Peter Shelton

What Really Scares Us

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Watch columns by pshelton on October 28, 2011

I’m sick of shock, sick of gory . . . Is anybody here wise?

– From “Wise to the Ways,” by Catie Curtis


On the phone last weekend 3-year-old Alex told Ellen he was going to be a pirate for Halloween.

“Arrrr,” I said, eavesdropping in the background.

And furthermore, Alex informed his grandma, little sister Lily was going to be a “pelican.” This is what Ellen heard anyway. It turns out Lily will be wearing a cute skeleton costume come October 31, a particularly appropriate choice, we thought, given her mom’s career in radiology.

I was relieved to hear about these choices and to see the email photo of Alex in frayed pirate garb. Relieved because on our recent trip to Boston to see them, I’d been confronted with the costume selection at their neighborhood Walgreens.

I’d gone in to fill a prescription, and looming above me was a truly monstrous rubber mask, with wiry hair and bloody eyeballs and a vicious devouring mouth. I was taken aback. Are we so desensitized by Gaddafi death porn and CGI horror films that a child would blithely assume this personality off the rack? What parent would think this was OK?

I get it, sort of. I know about the Day of the Dead and All Hallows Even, which was a kind of Celtic New Year’s Eve. Their year began November 1, and the coming winter represented a kind of death. So . . . we’re celebrating, or ritualizing, the dark, the departed, the imagined unknown.

I get the dressing up part. And the masks. The masks allow kids, and more importantly in certain circles, the adults to be someone or something else for a night. KOTO’s annual Halloween party actually scared the fun out of me years ago when people I knew felt they had permission to become – not just pretend to be, but actually be – a different person, wilder and crueler, unaccountable to their workaday selves.

I get the masks. Shakespeare got masks. There wouldn’t be a comedy in the canon (or a drama for that matter) if it weren’t for disguises and masked balls and plot-propelling mistaken identities, intentional and unintentional.

What I don’t get is the blood. The attempt to terrify. Cloe was invited at age 10 or 11 to a Halloween slumber party with several other girls. Some of the mothers were partying in the house next door, when one of them decided it would be fun to play a spooky trick on the children. She smeared her face with lipstick and prowled the outside of the house, rattling windows and pretending to go after the girls in their nighties. Somehow Cloe managed to call us, and I drove out to pick her up. She was shaking uncontrollably and didn’t stop for hours, even though we had her sleep with us in our bedroom.

Am I being a prude, or is there something twisted here? Is the ghoulish overkill perhaps an attempt to distract ourselves from what really frightens us? I’m trying to think of the times I’ve been most consumed by fear. One was a dream. I dreamed my girls, one or both, I can’t remember, were being swept away by a fast river current. I was on the bank and had one chance to reach out and grab them. I flung my arm so violently out of bed and into the wall, my shoulder ached for months.

What really scares me is the numbing stupidity of war. The slow bankrupting of Medicare and Social Security by the Baby Boom monster. The insidious overpopulation of blue-marble Earth.

Happily, neither of our girls ever wanted to be the hideous creature for Halloween, not that those costumes were available at the drug store back then. They usually wanted to be fairies or hobos.

And, given the weather in Ridgway at this time of year – hello snow! – we usually had to disguise their disguises under Michelin-man ski parkas. If Alex were going out trick-or-treating here on Monday eve, rather than in Boston, he might have to adjust from a Caribbean pirate to a polar one.

The girls were always a little disappointed with the cover-up, as I recall. But the main thing was the candy anyway – more candy than a body could imagine.

Little old lady at the door, bowl of Snickers in hand: “And what are you supposed to be tonight?”

2 Responses

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  1. Claire Walter said, on October 28, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Eloquent, on target and completely in sync with my feelings. Thanks, Peter, for posting.

  2. Mary Ann Dismant said, on October 28, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Thank you for inviting all of us, your readers, to be with your family in Thursday’s column. So much, always lessons to ponder, daring adventures (if in dreams), and a horrifying woman who made me reach for Carl and be warmed by your caring family.

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