Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Halloween and History

My relationship with Halloween has evolved over time. As a child subject to an entire menu of scary dreams that tended to repeat themselves (I was known for waking up screaming), I wasn't much for thinking that being frightened had a thing to do with having fun. In fact, I distinctly remember the very last time I attempted to walk through what was called a "fun house." My poor brother had to reverse our way and find our way back OUT when I refused to take a nother step past that hand sticking up out of the grave. I knew it was pretend. I didn't care. I wanted OUT. That was my very last voluntary experience with "fright night."
As a young parent, I was confused. I didn't want my Christian faith to be a list of "what we don't do because we are Christians," but I also didn't want to be involved in "the other side" of the spiritual realm I very firmly believe exists. My children dressed up as cowboys and princesses and we "trick-or-treated" on our very safe and boring block where no one put out lighted skulls or set up speakers so they could broadcast shrieks and moans into the night air.
As a historian, as I ponder the connection between history and Halloween ... I think more about mourning and funeral customs, which I find fascinating and not in the least macabre. So my next few blogs are going to be about the history of mourning customs, funerary art, and memorial practices in America. I only intended to do ONE blog post ... but then I started gathering up the things I reference when someone dies in one of my novels (and someone always dies) ... and realized readers might find some of this stuff interesting. And just so you know ... the doorknocker I photographed above in Florence, Italy, is about as scary as I intend to get.
I've always found cemeteries to be fascinating places, and the symbolism and artistry evident in many of the older graveyards in America seem to me to be "stories in stone," as Douglas Keister said in his book by that name (subtitle: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography). While I grew up visiting old cemeteries (we invariably stopped at old cemeteries on vacation), my first visit to Colonial Williamsburg's Bruton Parish churchyard as an adult captivated me. I'd never seen such ancient stones, never seen entire stories carved into memorials, and never been surrounded by so "death heads" (I learned that term later). Apparently the Puritans were big on this symbolism. It's interesting to live in an age where our own rituals involve removing the reality of death as much as possible and be confronted with a graveyard where death heads meet the eye every which way you turn. I don't find it bone chilling ... just interesting.