Night of the Laughing Dead
This Halloween, our senior editor goes all out to make friends with the Grim Reaper.
By Mary Beth Crain
When I was young, in the ancient days of cloth diapers, rotary phones, TV’s with rabbit ears, and something called propriety, Halloween was a relatively subdued affair. No one had ever heard of Halloween decorations; had anyone in the neighborhood festooned their yard with fake gravestones, cackling witches and strings of orange lights, they probably would have received citations for indecent home exposure. There was no such thing as Halloween U.S.A.; the idea of a store devoted solely to Halloween paraphernalia would have been considered as bizarre as an alien invasion. And nobody started celebrating a month in advance. If you had a Halloween party, it was held on Halloween, or at most, the weekend before. If you had a costume, you wore it on Halloween, period, after which it was promptly packed away again in the back closet or an old cedar chest, to be resurrected the next year and not a moment before.
How things have changed. Today, Halloween is a $5 billion industry, right behind Christmas. In fact, houses wreathed in glowing pumpkin lights make it seem like Christmas has already arrived, in orange. Starting the day after Labor Day, every store for miles around is suddenly bursting with ghosts, goblins, witches, skeletons, and any other vision from the beyond that might bring in a buck. The shelves groan with huge bags of candy, which we hope will still be fresh on the big night, still nearly two months away. Meowing black cats and talking candy cauldrons make you think you’ve just walked into Harry Potterville. There is nothing—and I mean nothing—our consumer industry hasn’t thought of to make you spend your money on Halloween gear you never knew you couldn’t live without.
And that’s just what I did. This year, I went on the most embarrassing spending spree of my life. I haunted—excuse the expression—Halloween U.S.A., Target, K-Mart, and all the dollar stores in town. I filled carts full of the weirdest, rudest, kitschiest crap you can imagine. The damage came to over $400, but I didn’t care. I was determined to live it up.
Why? I guess because I turned 55 this year and it hit me hard.
This was the year I went to MacDonald’s for breakfast and the kid behind the counter didn’t charge me for coffee. When I asked her why, she replied, “Oh, seniors get it free.”
Seniors? You talkin’ to me? But I don’t feel a day over 25. OK, 40. Shit. My mother says the same thing, and she’s 86. And we all thought she was full of it.
This was the year I found myself looking up, not down, at my nephew. At 14, he grew around a foot in six months. Impossible—it was just the other day that he was sitting in his time out chair and crying his little two-year-old eyes out. Sunrise, sunset…
And this was the year that two of my friends who never even made it to 55 died of cancer. Both of these friends had led purposefully healthy lives, far healthier than mine. They were the last people you’d expect to get the Big C. I became afraid. Why should I be spared? On any day, at any moment, death could leave his calling card at my door. The fact that I was still breathing was sheer luck, nothing more.
Life, it seems, has gotten away from me the way my Chihuahua, Truman, races into the street before I can put his leash on, and streaks off with me lumbering far behind. I can’t hold on to it, can’t catch up with it. The last ten years have sped by in a flash; before I know it, I’ll be 65, 75, my mother’s age—if I make it that far. After all, the world is supposed to end in 2012—just six years from now. Blink and you’re gone.
A few weeks ago I happened to be at Pamida, our local Hart, Michigan version of Rite Aid, when I actually came face to face with the Grim Reaper. That is, a fake Grim Reaper that shook and shuddered and emitted a hysterical “ho, ho, ho!” when you walked past him. Two glowing green orbs flashed merrily in his skeleton eye sockets. He was kind of a cross between a dead Santa and a pinball machine on acid.
I loved him! He was actually cute. So happy and brash. I bought him, and named him Jack, short for Jack the Reaper. That was the beginning. By the end of the week, my place had turned into a halfway house for lunatic ghouls. I bought the talking candy cauldron with a green hand poking out of it. When you reach into the cauldron, the hand clamps down on yours and a snotty voice sneers, “Want some candy? Trick or Treat! Happy Halloween!” I named the cauldron Fred.
I bought a dancing skeleton, all dolled up in a purple and silver lame glam outfit, who shimmies and sings, “Play that funky music, white boy, till you DIE!” Like Jack, he has green flashing eyes and a wild cackle. I named him Sy.
