presidential election as a haunted hayride
special always happens this time of year. After a protracted
season of debate and deliberation, we get to choose from a
host of characters representing all walks of life (and death)
whom we want to dress up as for Halloween. Every four years,
though, something truly extraordinary happens to the citizens
of our nation: With the holiday and the election less than
a week apart, major-party candidates (and the occasional Ralph
Nader) become viable costume options. Halloween provides the
perfect forum for voters to make light of the political passion
play while simultaneously rocktobering the vote. In return,
the election season gives Halloween the chance to be halfway
it seems, has been a banner election cycle for the Halloween
analogy. With a zombie-like candidate, rabid rallies, self-mutilating
supporters, a six-figure costume to conceal its VP nomination’s
reptilian identity, smear campaigns that assign the tag “terrorist”
to the Amazon.com listing for a mask of its challenger, and
a platform that relies on dread, fear and misinformation,
the Republican ticket has been riding the holiday spirit straight
to its grave. Obama is burying McCain in the polls, but if
there’s one thing we have learned from both scary movies and
the democratic pro cess, it’s that no one is safe until the
sun comes up. I have never met anyone who’s taken part in
a Gallup poll, so when I heard that Scary Harry’s Haunted
Hayride at the Double M Western store in Ballston Spa included
a political debate where guests were asked to support their
candidate to the death, I knew this would be the best election
projection I could find.
guide’s name was Evil and my driver’s name was Bill. Evil
wore a long black robe and spoke through a toy megaphone that
distorted her voice. Bill wore jeans and drove the tractor,
which was dubbed Unforgiven. I’d been led through the busy
main way by Leo, the event’s organizer, who stopped from time
to time to give orders to his blood-drenched constituents.
This, he told me with a gleam in his eye, was the best year
yet. Thousands came through on a nightly basis, and the hayride’s
political component drove visitors absolutely wild. When asked
which candidate revelers tended to prefer, he said I’d just
have to wait and see.
a saying in some circles that I haven’t heard get much play
during this election: As the girl scouts go, so goes the nation.
Lucky for me, the wagon was filled with 20 to 30 girl scouts.
The tractor lurched forward, and with a scream we were off.
sentry stood guard over the entrance to the underworld, where,
he warned us in the torchlight, only the most maniacal demons
presided. If we survived, we would find new appreciation for
our meager existence. If not, we would be lost in the darkness
the primary season, the hayride began with gleeful anticipation.
When zombies emerged to suck out our brains, the girl scouts
squealed and huddled, like pandering politicos, to the center
of the wagon. Black-lit limbs dangled from a haunted sawmill
where the deranged miller tried to court a human sacrifice.
When no candidate was proffered from our party, the voyage
continued. Vampires emerged from a smoking hearse, cowboys
attempted to rob us of our gold, and the headless horseman
himself followed the wagon on his snorting steed.
the time we’d entered Haddonfield (Michael Myers’ hometown),
it was like that dull period at the beginning of the general
election where each party has its nomination (the girls had
decided whom their human sacrifice would be, if it came to
this) and its platform (that the whole thing is really more
farce than fright).
was sore and my feet were cold when the podium came into view.
Evil announced that we were approaching the scariest place
in the entire underworld. Barack Obama and John McCain were
locked in eternal debate. In front of a big American flag,
the two rubber-masked candidates waved to the passing wagon.
When McCain threw an elbow to Obama’s chest, knocking him
to the ground, the girl scouts booed. From the floor, Obama
tugged McCain’s ankle until he tumbled from the podium. A
unanimous cheer rose from the wagon, and as Obama stood and
waved in his grinning mask, a chant of “O-bam-a!” broke out
among everyone, even Evil herself.
it was decided; but like those final excruciating weeks after
the final presidential debate, where every competent, conscionable
voter has already decided and yet campaigning continues, we
had several stops to make before the hayride was over. If
a haunted hayride can stand as the best folksy barometer of
how the nation might vote on election day, then this particular
hayride was wise to hedge its bets. Before one may exit Scary
Harry’s underworld, they must first de-wagon and find their
way through the Redneck’s Revenge trailer park maze. Now,
maybe I’m reading too far into this political analogy, and
in so doing confirming every Republican allegation of “elitism,”
but when a particular slack-jawed yokel warned me to get off
his lawn before he popped my eyes out and “stuck ‘em on a
shish-kee-bawb stick,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of
McCain’s domestic agenda.
scouts’ vote may keep momentum moving in Obama’s direction,
but whether or not we’ll survive to see morning will be determined
not on Oct. 31, but rather on Nov. 4.
