By Pauline Kerr
Back in the time when history was spoken, not written, seeing the days grow shorter was surely a frightening experience.
The changing of the seasons was a mysterious process, understood in terms of powerful, capricious gods and magic, of omens and spells, of ancient wisdom and tales told around smoldering fires.
Today, we understand the science behind the cooler days and the early setting of the pallid sun. Still, there is something about this time of year that harkens back to a much earlier time.
It might be the scent of autumn in the air – a touch of apple spice, a whiff of rotting vegetation, and a snowflake or two. Perhaps it is the way the fallen leaves rustle under the feet of creatures large and small, seen and unseen. Perhaps it is the wisps of mist rising through bare branches, or the call of wild creatures on the prowl for food.
It is as if nature is holding its breath, gathering strength for the wintery blasts we know are coming.
It was once thought that during the time between the seasons, the fabric that separated the world of the living from that of the dead grew thin, allowing passage from one to the other.
People would light candles and make small lanterns from whatever they had handy – often a turnip or other root vegetable – to place in their windows or carry with them when they ventured into the night. Darkness was a fearsome thing, filled with hungry predators of both the animal and spirit kind, and a bit of friendly light would keep them bay – or so it was hoped.
Our distant ancestors knew evil spirits lurked among twisted roots, at cemeteries and near abandoned houses. Despite all our science and knowledge, we can feel them in those places, too, especially at that strange time when seasons are changing.
Inside every Disney princess carrying a plastic pumpkin treat basket, inside every Star Wars hero, and, if the truth be told, every parent standing in the background with a cell phone and flashlight, hides a little voice from the distant past, whispering, “Something with wings and fangs and glowing eyes is hiding behind that tree, waiting for you to get closer …”
Of course, it could just be a sugar buzz from the candy, or the result of staying up all night watching old Dracula movies. It might even be one of those weird COVID-19 dreams that we are told result from too little mental stimulation from contact with other people.
Then again, it could be reality. This Halloween, there really is something dangerous lurking out there. We may not be able to see it or hear it, but we acknowledge its presence.
The focus at Halloween has always been on safety. We tell our little goblins and ghosts to stick to their own neighbourhoods, to watch for cars, to travel in groups, to knock only on doors where the light is on and to never, ever, go inside anyone’s house.
We inspect the goodies they bring home; even sampling the occasional chocolate bar to make sure it is safe. We garbage any suspicious items such as homemade and unpackaged treats, unless we know they came from Grandma or a trusted neighbour.
Some of us accompany our little trick-or-treaters, or hire a teenager to take them from house to house. Others prefer to take them to Halloween parties put on by a local church group or service club.
This year will be different. In this part of the province, trick-or-treaters have been given the go-ahead by public health authorities, although Halloween parties are discouraged.
Children must wear masks and maintain a safe distance between themselves and others. They will head out, armed with hand sanitizer as well as the usual flashlights, and bring the candy home, where it will probably be “quarantined” for 24 hours.
This year, the scariest thing lurking in the night is not a glowing-eyed demon, but a tiny fuzzy thing. Make no mistake, though – it can kill.