“Too scary!” my four year-old daughter wails.
She shuts her eyes tight as I lead her to the “safe” part of the Halloween super store. The section with the costumes that make her smile—princesses and cupcakes.
But to get there we had to walk past zombie babies, haunted dolls, and bloody limbs. I steered her away from a crawling mechanized corpse.
I know what you’re thinking. Why would I even bring her inside this kind of place?
Because my 8 year-old son had begged for entry. I scuttled her to the kid section while he laughed at the Emoji costumes and the Trump and Clinton masks.
I watched him frown at some dangling heads before turning away.
During October there’s no reliable way to avoid this stuff. I can’t get my kids home from school without passing a house that has a bunch of those very heads hanging from the front awning.
Halloween is more for the grown-ups than it is for our kiddos.
We’ve forgotten what life was like before our awareness of zombies. Before faux decapitated bodies were par for the course.
Our culture revels in everything terrifying at Halloween and our children just have to deal.
There’s no way to take them trick-or-treating through their own neighborhoods without running into the macabre. A few houses down, my neighbors have a full-size skeleton horse and rider on their front lawn. It’s an epic display, though my daughter freaked out when she first saw it.
My oldest son got used to me saying “nothing scary or violent” as he searched for his costume. He finally got to be something called “The Pumpkin Maniac” on the last year he felt like dressing up. I caved and let him carry the skull-adorned scythe that came with it even though that prop was both “scary and violent.”
My two youngest are not at that stage yet. They’re not interested in anything scary though I know my 8 year-old son feels pressure to be okay with gore, however fake. He knows he should walk easy into the Halloween aisle stocked with hatchets and chainsaws and masks with large teeth.
My daughter settled on being “Little Red Riding Hood” a while back. She fell in love with the lush red cape when we stumbled on the costume in a store. When I searched online for accessories I was bombarded with sexed-up versions. Garter belts. Mini dresses with corsets. I should have known. There was even a sexy Big Bad Wolf costume.
My 8 year-old eventually decided to be the wolf—so his costume would match his sister’s. I’ve seen this boy stick his tongue out at her when he thinks I’m not looking, and then other times he’ll indulge in her tea parties and other sweetnesses he’s barely outgrown. He’s on a cusp that Halloween forces him to confront. That line between fear and nonchalance.
Choosing a Halloween costume is about forging an identity.
For weeks, kids at his school had smuggled in pictures or costume packaging. The Headless Horseman. Several iterations of Spiderman. “Someone had a mask with blood on it,” my son announced when I gave him my edict: “nothing scary or violent.” He’s a third-grader, but my rule clashes with the rest of the world he sees. A culture that revels in the scary and the violent, openly, every October.
The creepy and the grisly become quotidian. Normal. Children can choose severed fingers as party favors. Graves and tombstones stab into lawns. Blood spills. The former academic in me knows that “horror” is all about outing everything that’s usually kept hidden and in the dark in our culture—fears and fetishes. Everything repressed bursts forth. Our children may as well get used to it. But mine don’t want to. Not yet.
An easy breakdown of Little Red Riding Hood, like all Grimm’s fairy tales, reveals a tale that is, at heart, gruesome and scary.
Even without the wolf gobbling everybody up, Little Red Riding Hood is a stalker tale about getting lost.
I should have realized this before I bought their costumes. Why didn’t I think this through?
I overheard my children chatting during their costume dress rehearsal a few days before Halloween.
“I’m not scary,” my son told my daughter, as he fastened on the wolf head piece.
“I know,” she said.
“I’m the big good wolf,” he told her, “I’m not bad.”
“You’re the big GOOD wolf,” she laughed with relief.
Here they were fixing Halloween all on their own. Rewriting the myths of the fairy tale that demanded they be adversarial.
“I’ll protect you from the scary stuff,” my son was telling her, “when we go out trick-or-treating, just don’t look at it. Look away.” She already had practice closing her eyes.
All of our children do. They are figuring out how to deal with a world naturally violent and scary. They know they are good. Cynicism eludes them. Until they figure out, like the rest of us grown-ups, how to be nonchalant about violence. How to accept how normal the world is when it’s scary.