I bought a skull that sprouts three glowing candles and sings “Just Three Candles,” to the tune of “Sixteen Candles,” complete with obnoxious nightclub patter. “Hey you! Over there! Got a light? Hahahahaha…” I named him Frankie, don’t ask me why. And I bought the Spirit Ball. I mean, I had to have the Spirit Ball, even if he was $50. This is a giant crystal ball mounted on raven claws, with a talking turbaned head inside. Another motion activated riot, the head comes to life when you approach it, and a Boris Karloff voice booms, “I see you have come for my wiz-domm…Take my advice. If you must choose between two evils, choose the one you’ve never tried! Hahahahahaha!” I named him Boris, of course. There are three more bad jokes in Boris’s repertoire, and believe me, after you’ve heard them a hundred times because he goes off every time you go past him, they get real old.
In fact, my new roommates became quite talkative—too talkative. Although they were only supposed to go into their acts when someone or something got near them, they were technological wonders with a flaw. Fred, the cauldron, would start up when the lights in the room went off and whenever I used the TV remote. I could walk by Jack the Reaper and even breathe on him and nothing would happen. But a sneeze or a cough in the next room would set him off. Frankie, the singing skull, was pretty good—if you stayed away from him, he just grinned at you and followed you with his glowing red eyes. But Boris would start jabbering at random—a loose chip, perhaps. Or could it be that he was the real thing…?
Things got out of control the night that Fred went berserk while I was channel surfing, Each time I hit the remote, I’d get, “Want some candy? Trick or treat! Happy Halloween!” When I finally yelled, “Oh, shut up!” that set off Jack’s wild and eerie “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in the other room. I jumped up to turn them both off, and as I went past Boris, he sprang to life. “I see you have come for my wiz-domm…If you’re too open minded, your brains may fall out! Hahahahaha…” For some reason that activated Frankie. “Hey, you! Over there! Got a light?” It was creepy, all right. I unplugged all of them, half expecting them to march into my room in the middle of the night and start up in cacophonous chorus, like those everyday mechanical devices that are always coming to life in “The Twilight Zone.”
I also bought a tombstone. It doesn’t talk, which is a relief, but it does light up. I strung up 400 orange Halloween lights inside and outside my house. I bought a black kitten in an orange witch’s hat that mews when you squeeze it, and a skull mirror with a shroud hanging from it, and a great big sparkly spider web. I bought two scarecrows and a broom with a sign that reads “The Witch Is in.” I bought a skeleton that I hung over my front door. His name is Al, and he wiggles and clatters every time you come or go.
I’ve had these guys around now for a month, and they’ve become my new friends. It feels great to walk into my house and see all these cheerful, grinning faces. In fact, just the other day I understood why I had blown all that money on them. I needed to be able to laugh at death.
Which, of course, is the basis of the Halloween tradition, and, in particular, the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated on November 2, All Souls Day. This is the day the faithful departed are remembered, with food, drink, fireworks and very lively family reunions. The Mexicans have refined gallows humor to a fine art, literally. Dia de los Muertos sculptures and paintings are often downright hilarious—I have, in my collection of Mexican folk art, a three-dimensional Dia de los Muertos “retableau” that features a whole family of skeletons in party mode. There’s a feast on the table, complete with miniature fruits, breads and even a couple of six-packs of Coke. The gal skeletons have big boobs and risqué dresses that show off their cleavage. The guy skeletons are ogling them and drinking beer! It’s a total hoot. The famed writer Octavio Paz once noted that “the Mexican has no qualms about getting up close and personal with death. He chases after it, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, sleeps with it; it is his favorite plaything and his most lasting love.”
I don’t know if I’ll ever go so far as to court Jack, or Al, or Sy, or Boris, or Fred. I can’t imagine hugging them, or sleeping with them, or falling in love with them. But at least I can look at them and know that, except for his corny jokes, death isn’t so bad.
Last night I had a Halloween party and Harvest dinner for my family and friends. All the motion activated ones were turned on for the occasion. Frankie, Sy, Al, and Jack behaved, but Boris got really annoying and would start his routine from 10 feet away. “Does he ever shut up?” my mother asked, in exasperated wonder. He seemed so human.
All in all, though, it was a great evening and the boys added just the right touch of Halloween chills ‘n thrills. Soon I’ll have to take them down to make way for Christmas, and that makes me a little sad because I’ll miss their cornball schtick and raucous flair. But it comforts me to know that they’ll be here for me next year, and hopefully for many years to come. They’ll never let me down until they run down. Hahahahaha!
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was No Prosthesis for Jesus.
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