Friday 25 October 2013

‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary’*

I am at the top of a rollercoaster. I mean figuratively of course, not literally, although that would be cool. I have that feeling in my stomach that you get just before the drop, because that’s where I am, just before the drop.

I love this time of year, it always feels like a new beginning. Just as we start to get used to the summer and the long days, suddenly the nights begin to draw in and the ride speeds up, before we know it we’re falling headlong into the darkest edge of the year. But rather than being a negative point, this final quarter is full of celebration. No matter what your belief system, chances are you are going to have some manner of hootenanny before 2013 comes to a close. For us, for me, the first of those high points is Halloween.

I’ve loved the concept of Halloween for as long as I can remember. Even though it was never really recognised when I was young, it was generally considered a very American idea, all gaudy and inappropriate. The closest I ever got to marking the day was watching The Simpsons Treehouse of Horrors. But, just as with most children, I was fascinated by the idea of ghosts and werewolves, vampires and witches, all things creepy and unnatural. There is something about our programming that makes us enjoy being scared. Not-actually trapped in a terrifying situation in real life scared but-let’s flirt with the idea of being in a trapped in a terrifying situation in real life scared, from a safe and comfortable distance.

I never was a brave child though, not when it came to things like that. I had a morbid fascination coupled with a fantastic fear of the same. I avoided horror films until I was all but out of my teens and did not even set foot on a rollercoaster until I was 21. But as the years passed I began to realise that the things in life we should truly fear, death, pain, loss of control, financial hardship, disease and failure to name just a few, had all touched my life in one form or another, and I had lived through them. And that made me realise that it was silly to be scared of films and theme park rides, the end! Hardly. If only all life were that simple. No, what I realised was that all the things I was afraid of, everyone else was afraid of too. When I was little I just sort out of assumed that I’d grow out of these fears, that adults had worked out how to overcome them, deal with them, that they knew something I didn’t. It isn’t until you become an ‘adult’ yourself that you come to understand none of that to be true. You cope because you have to. After years of existing as a kept being, you’re responsible for your own mistakes and you just have to throw yourself into the tundra and make the best of it. You make decisions because there is no one else to pass the buck onto, you put yourself forward because otherwise you are overlooked, you take chances and experiment, you settle into the new season. You start the process of working out just who the fuck you’re going to be, and what you want to be.

The aspects of this that are sometimes hardest to accept are the bits nobody tells you about. I’m not talking about the big emotional dramas (although these peaks and troughs form a large part of our growth as a person) no, it’s the boring intermissions that can be the killer sometimes. Getting up for work every day, in the cold and the dark, to spend most of your waking hours doing that weird flip flop of trying to balance your moral compass against whatever corporate ambiguity you’re asked to enforce. Spending literally hours of your life shouting or crying down the phone at internet server providers or boiler repair men. Trying to find the most effective way to juggle your bills so that you can make it through the month, to enjoy a few days rest-bite towards the end, before the merry go round of anxiety starts all over again. Losing you purse, breaking your phone, breaking your arm, washing up the same pots, day in and out and in again. Being too tired to put energy into any of your hobbies or pastimes. These times are considered the good parts as well, when something heart-breaking and real isn’t rattling along the track beside you. It’s this stuff, the greyness of the ordinary, that makes me want to reconnect with the ideas that used to occupy my brain before any of that was part of my reality. I reach a point, I think we all reach a point, where we need to find the fun again, and this is where the fireworks, pumpkins and Santas come in. At the point where we need it most, we light up the darkness with our celebration. Just as we have always done.

Five years ago, my partner and I moved into a new house. It was, is, beautiful and we were so very happy to have found it. As a housewarming, somebody said, why not have a Halloween party? I don’t know who said it, or even if it was me. Seems unlikely it was me, I rarely think outside the box! For some reason, some unknown reason, we decided to make fancy dress compulsory. Sounds kitsch I know, that’s because it is. It’s utterly childish, silly and entirely unnecessary, and for that very reason, it was awesome. People took to the idea with an unexpected fervour. It awakened my friends’ creativity, imagination and sense of fun. I think it took us all surprise really. The party was a success, and not only that, but after the first one, it felt like it was already a tradition, Halloween was locked in.