instruments and meters and abiding faith in the spirit world,
paranormal investigators try to communicate with the dead
about the ghost of my grand father, who haunted my childhood
home until I was 11 years old. When I was 11, I stopped believing
in him, and he stopped haunting me, but he never stopped haunting
my mother; to this day she still sees him in the shadowy corners
of her Victorian farmhouse or when she wakes up sweating from
a nightmare. She still feels him, too. When she is watching
late-night TV. When it is quiet and dark and my sisters are
asleep in the next room. To my mother, her father’s ghost,
like Heaven and Hell, is real.
my beliefs in ghosts and goblins and fairies and make-believe
like trifles along a hard-packed trail of epiphanies and disappointments,
yet I held on to my grandfather’s ghost as long as I could
rationalize the failing logic. Out of my sense of family mythology,
out of my devotion to my mother and grandmother, I tried to
keep alive—in the creeks and snaps of a house in slow-motion
collapse—a deeply loved patriarch who died before I was born.
His afterlife became the focal point of my family’s religion,
and to give up on that was to give up on my mother’s faith.
I gave up on gods not long after.
is a wire hanging from the old, unused pulley system, and
we are gathered around it, watching it not move. It is the
instrument that Rob McDonough and his fellow paranormal investigators—ghost
hunters—have chosen as the means for communicating with the
dead. They are members of the Northern New York Paranormal
Research Society, conducting an investigation in the abandoned
third floor of the Irish Mist restaurant in Troy.
is reading from a notebook, speaking directly to the spirit
that he thinks he has found hidden in the ephemera of the
dusty air, asking the spirit to give them a sign, to not be
afraid, to move the wire. Telling it or him or her that we
aren’t here as enemies, but as friends, and kin.
that you are afraid,” he says. His voice is hushed and serious,
stern but respectful. And full of belief.
early in the investigation, but well after midnight. McDonough
and the others have worked themselves into a state that shares
a similar appearance to religious revelry, and this is their
ceremony. They are supplicants with meters to read heat signatures,
temperature changes, humidity fluctuations, and electromagnetic
fields. They have rigged infrared cameras and audio recorders
throughout this floor and the abandoned fourth floor. They
are determined to capture paranormal clues with rudimentary
tools that measure basic environmental changes, as that is
the limit of their science.
something,” one says, as nothing brushes against him. Another
one feels a chill, and everyone, even me, shivers and scans
the near blackness. McDonough continues reading his questions.
We all wait, expecting that someone, somewhere, in some other
form that we can’t see is now trying to reach out to us. Is
wandering among us.
wire never moves.
all looking for proof of the other side,” McDonough says.
“Right now, there is not an exact science that proves that
it is there, but that is one of our goals.”
goes on to tell me that there is a story that he won’t tell
me. It is his moment of awakening to the paranormal. Then
he says, he will tell me this: Don’t be afraid if a spirit
touches you, physically. Don’t be afraid if it hits you, or
throws a rock at you. He has been punched, he says, by a ghost
doesn’t want to go into the details—until 20 minutes have
gone by, and he is back by my side. He tells me that he began
believing in ghosts after his father died, and anyway he doesn’t
want to talk about it. He stops talking. He is cataleptic
for so long, I blink. And then he asks, innocently enough
that I smile, if we can “go off the record?” He tells me a
story that is as disconcerting and frightening as any horror
film, acted out as a lonely auteur in front of his terrified
audience, which, for him, were his teenage daughters and wife.
through eight months of hell,” he says, back on the record.
“Hell. On a daily basis. I had something bad happen to me
that no one could help me with. I went to several priests,
and no one could help me. I had several questions . . . I
even started drinking.”
a CAT scan done, I had an MRI done, I had a spinal tap done.
I had every blood test you can think of done, every cancer
test that you can think of.” He was 36. “My ex-wife thought
that the symptoms of what was happening to me was a sign of
brain cancer, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with
an Irish Catholic, you either go to Heaven or you go to Hell.
It is horrifying. My whole belief system got shattered. If
you are here, and you are dead, why are you here? If you aren’t
in Heaven or Hell, then why are you here? Why? Why?”
I think, that he needs these infrared cameras and doodads,
humidity detectors and the scientific jargon, and the community
of fellow paranormal investigators who put value in quantifying
their shivers. It is to ballast his sanity. It is to explain
an unknown terror that has paralyzed his faith. I understand
this, laying your belief in an afterlife on the myths of the
unknown thing that goes bump in the night. I came to terms
with my dead patriarch mythology 20 years ago. McDonough is
still trying to come to terms with his.
can be a night of magic and mayhem, but are our fears draining
the value from this ancient celebration?
of Halloween celebration have been shaped over miles and millennia,
but its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain remain
familiar today. The ancient Gaels believed that on Oct. 31,
the boundary between the world of the living and the world
of the dead became blurred, and the dead became a danger to
the living. Samhain festivals were an attempt to appease the
dead with bonfires and offerings left on doorsteps. Masks
and costumes were worn to mislead, mock, or mollify the spirits.
