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12. Scary Halloween

November 2, 2011

Twenty years ago,  I threw my first and last Halloween party. Two months earlier, I had moved to China to teach English. Part of my duties, as I understood them, involved introducing Chinese folk to American culture. Also, I was very homesick, and grabbed at any opportunity to recreate rituals that, at home, I hardly paid attention to.

Thinking back, this is one of two Halloween’s I remember between about 1983 –when I got too old to trick-or-treat–and 2004, when we took my son out for the first time. It’s not that all the Halloweens in-between had been the kind of eventful that means you don’t remember what happened the next morning. I’m not that kind of an eventful sort of girl. Instead, it’s that I seem to have an ambivalent relationship with the holiday. As a kid, it’s the bomb – costumes and candy?!? But as I got older, the candy became both a physical and psychological challenge. And the costumes…

Costumes totally stress me out. Partly it’s the whole clever factor: it would never have occurred to me, for example, to don a mustache and cover a lacy old slip in slogans like: “Oedipus Complex” and  “the Super-Ego.”  But more, it’s because, at some basic level, I still believe in magic. I still believe that a costume has the power to transform me into someone or something else. It’s an attractive idea. I was Dorothy once as a child – my favorite costume ever. Standing there, in my blue-and-white gingham dress, and half-braided braids (just like Judy Garland), it was like I could actually step into the movie. I too could go where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops. I half-expected the world to turn Technicolor.

But, if you really believe (as I did then, and seem to still), the promise the magic costume makes should scare the hell out of you. Because if you become someone else, where does the “you” go? Now you understand how neurotic I am. To be very explicit – and simultaneously totally fantastical – if, by putting on a frog costume you are suddenly and completely transformed into a 2-inch long frog – where – precisely did all the extra mass go? If and when you get transformed back into “you” where will it (the mass, your body) have been? I worry about these things.

More, stories about magical transformation rely on a supposition we also make in real-life–a supposition of which I am frankly a little skeptical. We tend to believe, in the West at least, that we have an immutable core self: a “me,” an “I.” We call it the soul, we call it identity, we call it the candle flame of spirit. Transformations in stories almost invariably leave this core-self intact. The frog is still really a prince. But what if we don’t? That is – what if we don’t have a core self? What if this material flesh is all there is? Or if we are so basically totally and completely fused with the material that the idea of separation is a misthought? What if its not body AND soul, but bodysoul? Bodoul? Boul? What if I am as much the shape of my nose, as I am the daughter of my mother, as I am a believer in God and chocolate, as I stand at the towering height of 5’2. And if one of these qualities change tomorrow as it well might – what then? If I get plastic surgery, or find out I am adopted, or suddenly turn into a mouse, maybe I become someone else entirely – someone with some leftover data from someone else – but basically – all new.

Scary right? I think so – and I think I’m not the only one. I think its why people like Halloween – it give us the chance to flirt with strangers – strangers that used to be ourselves. Back in 1992, I held my Chinese Halloween party in my 400 square foot apartment. Guests included my English students, some other foreign teachers, and some Chinese English teachers with their families. One of my American friends – a 6’3 Caucasian man from the East Coast–created the classic mummy costume by wrapping himself up in toilet paper. When one of the Chinese families arrived, he answered the door. The little girl of the family  – maybe 9 years old? – saw him and began to scream. This was not the slightly thrilled, slightly spooked startle of a scary movie or haunted house. This was abject terror. She continued to scream and cry for the next 10 minutes. Finally, the parents, embarrassed and chagrined, had to take her home. Unschooled in the ways of American Halloween, the girl saw before her a real mummy – a real monster where she had thought there were none. Smart girl, I say. We’re playing with fire here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2011 7:44 am

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  1. 28. Looking back before looking forward « I am not who I think I am

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