H is for Halloween…and Humor

This Halloween season, as I was walking through the town of Andover, I was greeted by scarily large constructions of Black Widow spiders, known for their excruciatingly painful bite, and Funnel-Web Spiders, feared in Australia for their venomous and usually deadly bites, adhered onto the sides of houses. On each street lamp stood a scarecrow, a longtime symbol of the death of children in Medieval Europe, adorned in tiny tombstones and dressed in fantastical caricatures, like fairies and children’s book protagonists such as Pete the Cat. In New York, there would be young children dressed as the grim reaper that comes to collect souls, or the serial killers that took them. No matter where I am, I seem to embrace all Halloween celebrations as a way to gain temporary power over the ever present, but never addressed, weight on every mortal’s shoulders: Death.

Death has always been and always will be a heavy subject. Whether it be a parent, a grandparent, an uncle or an aunt, almost everyone has experienced the weight of Death resting on their shoulders. I know I have. But on Halloween, I allow myself to disassociate from these past traumatic experiences, using humor as a way to lessen the anguish such memories prompt. So yes, I do make fun of the distant great grandmother who I saw on the news that passed at 102 years old, saying that it was long past her time to go, saying that she had expired since 90. It is the only way for me to bear such a heavy burden without being crushed.

Halloween is the one time of year in which I can regain some power over the fear that the irrefutable force of Death creates. It is often stressful to think about the fact that all things are claimed by Death eventually. From the time we are conceived to the time we leave this Earth, we can never defeat Death. You cannot tell me you have never thought about what Death would feel like, what it would smell like. Would you dream? Would people remember you? If you are religious, you may even be anxiously questioning whether you are going to go to Heaven or burn in eternity in Hell. Halloween is the one time of year where I can use humor to cope with something that I am perpetually afraid of, a fear that I can, unfortunately, never escape. So each year, on October 31, I take symbols of Death and seize control of them by manipulating them into displays that I create. I write jokes about the dead on their tombstone decorations and on the skulls that they hang from the roofs—opposing my mother’s beliefs. In allowing myself to poke fun at Death, I reverse the role of who has control over who, even if only for a single day.

But is humor the best way to grapple with this fear of Death? I think not. It is no surprise that laughing in the face of loss can be a healthy activity for some people, reducing stress, lifting spirits, and allowing for a momentary break from a traumatic situation to feel more grounded. This humor also allows one to relate to others, in a time where they might feel alone or isolated, as several people often understand the same jokes and recognize what the joke entails. For this, I thank you, Halloween. However, just as it is important to acknowledge Halloween or rather humor as an outlet for dealing with deeply personal and distressing circumstances, I realize that the need to look for opportunities to cover the root of my fears in costumes and shower it with candy is a product of the lack of conversations centered around Death. Growing up, my mom has always been one to correct me whenever I made a comment that involved the figurative use of Death. “I could actually die right now.” Stop it, Leilani. Don’t joke about dying. “I wish he would just leave this Earth.” That could actually happen, Leilani. Don’t call Death upon yourself or anyone else. God forbid. It is seen as a taboo in our society to mention the word itself, as if, if you mention its very name you are bringing misfortune to those around you, as if if I spoke of the topic in someone’s general direction it would be the same thing as directly telling them to die. Even when family members passed, there seemed to be a void, waiting to be filled with words and emotion, and even just communal crying, but instead everyone went off in their separate ways, single sniffles heard from every individual room. It is human to not want to directly discuss topics that are uncomfortable. This is true. But it is just as human to decide to speak up about what we have been through, though we might stumble, though we might not be able to thoroughly explain our experiences, though we simply might end up in tears. It is worth it to create a society in which people feel like they are allowed to talk about frightening truths without having to conceal the topic in some way. 

So, Halloween, I thank you. I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to use you as a way to come to terms with Death through humor. I needed it. But I think it’s time that I admit that in interacting with Death in jest, I am simply decreasing the burden that Death puts on me for a moment, pushing it down, focusing on fleeting instances of control rather than long-term solutions.   I think it’s time that I faced my fears and attempted to utter Death’s name directly, not under the guise of comical tombstones.