By Dyana Herron
I’m always surprised come mid-September when I pop into the drugstore or supermarket and first see the aisle in black and orange, yellow and purple, of fun-sized Halloween candy and plastic jack-o-lantern buckets. This is because, as a non-driver, I’m normally sweaty from walking or sitting on a crowded bus, and September isn’t cool enough to lend the chill necessary for a goosebump-inducing holiday.
When October arrives, however, I’ll take a few minutes to walk through and peruse the offerings: the standard candies like M&Ms and Reese’s peanut butter cups are always there, as are the confections one can only find this time of year, like candy corn, gummy eyeballs, and wax vampire teeth.
It’s these latter, more morbid sweets that delight me, because unlike many who were raised in evangelical households, I was brought up to love Halloween.
And it wasn’t just my family who encouraged this pagan piety—it was our whole town.
Cleveland, Tennessee boasts a population of around 40,000 individuals, and each October around 15,000 (from the city and surrounding counties) pack themselves into a couple of blocks in our underdeveloped historical downtown for what is called “The Block Party.”
It is, without rival, the biggest community event of the year.
Most revelers come dressed in costume, and bring their babies and their dogs, also in costume. Once I even saw a man with an arm-thick albino python draped across his shoulders. All parking lots in the vicinity, mostly church parking lots, are packed, so the resulting stream of people headed into the heart of it all becomes a macabre parade.
The festival itself consists of not much more than booths of fried foods, a costume contest, and lackluster performances by local bands. One year, however, a few cast members from The Brady Bunch were on hand to sign autographs, preceding a main stage concert by—I kid you not—Little Richard.
The nicest historic street in our town, Centenary Avenue (directly across from the Church of God university), is roped off from traffic. The Centenary homeowners construct elaborate thematic displays on their lawns, and are forced to buy mini-Tootsie rolls or the cheapest pink bubble gum to offset the cost of handing out treats to literally thousands of trick-or-treaters.
Underlying this brouhaha are the legends of Cleveland’s two famous ghosts. One is Tall Betsy, a towering witch said to steal naughty children. Tall Betsy’s main perpetuator is rumored to be the town’s wealthiest citizen, the owner of a payday loans company who sometimes dresses in a mask, black hat and robes, and stalks through the crowds on stilts.
The other is Nina Craigmiles, the daughter of one of Cleveland’s most prominent and unfortunate founding families, who died in a train accident in 1871, and whose white marble mausoleum, stained with a reddish discoloration, is said to “bleed.”
The Craigmiles family tomb stands on the grounds of Cleveland’s first Episcopal church, St. Luke’s, which was built by Nina’s grieving father and consecrated on the anniversary of her death, October 18th, the feast day of St. Luke the Evangelist.
It wasn’t until I left Cleveland that I realized how perfect a metaphor the Nina Craigmiles legend is for the city as a whole, as it combines what our townspeople love best—churches and ghosts.
After moving to larger cities, I was perplexed to find there were no Halloween equivalents to our Block Party, that if folks did anything at all on October 31st they rented a scary flick or had friends over for beer. Most Christian families I met stayed home to pots of chili or took their kids to alternative social events at church, like Trunk-or-Treat, or Hallelujah Houses.
Suddenly I was struck with the contradiction of my hometown, a place where you can throw a rock and hit a church no matter where you stand, that nonetheless gives itself over completely and joyfully to what many consider a celebration of wickedness.
I asked myself how this came about. Could my town’s religious tradition and fascination with Halloween be linked? Was my own?
As a child who learned that death is no end, not really, and that the resurrected Christ acted in spooky ways, displaying his wounds, walking through doors, mysteriously appearing then disappearing, was I more likely to see bloodstains on a mausoleum?
As a child who believed graves would one day burst open and the saints would bodily ascend into heaven, was I primed for stories about the undead clawing at their coffin lids?
As a regular and eager participant in a ceremony that symbolized eating flesh and drinking blood, was I less terrified by the thought of zombies and vampires?
As someone who believed in the Holy Ghost, was I more likely to believe (or want to believe) in regular ghosts?
As someone who believed that God, who is Love, is to be feared, did I come to believe also that fear should be loved?
It’s hard for me to say now, as someone whose beliefs have been changed by education and age and new cities, and who, like most adults, finds it difficult to recapture the moments of undiluted joy and terror that come naturally to children.
But sometimes, standing in the Halloween aisle, I’ll touch the vacant eyes or nylon hair of a bulbous plastic mask, and even in the bright, exacting light of the supermarket, I’ll shiver.