games. On their sheets and cereal boxes. From the very early, talking, anthropomorphic animals, to princesses and dragons and all the fairy tales, and on to the whole complex world of Santa Claus as well as the darker side of wonder—ghost stories and the supernatural. All great stuff.
Yet too often it's a grown-up trying to use the lure of wonder to sculpt a child into a certain picture of goodness. And instead of really grappling with life's issues, they sugarcoat it with false dichotomies and over-simplistic logic. Other times, it's well-intentioned adults trying to bring kids happiness and positive stimulation. And that's great, too, but unfortunately it's also a trap.
Because first we're heavily encouraged to believe in imagination and all kinds of things that don't exist. The fun never stops. It's all beautiful, and happy, and exciting, and well, wonderful. Bliss, bliss. Until...
[screeching of tires]
We're suddenly stupid and childish for believing in them. Then suddenly having anything to do with imagination becomes the worst thing you can do. Lie, steal, cheat, hit, curse. Those are supposed to be no-nos, but nothing compared to the flack you will get for exercising your imagination of the fantastic as a teen or an adult. A bad-boy or a bad girl is cool and looked up to; a geek or a nerd is a total loser. They are ostracized, harassed, beaten, humiliated. You can bully people. And that's okay. Get girls drunk to sleep with them. That's okay, too. But play D&D and oh. my. gods, you're the lowest of the low.
FCI—fantasy, creativity and imagination—are actually not crimes. They are an inherent part of every single human being on the planet.
They bring us joy and refreshment. They stretch our thinking and our picture of the world, keeping it limber and flexible. Keeping us more open-minded and tolerant. They help keep empathy and compassion flowing. They generate new ideas and fresh perspectives. And they are a tremendous amount of fun.
Does it really make sense to steer clear of experiencing wonder just because you're no longer a child?
Take them back.
Now that you're older and have more experience, you can strip out all the sugary badness (meaning the over-simplistic moralizing and the false promises) and see through the lies. And you can make wonder your own.
Take back the wonder, and return the shame.
What's at least as much fun as a bag of Wienerdogs?
The TV show Doctor Who.
It's fun, playful and full of wonder, and it's also full of substance and integrity. The hero who won't use weapons or violence, but is always using knowledge, intelligence, empathy and compassion to help save the day/earth/starship/planet/universe/alternate universe/species. Who even after several lifetime's worth of disappointments and hurts is still seeking out new experiences, connecting with new people and enjoying what life has to offer with wisdom-tinted optimism.
I recently came across a great quote from the show:
When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all… grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.
Doctor Who (Love and Monsters)
I couldn't believe it when I saw the very first episode of the new run, starting with Doctor #8. Too often there's this divide: serious fiction with substance, and fun fiction without. And too often the serious stuff carries the adult oppression message: life is a hopeless series of tragedies and then you die wounded from it; the lighter stuff holds out a mindlessly optimistic cheery message that good always triumphs just because it's good. One beats you down with inescapable misery and the dark side of human nature, the other makes false claims that can only lead to tremendous disappointment and cynicism when life doesn't live up to them.
Why is tragedy always considered high art, and comedy always labelled low entertainment? Because a tragedy is supposed to teach us something about life—a reality about it. And comedy is supposed to provide escape from it. But maybe humor, fun, play and laughter aren't escapes and diversions, but important truths themselves. Just truths we have decided to discredit as juvenile and leave behind as adults. Tears aren't real and laughter frivolous—tears and laughter both need to come in equal measure for a healthy, balanced life. We not only need to know how bad it can get, we need to feel how good it is in equal measure for things like perspective and wisdom.
Back to Doctor Who and Rose. Here was a show combining both. And as it went on it wasn't getting cancelled! It just keeps attracting more and more viewers who love it. Personally, that gives me hope.
Life is hard, and full of people hurting others, and life is good with people doing so many good things. Bad things will always keep happening, and good things will always keep happening. Each episode trucks with both, but ultimately the story lines do try to delve thoughtfully and rationally into keeping the bad and the dark and the hurt from turning you into a bitter, disillusioned, damaged person causing even more hurt. And part of that is to keep a firm grip on taking pleasure in what life has to offer. Which the Doctor does. And which we fans get to do by watching and enjoying the episodes.
Thank you to all the writers and people who have made the show the tremendous treat it is. You help keep Adults Playing.
Someone who recently read my blog told me it was about telling people the most important thing in life is to have fun, no matter what. I was a bit stunned. I've taken great pains to make sure my words couldn't be misinterpreted that way.
I'm a writer by choice and career, so I've studied how to pick and chose your words to express what you mean—and at the same time, ideally not convey anything you don't mean—for fifteen years now. So hearing the content of my blog reflected back to me as exactly what I've been trying to avoid has to make me think.
Have I failed to communicate what I really mean here?
