Reclaiming Halloween for the Children

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Sign seen in local shop this Halloween

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I remember windy nights, leaves swirling, black cats silhouetted in windows and warmly lit porches. There was a time when Halloween had an edgy innocence that tilted on the fear of fruit bats, before severed limbs, decapitations, and hatchets dripping with blood were considered plausible decorations for front lawns. What, in our culture, drives this macabre fascination with violence to ever deeper and darker places, changing what used to be a fun night for children, when BOO! was the scariest word around and candy was the main objective, into a vampiric holiday that lusts on fear?

It’s hard now, amid the ever increasing grotesquery, to believe that the origin of the word Halloween is holy evening. Festivals were held in ancient times to honor the sacredness and mystery of death. Flickering jack-o-lanterns grinned and grimaced from doorsteps to scare away any evil spirits that may drop by. But, today, even a very young child knows that a pumpkin is no match against Freddy Krueger or Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Parents make an effort to shield their children from violence, whether it be spurious or on the nightly news. But around Halloween, the depictions of ax murderers and deranged clowns abound. Once a child is exposed to an image that he or she finds terrifying all the reassurances that “It’s only pretend” are to no avail. It is not uncommon that these children will suffer a level of PTSD that leaves them with nightmares and vague anxieties that can last for several months. How do we protect our littlest ones from such emotional and spiritual trauma? Sadly, it is not 100% possible. Even the local Walmart’s Halloween section can be too much for a child. But there is much we can do to keep Halloween fun scary and not overly shocking. Your teenager may want to visit the seasonal big box costume shops, but leave the young ones at home. There are many wonderful Halloween themed books available that allow a child to experience the spooky mystique of Halloween while safe in a parent’s arms. In many neighborhoods, anatomic and screeching Halloween displays have become increasingly malevolent. A good way to avoid the experience of trick-or-treating becoming a bad memory is to have your child go to a few select houses, then to a party with a few of their friends. In this way parents are in control of just how age appropriately scary they want the party to be. It is healthy to confront our fears. Fake spider webs and skeletons can make a child jump, and then laugh. This is the level of scariness you want. It gives Halloween the off kilter experience that children need in order to achieve those heights of self esteem that come from conquering the unknown.

While we are protecting our children, it is important to be aware of what they actually need distance from. There is a great difference between the natural death of a loved one and violent death used  to sell products, or reported endlessly on the news. Avoiding talking about the sad parts of being human only makes children confused and likely to be misinformed. We can’t protect our children from pain. Knowing death is an important part of knowing life and children need the truth from us. That does not mean that they need to know about mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and other random acts of evil. This adult knowledge will come in time. But, for now, respect your child enough to let him grieve in a natural way for a death that touches him personally.  It is important to honor these fleeting years of sensitive physic vulnerability even though our system generally either ignores or tries to capitalize on them.

Perhaps it is our culture’s fear of death that makes us both fascinated and repelled by it. We idolize youth, spend billions on anti-aging products, and hesitate to come to terms even when the family fish dies. While it is important to protect our children from violence, we should not shield them from death, but instead help them to viscerally understand that the end of life is as reverential and hallowed as the beginning of life – a natural part of the the wondrous cycle of being.

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