Halloween. Samhain. Dios de los Muertes. The Autumnal celebration of the ‘spirit world’ is a very nice tradition, whatever you want to call it. I have always had a great affection for the week surrounding Halloween, ever since I was old enough to gobble down fistfuls of candy. Of course, I’ve always been on the morbid side of having a “healthy outlook on life”. I joke, of course, but there is something nervous in the way people approach death, the dead and the spirits of the departed in this culture. It’s weird – and coming from me, that’s saying something. Two interesting things came to mind as I sat down to compose this. The first is about my daughter, the second is about me – when I was her age.
I was explaining to my eleven year-old what the ‘Day of the Dead’ is all about. Or, rather, I was talking at her, about it. When she was younger, we slathered our face with black & white greasepaint and made a small, odd processional to pay homage to the spirits. I told her that in Latin America, it wasn’t that they believed the dead literally rose from the grave, but the people there invited the spirits be present. Much like setting the table for an extra dinner guest would change the way you conducted a meal, I suppose. It’s a kind of play, it seems to me, where you make the space for a kind of interaction. You honor the dead, the departed, the past, by acknowledging it – by making it welcome. It’s a beautiful, sometimes humbling thing.
Now, when I was still in grade school, I had a poorly understood relationship with death. I was fascinated with it, scared of it and genuinely tried my best to come to grips with the concept. In my 5th grade class, we were required to bring a clipping from the newspaper in each week. We’d write a report on the news event and present it to the class, in summary. It was a neat idea, but I went and made it creepy (on accident, I swear). I cut obituary/death notices from the paper. Sometimes, there were tiny, but now and then I’d see a long, glowing review of a dead person’s life. It was an irresistible draw. Here, on newsprint, in tiny letters, was the end result of someone’s entire life – all of it reduced to a snippet, smaller than the sports scores, buried near the classifieds where no one would see it. I thought… well, I’m not sure what I thought, exactly. I think I thought, “What could be more newsworthy? This is someone’s LIFE!”
My daughter’s teacher has never called me up, to complain about her being “creepy”, or scaring the other children. For that, I’m grateful, because it is the kind of thing my parents had to deal with – among other, less relevant kinds of phone calls they received about me. See, for me, the essence of mortality, the actual reality of capital-D ‘Death’, was never explained or fully understood by my little kid self. In a very real way, the ghosts of all those people did haunt me, just not in the way ‘haunting’ is generally thought of. Victims of murder and car accidents, people who died from cancer and drowning, and all the various and terrible things that happened every day in the world flooded my sensibilities. And really, that’s too bad.
I’m much older and I hope much wiser. I’ve seen death, up close and personal, many times. I felt the warmth of life fade in my hands. But rather than be horrified, or too fascinated, I’ve found a place in my life to put the horror of mortality. I’m not ‘haunted’, but like everyone else in the world, I am visited by ghosts. Whether you acknowledge it or not, the past – and the folks who lived there – make their presence felt in our world. The only thing you can control is how you deal with it.
Tonight, I’m going to pour a drink in a small glass, I’m going to put a treat on a small plate and I’ll light a candle. And I’m going to leave them on my porch. Not because I want to feed the squirrels and not because I do or don’t believe in ‘ghosts’ or ‘spirits’. I’ll do it because I want to honor the dead. I do it because I am alive and I can.
It’s funny. When I first thought about writing this post, it was with the idea of my favorite ghost stories in mind. But as this day approached, I couldn’t find any reason to conjure a made up tale, or to dwell on the ones I like the most. The best stories – as any kid can tell you – are the ones that are ‘almost true’. The best ghost stories are no different.
Patrick Jennings-Mapp is a co-founder of and an editor for Escape Collective Publishing. When he’s not being depressingly morbid, he’s actually a fun person to be around. You can drop him a line at patrick AT escapecollective DOT com and tell him to ‘lighten up’ if you like.