Looking back over my posts, I certainly don't see it. I strongly advocate responsibility and taking life seriously.
Or is it possible that the oppression of adults in this area is so strong, certain people will read their reactionary responses into what I write, no matter what I write?
So that merely to say: fun and play are good things to maintain in your life as an adult, will only be heard by some people as an adolescent cry to 'party hearty'? That seems more likely to me. I wouldn't have started this blog if it was on a topic everybody already agreed on, and if I didn't think I could do some good with it. My work in peer counseling and on ending oppressions since 1994 is what lead me down this path. As a creative person, and someone burdened by over-responsibilty as a child, I've fought to reclaim the good things that come from wonder, play and fun. I've seen how hard the push is to make grown-ups repudiate them in the name of feeling superior to children. And the damage done to us all by the idea that children are lesser to adults and that only kids have something to learn from adults. Just like the idea that it's only woman who have something to learn from men, when the reverse is true for both.
Nowhere do I ever say that life is all about having fun and that that's the most important thing. I would consider that something akin to hedonism, which goes against the grain of hopefullness and the deep seated belief in human goodness that I do believe in. Hedonist don't think life is about fun, they believe life is so bad (it sucks and then you die), that in response they act on the idea that pleasure is the only thing worth pursuing. That's all about a form of hopelessness, and a deep seated despair of human nature. This blog is about holding out some truths that sometimes get obscured by oppression. That FCI, wonder, and play are not things you have to give up in childhood in order to become a 'real' adult, and that being an adult doesn't have to mean letting yourself be ground down by responsibility and productivity to the point of 'clouded brow' bitterness and resentment.
Here's someone who puts it really well:
Whether you agree or not, thanks for reading my posts. And your comments are welcome.
Well, don't. It's not good for you.
'Don't deny who you really are' is one of the catch phrases for my second book, Defense Mechanisms. And it's an ongoing theme in the stories I like to tell. Most of us grown-ups actively and repeatedly deny our fun and playful sides. We could be laughing and enjoying and recharging, but we stop ourselves from having fun. Over and Over.
Why do we do that?
Humiliation is the key despoiler of satisfaction and joy. How many times were you doing something you liked, and someone else came along and made fun of you for it? Put you down and belittled you in front of others. Left you feeling so ashamed or embarrassed you stopped doing it. How many things do you think you've given up because someone might come along and look down on you for it?
[photo from Twig the Fairy]
What if there was nothing wrong with what you were doing, it just made someone else uncomfortable. What if the person who tried to humiliate you only did it because someone humiliated them about it first? And so in an endless cycle of harassing each other to not do things that are perfectly fine things to do. Like laugh, play, and be openly delighted by the things we enjoy.
How about we don't give them up?
Sure, it might make someone else feel uncomfortable. Let them feel it. Those are their feelings, their issues. If someone tries to put you down, can they actually, really humiliate you? Not if you're not ashamed and don't feel bad about yourself. Humiliation can't be imposed on someone from the outside, it can only hook something already inside you willing to be demeaned. I know it's not always that easy, but sometimes it is. And hey, you'll also be showing other people that it's okay to like what they like and openly enjoy liking it.
Like this fine fellow:
“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.” – Ray Bradbury
(Thanks to Kaye Thornbrugh for sharing this quote)
To read my latest story and have some deep, meaningful fun exploring this stuff further, check out Defense Mechanisms, coming out this month (August 2013).
“I have never been convinced there's anything inherently wrong in having fun.”
— George Plimpton
George Ames Plimpton (1927-2003) was an American journalist, writer, editor, actor, and gamesman. He is widely known for his sports writing and for helping to found The Paris Review.
Clearly not a frivolous guy who never grew up and never became a productive adult citizen [smiley].
I would even dare to say that if you play for the fun of it, laugh out loud, and are openly awed by sights and sounds you enjoy, you're living life right, not acting childish, and you don't need to grow up or settle down or act your age or any of those comments people throw at you to make you stop.
Those comments are about them, not you. They were shamed into giving up fun, and so it's very hard for them to see you having it. You can see it in the deep frown and hear it in the chiding tone of voice. Some people would rather hit you than let you get away with having a good time in front of them - that's how hard it is for them. In that way, it's been passed down from adult to youth, and from older kid to younger child. But no one needs to give up having fun.
Even when it's people with good intentions who try to stop it, the truth is - having fun, and showing it, is not the problem.
The problem is that people confuse play with irresponsibility. They think laughter comes from mindless inattention, and that to be light is to be incapable of taking things seriously. Are people who laugh less intelligent? Less responsible? Less capable? No. But they are happier. Instead of cutting fun out as you grow up, you just get to add being more responsible and more thoughtful in to the mix.
