Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Día de los Muertos, Samhain — ritual celebrations of death, the end of harvest, and the transition into the cold, dark winter. The ancient Celts believed the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead to be thin and permeable this time of year, when ghosts roam the earth causing trouble. The Celts built giant bonfires and wore animal skins and heads as costumes to ward off the ghosts. They also left treats on their doorsteps and set places at the table for their deceased loved ones.
The customs of wearing costumes, creating altars honoring the dead, and leaving treats or candy for them are practiced, in one form or another, throughout much of the world. Here in the U.S., our ghosts (and therefore the costumes depicting them) are malicious, evil, and frightening.
Halloween movies are full of zombies, vampires, horrible bloodthirsty creatures that never die. The fear titillates and repels us in equal measure. In fact, based on the many thrill-seeking pastimes we engage in — scary movies, bungee jumping, parachuting, and riding roller coasters — you could say that we like to be scared.
In a 1949 article, “The Enjoyment of Fear,” Alfred Hitchcock wrote:
For every person who seeks fear in the real or personal sense, millions seek it vicariously, in the theater and in the cinema. In darkened auditoriums they identify themselves with fictitious characters who are experiencing fear, and experience, themselves, the same fear sensations (the quickened pulse, the alternately dry and damp palm, etc.), but without paying the price. (Italics mine.)
At the bottom of all this thrill seeking is a primal fear of death, which we all experience to some degree. And each of us responds to this fear differently. Some face it in small ways through the above mentioned movies and activities. Others deny the fear by refusing to think or talk about death, yet find themselves confronted with it when they or someone close to them becomes seriously ill or passes on. (Even the phrase “passes on” is a gentler, more palatable term for death.) Some find comfort in the idea of an afterlife.
Perhaps, in addition to dressing up in costume and handing out candy, this is an excellent time of year to explore our own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding death.
- How do you deal with fear of dying? Close your eyes and imagine that your own death is imminent. Write about any thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions you experience.
- What does “to die” mean to you? Does it mean oblivion, a final ending of life? Does it mean some sort of afterlife or rebirth? Freewrite for ten minutes about your perceptions and beliefs. Then freewrite another ten minutes, exploring their opposite. If, for example, you believe that there is no “death” and that consciousness is reincarnated into new bodies, explore the idea of finality, of nothingness. What do you notice as you write?
- Which do you think would be worse: your own death or the death of a loved one? Why?
- What do rituals and/or celebrations this time of year mean to you if anything? In what ways do you participate in them, and how do they influence your thinking or feeling on the subject of death?
- Consider the following quotes:
- The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. ~Mark Twain
- We understand death for the first time when he puts his hand upon one whom we love. ~Madame de Stael
- I knew a man who once said, “death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back. ~From the movie Gladiator
Which quote most resonates with you? Write about what the quote stirs up for you, including images, memories, and emotions.
- Write a short fictional story using thoughts, ideas, and discoveries that came from writing in response to the previous prompts.
As we transition through fall to winter, it’s natural to turn inward and to reflect on symbols reflected in nature: waning, death, decay, hibernation, and darkness. Using writing to explore topics we most want to avoid thinking about can be illuminating. I encourage you to try it — see where it leads.
And, if you’re so inclined, share a comment below.
Image Credit: Doug Wheller