I have a confession: I hate October. I am aware this is an opinion bordering on excommunicative for my identity as both a white woman and someone who spent an entire year trying to turn myself into a Witch, so I usually keep it to myself. But I also know I’m not alone. I see some of us coming out of the woodwork, and I’d like to amplify our collective request to do things like opt out of the bloody chainsaw commercials that now precede our nightly lullaby rerun of Bob’s Burgers.
To be clear — it’s not that I don’t like pumpkin spice lattes and fluffy sweaters and tromping merrily through great big piles of leaves. I am not a monster. The issue is that I don’t like fear.
And that’s what October is, in mainstream America. It’s not about cherishing our beloved dead or defending ourselves against spooks. It’s a celebration of spooks — of blood pressure rising, respiration increasing, and, of course, screaming. I’m an exceedingly jumpy person at base level. If you say a word too loudly next to my ear, I will simply scream (seriously, in high school, the favorite word my friends employed was “rosebush,” because it furthered the ironic delight that upon hearing it suddenly and at high volume, I would shriek like a dropped chihuahua). This might be a symptom of clinical anxiety that I do not have time or funds to get properly diagnosed (I am too busy complaining about it). But the point is, if you are like me, October is tricky. For every scene of languid, golden light pouring through an apple orchard, there is a wriggling skeleton around the corner, waiting to verbally assault me.
You don’t have to remind me this makes me a wet blanket to a huge cross-section of America. Growing up, half my friends were goths — eyeliner wielding, Voltaire quoting counter-culturists who welcomed this time of year like Roman Caesars entering a victory parade. I wanted their icy cool rebellion to rub off on me, so I began developing ready reasons about why I couldn’t watch American Psycho or A Nightmare on Elm Street, or why I couldn’t go into a haunted house, or how to suppress a panic attack after I was pressured to go inside a haunted house. Whenever I actually stated, plainly, that I just didn’t like horror, whoever heard often proceeded to insist why this film or that activity wasn’t that scary — it’s a joke even! — which left me with no other defense other than to simply insist I was a heaping, soggy buzzkill.
In adulthood, I quickly realized that Halloween does not belong merely to edgy babes, as I initially thought. This is the suburban dad’s finest hour, second perhaps only to Christmas. Halloween is an open competition to see who can make the neighborhood kids shit themselves quickest; a time to ensure every gutter and fence post is draped with wriggling electronics and open-eyed corpses; to proudly display the Home Depot skyscraper-skeleton, whose price ($999, plus the threat of divorce), can at last be justified.
So, October remained a minefield for most of my life. I did my best to keep my head down, try to retain my friends, and simply get through this tunnel of jump-scares and plastic, rotting flesh to the promise of November’s pie-scented naps and December’s tinkling cheer.
That was until, for a book project, I forced myself to celebrate Samhain.
Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) is newer to the American mainstream conversation, although it predates our country. I think of it as Halloween’s grandmother. Held on October 31, it is the final harvest holiday in the traditional Celtic cross-quarter calendar, and the source of all the dried grain and squash motifs that we see in Halloween decor. It is the herald of winter, the knell that signals darkness, a final reminder to put your potatoes in the cellar lest ye starve. Plenty of historians and folklorists also tell us that Samhain was a traditional time for pre-Christian pagans to take care of other, more ethereal business. Like, say, mingling with the dead.
Samhain was incorporated into the neopagan Witchcraft calendar in the 20th century by “father of modern Witchcraft” Gerald Gardner, and was further invigorated by the 1970s Goddess movement and a few waves of feminism, which employed the Witch as a symbol of ultimate female empowerment.
When I spent a year trying to turn myself into a witch, Samhain terrified me. It is called the Witch’s New Year. Witches go apeshit for Halloween, and regular people pretend to be Witches. My friends enjoyed making eye contact with the things that terrified them through horror films and makeup. But this is decidedly not where I showed my bravery. I felt like I was walking into the belly of the beast I had been trying not to make eye contact with my entire life. Honestly if someone hadn’t been paying me I absolutely would have backed out and shoved my head under a blanket for the entire month, as I had become happily accustomed to doing.
Instead, I drove to a gathering of Witches about a half hour from me in Northern California. I entered a dimly lit house full of smiling strangers, who had made the incredibly gracious choice to open their front door and allow people like me into their Samhain celebrations. (It should be stated: this is a low-grade miracle. Joining a Witchcraft coven is not as simple as traipsing into your neighborhood church and announcing “I’m ready to be religious now.” Witches are, almost as a rule, misunderstood people. You usually have to work pretty hard to prove you’re not an asshole to get invited anywhere).
What followed was an awkward twenty minutes in a spectacularly decorated backyard, that then transformed into a terrifying therapeutic session, and ended with me kneeling at the feet of a woman dressed as a death goddess, processing my relationship with my father who died 15 years ago. Through two hours of chanting with strangers, I confronted the fact that I had spent most of my life holding onto the idea of his opinions of me, as if I could use them to gain his approval beyond the grave. Instead, I was forced to realize he was, in fact, dead. Completely gone. I was never getting his approval. I was embarassed at the sudden obviousness of it: my cage door had been open for years, I just didn’t want to see it — because if I dropped the idea of his judgment, I don’t know what I would have had to remember him by.
This was the first half of the night.
The second half involved me reaching out to me again. And him saying something back.
I don’t want to put in spoilers for the book, but put simply, Samhain allowed me to have breakthroughs about my daddy issues that $3000 worth of therapy over 15 years failed to get out. In one evening. I punched through them like they were wet paper.
Any Witches and neopagans reading this will be quick to point out this is not what every Samhain ritual looks like. I don’t pretend that it is. But this is what happened, to me, when I took Samhain’s invitation to actually make eye contact with the thing that terrified and shamed me most: my relationship with death.
In almost every holiday in America, there is some noble underpinning to justify our excess. The obscene spending of Christmas is, ostensibly, about goodwill toward mankind. The drunken barbeques and sooty skies of Independence Day are to celebrate liberty for all. (We may not always succeed at actually expressing that honorable philosophy, but the point is it’s there to inspire us.)
American Halloween does not have this root. It is little more than the celebration of shallow fear, with nothing to ground it. Samhain is its ground. Samhain, put simply, is a safe place for white Americans to practice ancestor worship. Almost every culture in the world has a holiday earmarked for this practice. White mainstream America does not.
In finally celebrating this reconstructed, neopagan celebration, I found what I think all my friends had been seeking all along, without triggering my fight or flight. I finally tasted the rich, bloodred fruit that grows from facing your inner demons — rather than the cheap candy tang of gawking at them.
I am still jumpy and probably have undiagnosed anxiety. And I don’t relish the awkwardness of asking for more from this holiday, when the social agreements suggest I be satisfied with less. But I do not approach October 1 with the same trembles as I used to. I see this time of year not as a season of cheap shots and horror any longer. Instead, it’s a time when I get to actually think about and connect with my grief, my fear and my shame, without the feeling that I’m just appropriating someone else’s tradition to fill a hole inside me.
Acknowledging the dead beats the shit out of being afraid of the undead.