Of course much of the good times had were down to the fact that this group of friends had partied long and hard together many times before, but the costumes gave it a sense of occasion and mystery. Knowing that I was only going to be in a room of people I loved and trusted, I have dared to take risks with my costumes. I’ve become different characters and for one night only, acted the part of another. And so has everybody else. I don’t think I can convey to you in words just how fantastic some of these costumes have been, we’ve had Ringwraiths and Daft Punk, Marvin the robot and Amy Winehouse, Hunter Thompson and Poison Ivy, Bane and Lara Croft, Lady Gaga and the Dude, Dangermouse and three, count them, three Sergeant Murtaghs! Not to mention a host of dead celebrities, monsters, vampire killers, dolls, cartoon characters, superheroes, and an eyebrow raising amount of cross dressing. Part of the fun of that is the build up, the movement from concept to reality. Searching for the important nuanced items that will make the costume work, trying (and often failing) to make it effectively, sourcing the music, decorating the halls… It was just nice to have that buzz back again. The buzz of having something to look forward to that wasn’t getting up with your alarm, looking for your keys, paying a bill, yet more washing up.

Because the thing is, it’s important to remember what it’s like to dream. It’s important for our well being to imagine, to create. Being scared is a big part of that, because when you remember what its like to believe in things you can’t understand, to fear things that can’t hurt you, you remember to have fun again. Ghost stories and horror films have an important part to play in that, they always have. They encourage you to use your imagination. What scares you are the projections of your own fears, and that is why these stories are so powerful, and so effective at tapping into our sense of danger. There are only so many horrors and they are all reflections of things we actually fear, loss, decay, lack of control, isolation, imposters. What is any story without a sense of threat? An adventure is not an adventure without the villains of the piece, without them it’s just another straight line, it’s just passing time.

Lying in bed the other night I remembered some of the ghost stories that we used to tell each other as children. We’ve all heard the same ones no doubt, they are always based on the same urban legends. The tap, tap, tapping of the rain on the roof of the building next door, brought this one to mind…

Kelly loved her dog. He was a little Jack Russel puppy called Monkey. Monkey was the sort of friend that could always be relied upon as shoulder to cry on when the other girls at school made fun of her, made fun of her clothes and her stupid milk bottle glasses. Monkey was also the sort of friend that could always be relied upon to enter into any adventure with the same enthusiasm as Kelly, whether it be hunting for conkers or collecting snails for her snail circus. Although sometimes Monkey got overexcited and crushed the snails with his paws, or even sometimes just ate one, only to spit it back up onto the patio. Kelly would tell Monkey off, as sternly as possible, in her angriest voice, before scooping up the sad little body and burying it in the garden. Her Mum would moan about the little tufts of grave mounds, tripping over them as she collected the washing, but Kelly didn’t like the thought of not burying them, it just seemed wrong somehow.

The times when Monkey was the best were at night. Monkey would always sleep under Kelly’s bed. Her parents weren’t too happy with the idea at first but as long as he stayed off the bed, and he always did, it was grudgingly agreed to that he could sleep there. Sometimes, during the night, Kelly would wake with a start, dreaming of the girls at school, pulling her hair or pushing her over. In the dreams it would be much worse though, Kelly was always surrounded and there was no teacher there to help her, not like in real life. She would wake up sweating and crying. Every time this happened, Kelly would stick her arm underneath the bed to find the reassuring presence of Monkey. Monkey always responded, even if he was asleep, and after a few seconds the puppy would lick his mistress’s hand in a rhythmic motion, until Kelly calmed down and eventually fell back to sleep.

One night, after a particularly upsetting day, Kelly woke from her nightmares as she always did, panicked and afraid that she was actually trapped in that playground, the exits all blurred and impossible to find. As usual she stuck her hand under the bed, and after a moment or two, she felt the reassuring presence of her friend, licking her hand. Kelly began to drift back off to sleep, but as she did a tiny noise kept pulling her awake again. It was a dripping sound. A derwip, wip, wip noise. The more Kelly focused on it, the more she realised that the sound was coming from the bathroom next door. Kelly lay there for a while, whilst Monkey licked her hand, and waited in the hopefulness that her parents, in the room down the corridor, would wake and sort the noise out. But as time passed, it seemed less and less likely that this would happen.

