Photo by Valentina Saduil
I’m glad that Halloween is over.
Once upon a time, it was my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, I’d spend weeks planning the perfect costume, trying to hit that sweet spot between spooky and beautiful. I would comb through my mother’s closet for dresses and accessories that could transform me into a ghost-bride, a vampire princess, or some other fantastical creature. I made crowns from cardboard covered in aluminum foil and created spots of fake blood from my mom’s Revlon Red lipstick. And, I’d decorate a plain paper grocery bag with witches and ghosts, hoping my illustrations would charm the neighbors into giving me extra treats.
Our doorstep was adorned each Halloween with three jack-o-lanterns. My parents would take me and my sisters to a local farm where the rule was this: I could pick any pumpkin I wanted as long as I could carry it by myself from the field to the car. I’d choose the biggest squash I could get my hands around and my father would cut it free from the vine with a Bowie knife. He’d use that same knife later to sculpt a face from the pumpkin’s flesh on the strictest orders to make my jack-o-lantern really really scary, with jagged teeth and wide angry eyes.
Yesterday, I carved a small pumpkin I could easily carry on the San Francisco MUNI train to these same specifications, even though I’ve lost interest in the contemporary celebration of All Hallows Eve. It’s become so laden with gore, so focused on blood and carnage as instigators of fright that it sends me into mirror-touch overload. My synesthesia-for-pain gets triggered by even the slightest hint of a wound or injury, and because of this, Halloween has always been a bit zingy for me. But the bloody mummies and neck-bolted Frankenstein monsters of the past have been replaced by zombies with entrails spilling from their abdomens, corpses with knives through their skulls and other loathsome monsters of this phantasmagoric ilk. The sheer verisimilitude of these costumes means I get zapped down my back by what feels like bolts of electricity almost constantly on Halloween.
I’m put off by the grossness and carnage. Perhaps it’s due to my synaesthesia, but I also think my own sense of aesthetics is to blame for my discontent with contemporary Halloween celebrations. I don’t like gore, I don’t find it thrilling or exciting, and I specifically dislike the way it triggers my synesthesia. What I do find interesting and attractive is the combination of allure and fear. I delight in the tension that comes when I am both captivated and a bit repulsed. Beautiful ruins. Lovely decay. I adore the frisson fomented by the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the hideous. I like to call this combination “phantasmagorgeous”. And I wish modern Halloween had more of it.
I’ve become enchanted with Dia de los Muertos, the traditional Mexican celebration held on November 2nd. This festival has its roots in Catholic customs honoring the dead on the feast of All Souls, combined with indigenous Aztec celebrations held in the name of the goddess Mictecacihuatl. San Francisco has a vibrant Latin American community in its Mission District including families and individuals from all regions in Mexico. On Dia de los Muertos, the Mission will teem with people decked out in colorful costumes and painted in beautiful, ghoulish “calavera” make-up. A candlelight procession will make its way through the community and past altars honoring the dead. These magnificent “ofrendas” are wonderfully adorned with marigolds and sugar skulls, votives and photographs. The celebration is both solemn and festive, and it has completely captured my heart.
I created my own ofrenda yesterday, honoring my late mother and father. At its center is a jack-o-lantern, which is not part of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations as I know them, but serves as a nod to my childhood traditions and the Irish roots of Halloween. Tomorrow night, I will walk through the Mission in a sumptuous black velvet gown, with my face painted like a bejeweled skull. And I will revel in this opportunity to experience a moment of the phantasmagorgeous.
My “ofrenda”, November 1st, 2015