That’s my kid trying not to look at the dead baby. And yes, that’s my other son, chattering enthusiastically about the bloody severed foot still locked in its chain and ankle shackles. I’m the dad chuckling unapologetically at their terror and fascination. Let’s just say it’s October and I’ve been possessed by Spirit Halloween.
Yes, I’m talking about the store that is brimming with plastic limbs and fake blood and, dead babies aplenty. Spirit Halloween is an event for my family. A two-hour visit to the store is the Halloween activity that the kids — and, let’s face it, this dad — look forward to every year. In October it is the custom of my family to find the “Halloween Store” wherever it rises and visit for a couple of hours of murder, mayhem, blood, dead things, and frights. As far as Halloween activities for kids go, it’s cheap, thrilling, and not our usual cup of tea here in the suburbs.
From November 1 to September 31, I’m a conservative dad when it comes to what I’ll allow my children to see. We pay attention to show ratings and keep content age-appropriate. We don’t allow our kids even a brief glance at YouTube for fear of the terrors that might assault their eyes. Violent content is strictly verboten, particularly media depicting gunplay. We don’t allow our kids to say they’ll “kill” each other and when the subject of death pops up, we treat it with the somber respect and gravity it deserves.
But then October 1st arrives. The guardrails protecting my kids from terror and the macabre aren’t so much removed as they are destroyed in a horrific, fiery wreck of hypocrisy. Because when the spooky season rolls around, Poppa loses his damn mind.
I’ve always been this way. Something about Halloween taps into the deep weirdness at my core. I lose myself in a marathon of bloody films and tales of eldritch horrors from H.P. Lovecraft. I costume up regardless of the party I’m attending.
This was fine, basic behavior when I was a single urban hipster. But I’m a suburban father of two now in a leafy Ohio neighborhood. I’m supposed to have put away childish things. Instead, I drag them out on the lawn to scare the shit out of the trick-or-treaters.
My kids, though. They don’t need to be dragged. They wait, excitedly, for the day of the Halloween store. Some of that excitement is likely due to their base consumerist instincts: Spirit Halloween means buying shit like costumes and decorations. I think that’s why my oldest goes. He has my wife’s temperament and scares easily. It takes the strong pull of a new Ninja costume to endure the lunging clowns, jumping spiders and animatronic corpses that populate your average Spirit Halloween store.
But my six-year-old, like me, has a predilection towards horror. He’s a gentle, loving boy with a soft, wide-eyed gaze. He loves cuddles, cute stuffed animals, and blood and carnage. This is the one time in the year when he is allowed to indulge in his darker instincts, and boy does Spirit Halloween provide.
Here is a wall of masks, like a display of eyeless severed heads, each more grotesque and damaged than its neighbor on the wall. Blood drips from the corners of rubber mouths, while contusions and deformities turn human features monstrous. There are fake sutures and peeling flesh and a riot of yellow teeth jumbled lawlessly behind latex lips.
The six-year-old is enamored. The older boy hides behind my hip.
Beneath a sign that simply reads “Weapons” is a selection of what, in happier times would be productive tools of labor and sport. But here, the plastic baseball bats are shot through with blood-crusted rusty nails. The butcher knives drip shining viscera and the scythes are build for harvesting heads.
My little guy gleefully swings a knife made from the bones of a human hand. The older son, reaches, cautiously, for a vicious looking cleaver.
And here’s the selection of severed limbs — some crudely gnawed free from their body, some hacked clean, and some still hanging in the traps that caught them.
“Can I take one home?” the six-year-old asks.
God, I want to. It would look so fantastic hung from our porch light. But the house isn’t only mine, and their mother just doesn’t have my same affinity to gore.
“No. I don’t think Momma would like that,” I tell him watching him scowl and harumph in disappointed reply.
The irony is not lost on me that for 334 days of the year I keep my kids from life’s insistent and pervasive horrors. I fence them off from violence, murder, and death as best as I am able. I raise them in the light of joy, positivity, and hope. But in October, and especially on Halloween store day, I’m an accomplice in encouraging my kids to abandon hope. After all, that’s what the faux wooden sign encourages us to do at the store’s entrance.
Of course, over the years we’ve carried symbols of death and trauma back to our quaint and mannered home, much to my wife’s dismay. Our living room is filled with plastic skulls. In the front flower garden, still alive with colorful late blossoms, a time-ravaged tombstone has sprouted — and with it, two zombie hands jutting from the loam like diseased blooms. There’s a zombie flamingo on the lawn and a skeletal ghoul hanging beside the door. And on the door are two bloody handprints that frame my wife’s stubborn insistence on genteel Halloween decor. Her last stand: a wooden door hanging that features an adorable owl hooting “Boo!” instead of “Who!”
In the end, the fun, like life, eventually must pass. And sometime after the Day of the Dead, the bloody chaos is packed away in its Tupperware coffin to not be seen for another year.
Despite my love for the season, this moment feels freeing. I’ll admit to rationalizing some bizarre and frankly unhelpful parental behavior here, but still, I’ve deluded myself into thinking there’s a grand lesson to teach my children in all of this. It goes something like this: Look, my boys, we can face the chaos and fear and trauma and come away free and brave on the other side.
That, of course, is bullshit.
Real trauma sticks. The more likely truth is that in this spooky season, every year, I become a hypocrite. And frankly, that’s the thing that scares me the most.