With the fateful day not far away now, it struck me recently that Halloween is all about masks. When I was a child everyone seemed to wear them – and not just on All Hallows’ Eve. It all started with the perception that people seldom said what they really felt about anything. I wasn’t sure why, but I soon learned that apparently there was something impolite about frankness, and politeness was something that I took seriously growing up. I also came to believe that success or failure in life might be measured by how one handled one’s mask. The most famous actors of the day – Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise etc – were born with wonderful masks, or maybe they grew up with them, I didn’t know for sure. But in any case they handled them brilliantly and so putting on a mask, I thought, was a wonderful thing. If I could have got away with it, I think I would have worn one all the time – which made Halloween just about my favourite time of year! When I was young Halloween wasn’t something that you spent a lot of money on. Not many children went around in full costume as werewolves, witches, devils or what-not, but masks – which rarely cost more than a couple of pounds at most back in those happy days – were another matter. Each year the challenge became picking a mask that you could cobble up a matching costume for with little or no money. Eventually not just Halloween but the entire final third of the year became associated with masks and masquerades for me. As the old poem goes: ‘The winter light is pale and bright, and so the serpent basks. On snowy floor we waltz the score, we masquers are our masks’.
In my day the universal example of a home-made Halloween costume was a ghost, all that was required for which was basically an old sheet. Still, being a ghost was spooky precisely because it was always so difficult to work out who was under that sheet. Of course, for the person wearing it, when the sheet shifted and the eyeholes did not line up correctly, it could be somewhat precarious – you could kill yourself tripping down dark streets with few lights. Still, the safety benefit of wearing a ghost costume was that it was white. You may remember when you were little that your parents always forbid you from wearing dark costumes at Halloween because of the universal story (or perhaps urban myth) about a child dressed in solid black who got away from his mother, ran out in the street, and was run over by a car. This always brought home to me the darker side of the holiday. Halloween pranks could be rather destructive, particularly in more isolated communities: trees cut down to block the roads, furniture and equipment hung from telephone poles, fields and brush set ablaze and so on. Because of this sort of thing, as I grew up fewer parents allowed their children to participate in trick-or-treating – there were some years when Halloween was practically shut down because of the mischief. Then there was the year that I heard a particularly unsettling story from a friend, one which almost put me off ever going out on Halloween ever again.
The friend in question was wearing that old classic – the ghost mask – which was really just a discarded white towel with two holes poked in it. The night started unpromisingly – people were a little bit cold and aloof when he came to their doors requesting treats that year. A few even mumbled that it was a shame, a big boy like him out getting sweets – comments which normally might have sent him scurrying home. But, reassured by the fact that no one could see through his brilliant disguise to recognise the boy beneath, he persevered. Then, towards the end of the night, he had the disorienting experience of seemingly passing by a mirror in someone’s front garden: as he was approaching the gate he passed himself coming away from the gate. Then he stopped and looked very closely, because of course there was no mirror. The other boy in the ghost mask had stopped to stare as well. For some reason my friend became terrified, his skin rippling with chill even though the other ‘ghost’ just stood there, not saying or doing anything that was overtly threatening. But then the other boy ran away, never to be seen again.
Afterwards, my friend found the whole incident indescribably unnerving. Perhaps it was because the boy was exactly his height and build, wearing just the same costume, in the same place at the same time, and it seemed incredible for some reason that that could be so. You see, my friend hadn’t a clue who the boy was behind the mask, and he never found out, although they both had to have gone to the same school – there was, after all, only the one school in that small neighbourhood. I knew everyone, absolutely everyone, of our age in that school and I couldn’t begin to guess who the boy could have been. That really bothered me at the time (and still does, now that I come to think about it). It was also a timely reminder that Halloween – the night when the souls of the dead walk the mortal world one last time – was supposed to be scary, as well as fun. Whatever you’re doing, and whatever mask you may be wearing, have a happy (and above all safe) Halloween!