Finally Kelly resolved to move and turn the tap off herself. She reached out to her beside table and sought out her glass, carefully swinging her legs over the side of the bed as she did so. Once composed, Kelly crept off the bed and tiptoed across the floor, the only light was a yellowish glow coming from the night light stuck into the plug socket on the opposite wall, shaped like everybody’s favourite spiky headed cartoon character. Kelly’s door was always partially ajar, just in case her nightmares were really bad, she could shout down to her parents and they would come and comfort her until she fell back to sleep. But most nights, Monkey’s steady presence was all that was required.

She whispered back toward the bed ‘Back in a minute Monkey moo.’ Kelly heard a low grunt in response, and she smiled to herself, thank goodness for Monkey.

As Kelly reached the bathroom she pushed open the door and clasped against the wall for the light switch. Once located, she pulled the string down until it clicked. Light flooded the room. Kelly first looked at the sink, no dripping tap there and so she turned towards the bath… Inside it there was a pool of red stuff. Kelly breathed in sharply, what was that? It didn’t look like water… Kelly followed the trail of red stuff upwards, and there was her Monkey, hanging by the neck from the shower. Kelly began to breath in and out, faster and faster, tears stung her eyes. Her Monkey, her poor puppy, head lolling, eyes wide open, a deep gash running across his neck, matting his fur… the red stuff was blood, Monkey was bleeding! Kelly tried to scream but couldn’t find her voice, all that came out was a harsh rasp. Kelly knew she needed to get to her parents, they needed to get Monkey down, he wasn’t moving, wasn’t making any noise, and she needed to get him down! Kelly tried to move her legs but they were stuck to the floor. In one instant, Kelly thought how silly all her worries about the girls at school had been, she had never been more scared than at that moment. She tried again to move or make a sound, but she was still frozen to the spot. There was a singing noise in her ears, and in the background to that, she could hear movement, somebody was coming to help her… But the noise wasn’t coming from her parents’ room down the hall, the noise was coming from her room next door. And then Kelly remembered, her mouth tasted like pennies and she swallowed to try to clear the foulness, she remembered, Monkey had been with her, hadn’t he? He had been with her when she heard the noise. But he had not, the noise was coming from him, so if he was here, who was… who was, under the bed…?

Kelly felt dizzy. She touched her palm, which was still sticky, and she lifted her head as the movement from her bedroom grew louder and heavier…

Like I said, I was thinking about that story as I lay in bed, listening to rain thudding on the roof. It’s a good job I don’t live alone really, I’d probably never get any sleep! I first heard that story when I was about 7 years old. The details, of course, are just a little story I wove around it, but the main points of the tale were always the same, the child, the dog, the dripping, the licking… It makes me wonder how I ever thought it would be possible to scare myself more than that in all of my avoiding of terrible tales. Murder of a beloved pet and the thought of being licked by an imposter? Nasty barely begins to cover it! But in an attempt to bring all of this back to narrative relevance, the reason we tell these stories is because it’s fun to be scared. We celebrate Halloween, we dress up as imposters and oggly-booglies, to enjoy being scared. More than that, we do it because it’s fun to have fun, and I guess that’s the whole point really.

This year I’ve decided to dress as Sadako from the Ring. The girl in the well. I’ve found the costume, I’ve dyed my long hair very black (it was dark anyway so it’s not that much of a transformation!) I’ve found the costume and I’ve planned the make up, and the long and short of it is that I’m buzzing with excitement over the whole affair.

I’m at the top of a rollercoaster. The drop that lies ahead of me is not just the party, it’s the rest of my life. I’ll ride with the punches when I can and try not to lose my grip, but along the way I will shake the cart occasionally and have my own fun. Life is a journey and it’s a collection of moments, it’s good to take the initiative sometimes and remember to have a laugh every once in a while. And more importantly, if only for a night, it’s good to let the fucking dishes wait.

And so with that, I’ll leave you. My apologies to those who weren’t expecting an attempt at horror in the middle of it, I hope I didn’t give you nightmares with my appalling grammar. But ‘tis the season dudes, how could I not?

Merry Halloween bitches! To one and all :D

*from The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe (but you already knew that!)

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