My mom was always generous, and Halloween was no exception. As Halloween approached, our kitchen reflected her ramped-up hospitality. Every trick-or-treater received a homemade caramel apple, a homemade popcorn ball and a full-sized candy bar. When concerns about homemade treats became a national concern, mom refused to cease and desist. She simply put a return address label on her homemade treats. None of the neighbor kids refused mom’s generosity. More than a few changed masks and returned for seconds.
Mom’s creativity with treats did not extend to our Halloween costumes. Unlike some of my classmates whose mothers sewed elaborate costumes, my mom claimed she couldn’t thread a needle. And she reinforced this claim by never threading a needle. She would trot out the Halloween box of assorted costumes my siblings had worn before me, and I simply picked the one that fit best. In fifth grade, I dressed as a hippie — choosing my shortest dress, a string of beads, and uncombed hair. My fifth-grade teacher asked what I was, broadly hinting that my costume mirrored a little too closely my everyday apparel.
Halloween offers us a chance to try on an alternate persona, often one darker and more menacing. A fair number of grim reapers arrive at my door each year, along with an Imperial Storm Trooper or two, some zombies, and an occasional small but perfectly suited up Green Bay Packer. Some opt for a lighter tone; the neighbor twins on one of their first Halloweens arrived as Thing One and Thing Two from Dr Seuss. When you’re one, you show up as something adorable, like Thing One and Two, or the Velveteen Rabbit. By third grade, the gremlins ringing the doorbell have opted for their alternate reality — dark and menacing; or princesses with fairy dust.
My dad said to me once “You are judged by the company you keep.” In that moment, I was furious. He had forbidden me to join the cool kids at a neighborhood party. Dad understood that if we try on a persona often enough, some of it will stick. Third graders don’t understand yet; what we try on repeatedly; what we rub elbows with constantly; we may become. We like to think our character and moral compass strong and unwavering, our judgement clear, and our decision making unbiased. As a man who I admired until his feet of clay were revealed used to say every week, “All the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” If we live in an illusion long enough, we may become lost. Dad’s saying has its limits, however. Prudence and orthodoxy congeal into parochialism, or worse, community bigotry. Denying our alternative realities may give our hidden thoughts and feelings more power over us than indulging our curiosity about them.
How do we experiment with illusion without getting lost in delusion? It’s no accident that Halloween happens only one night a year. We crack open and taste an alternative reality, knowing we’ll be returning to normal tomorrow. We enjoy imagining and exploring our inside-out selves, but if we’re smart, we take along a designated driver. We savor the scenic byways on our journey, like the opportunity to experience my mom’s radical hospitality. In the light of morning, we decide how much of our novel experience we want to integrate into our daily life. We spread the word about the beauty we discovered, and we offer warnings about the risks.
Tonight, whichever side of the doorbell you’re on, practice hospitality and safety. Welcome the stranger; be a good guest. Happy Halloween!