The last barrier we face is the inner voice, the one that is you telling yourself to stop it. if you've faced harassment and humiliation before, or you've seen other people get hit with the deterrents, you probably learned to make sure you don't do it in public. But trading a lifetime of joy, laughter and delight to protect yourself against periodic, empty humiliation isn't a win. Being ready to laugh and enjoy life is.
See what happens when random people let themselves have a bit of playful fun in public after encountering a ball pit set up on a city street downtown:
Auburn Seal knows the value of taking things seriously and having fun while you do it.
She's a writer and mother, and applies this strategy liberally to both of them. On her new blog site, Indie Scribblers (which she started with fellow writer Amanda A. Allen), she welcomes people with:
We are crazy-Dr. Pepper-drinking-fiends that take our writing seriously, but ourselves…well…not so much. So, while we are dead set on producing good quality writing, that is edited professionally...and wrapped in a lovely, well-designed cover….it’s important that you know that really, at the heart of us, we are giant goofballs. Which is why this is SO much fun.
I love it.
And this is what Auburn has to say in response to my question, what play and fun other grown-up people have kept in their lives and why:
_ _ _ ____________________ _
One of the words I hear most when someone is asked to describe me is FUN. Sometimes I hear CRAZY but I ignore that. Over my adult life (I’m closer to 40 than I feel) I have struggled, as a lot of people do, to figure out who I am. To find a way to be more comfortable in my own skin.
I hate to cook. But I tried to force myself to enjoy it. Mistake. That was like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. Not the best plan, that.
For years I resisted the idea that my main talent in life was being fun. But no more. I have spent enough time around people who are so FAR from fun that I realize it’s really not so bad to be a little fun. Even crazy.
By embracing what came naturally to me, I freed myself up to ENJOY life. I said farewell to the mold that others said I should fit into and just accepted that I am who I am. So instead of scrambling around trying to figure out what people thought I should be, I had all sorts of time to develop who I already was. I gave myself permission to explore my world, to be creative and experimental and to PLAY.
For example, I love change. In my circle of friends and family, that made me irresponsible and reckless. When I accepted that I am wired to thrive in ever-changing environments, I gained the freedom to explore new heights, new worlds. In my books. And in other places too.
As a writer, I can create a character to be whoever I want her to be. I can write about exotic places or made-up places. If I don’t like the law of gravity, fiction allows me to get rid of it. It’s not that useful anyway, right? For me, writing is my play time. It is how I indulge my whims and crazy plots. (Haha…accidental pun.)
Other ways I play…eating out. Trips, trips, trips. Short or long, near or far..it doesn’t matter. Just so long as I can change the scenery whenever I want/need to. When I can’t take trips in real life, I watch TV or movies that take me away. Or read books that allow me to escape.
We all need outlets. Healthy people (in my not-so-expert-opinion) must have a way to vent. To sluff off the stress of the world. We have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Cars to clean out and laundry to fold. (Unless we are lucky enough to have maidservants) As adults we stare down the barrel of responsibility constantly.
So it’s my theory that we MUST seek out opportunities to PLAY. Whatever your definition of playing is. And don’t let anyone tell you how it is that you should have fun. Takes the fun right out of it. And I’m nothing if not fun!
_ _ _ ____________________ _
Auburn's first book, Roanoke Vanishing, is coming later this year. It's a work of historical fiction with a supernatural element, in which a young woman discovers a living connection to the Roanoke, VA colony of mystery and legend. For more Auburn, here's her website.
I'm not just an advocate for play, but for FCI.
FCI, meaning fantasy, creativity and imagination.
And I'm not talking about the more passive uses of them – like being an observer to entertainment (watching TV or movies or other performances) – but active, playful use that engages your own FCI and the FCI of others.
We have this love-hate attitude toward fantasy, creativity and imagination, where it's practically been ground out of most people, but then a few others who practice it are as good as worshipped for it. The average person in a band or who writes or paints is seen as a wanna-be – as a *not* star, rather than understanding how good it is for people to use their FCI for no other reason but for themselves. For personal enrichment. For fun. To play. It's a quality of life thing, and so much more.
Below, one of the members of Monty Python speaks about creativity and part of why it gets so discouraged and stigmatized, and does it with charming wit and humor, as well as some sharp-edged insight. Thanks to Amy Woods, who shared this presentation by John Cleese:
Play isn't the same thing as FCI, but it definitely involves one or more of them. And like play, all of them do get discouraged pretty harshly as we grow up. While on the one hand we see teachers at school with signs that say things like creative minds are the ones that change the world, other people come down on us for showing almost any sign of FCI with anger, humiliation, and threats of being branded and isolated – until one by one we give up on most of the fantasy/creativity/imagination we loved and enjoyed. But not all.
I want to know what FCI you've kept in your life?
Amber Michelle Cook's Blog
A call to all grown-ups everywhere: Play!