Halloween, in all its shifting incarnations, has always been
a night when communities came together to stand against their
fears—and overcome them.
has Halloween become a night when our collective fears send
us swaddling our children and skittering inside?
about the dangers of Halloween abound. Parents are cautioned:
Halloween is haunted by kidnappers and pedophiles; candy is
laced with poison, packed with pills and pins and razor blades;
those smiling pumpkin pails contain high levels of lead; costumes
burst into flames. Nationwide, schools—even towns—are banning
Halloween, because it’s just too dangerous. Fliers and Web
sites suggest that the safest place to celebrate is inside,
at the home of someone you know. “Be sure to do a search for
the addresses of all the sex offenders in your area,” reminds
one. Another warns against the perils of Halloween decorating
and insists that flameless, battery-powered votives should
be used in Jack o’ Lanterns to prevent candle fires.
and over and over again, the terrible word stranger looms
above parents and children like a scythe.
and barely two weeks married, with no kids of my own, I feel
much too young to be writing of Halloween with an air of nostalgia.
But the world, it seems, can change around us faster than
we’re prepared to change ourselves.
I was little, we’d suit up in our homemade costumes, hit the
sidewalks with our pumpkin pails and pillow cases, and venture
up the stoops of friends and neighbors who greeted us, usually,
by name. One wizened old woman (whom we had, once, theorized
might be a witch, since she rarely came out of her storybook
brick-and-stone house) would usher us in out of the cold,
and warm us up with hot cider and fresh popcorn balls. The
air on every stoop was thick with the sweet, earthy smell
of scorched pumpkin, as the candles slowly baked the Jack
o’ Lantern roofs.
an only child with a hyperactive imagination. I could find
magic in a mud puddle and an imminent threat to my life in
a goldfish. I was struck in equal measure by overwhelming
awe and overwhelming fear. So, needless to say, I was the
perfect audience for novel Halloween scares. Every year the
town fire department threw a Halloween party, complete with
treat bags and a haunted house. To this day, I vividly remember
screaming in terror when a shadowy ghoul reached out at me
from the dark corner of the haunted corridor. I stood paralyzed
and crying, this pretend world whirling around me, until an
arm reached out and pulled me along. When I felt that familiar
fatherly grip, the strong hand on my shoulder, the scratchy
sweater wool against my cheek, things swirled back into perspective,
and I braved the rest of the tunnel by his side. He made me
feel safe, and strong enough to push aside my fear.
sure, in the dark, that it was my father. But when we emerged
into the light of the firehouse, I didn’t recognize the face
smiling down at me. “See, you’re OK,” he said, and with a
pat on the back, he sent me, fully recovered, back into the
throng of kids and music and candy.
what Halloween has always been about. About community. About
protection. About learning to face your fears. And sure, about
dressing up, and candy, and imagination. It’s fun, it’s silly,
and it’s deeply important.
is scary. There is danger out there, and there is fear lurking
in each of us. We can try to protect our children from danger.
If they’re heading out trick-or-treating, go with them; bring
flashlights. Teach them to be safe around fire. Teach them
that not everyone is good.
them that most people are.
protect our children from danger. But we can’t protect them
from fear. And we shouldn’t. The things that frighten them
in the big, bad, grown-up world likely won’t be haunted-house
monsters and killer goldfish, but it’s those childhood fears
that prepare them to face whatever frights the future hurls
at them. And hiding them inside with people they already know,
on Halloween or any other night, isn’t going to prepare them
for much at all.
for our grown-up fears that kids are in perpetual danger?
University of Delaware sociology professor Joel Best has plowed
through more than 50 years of evidence searching for instances
of children being poisoned or injured by Halloween candy.
He found one. A boy was poisoned by his own father, who later
told the police he thought he’d never be caught “because strangers
poison Halloween candy all the time.”
That scary word. But is the problem that strangers are a danger
to our children, or is the problem that our neighbors have
become strangers? Perhaps if we made the trek up those steps,
knocked on those doors, and met each other with the giddy
honesty of a 5-year-old in a chicken suit, the world would
seem a little less scary.
for one, still love the smell of candle-scorched pumpkin.
Twenty-eight Jack o’ Lanterns under my belt, and I’ve never
once burst into flames.