Halloween is finally here, and I’m on my way to work. Over the weekend I noticed youngsters about in costume, heading to a local business that was holding, apparently, some kind of ghostly do. For me it’s just another day—Halloween isn’t an official holiday in any government’s book. Business as usual. Still, I can’t think of Halloween without recalling Nashotah House. I began, and effectively ended, my academic career at Nashotah. Idyllically located in the woods, it was a seminary that knew how to celebrate Halloween well. We were expected—required, actually—to be in church for a good part of the next two days for All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. But Halloween night we were allowed to be afraid.
Gothic writers often used to focus on places like monasteries and churches for moody frights. Nashotah began its life as a monastery, but soon turned into a seminary. The stone buildings were old—for this country—and gothic in design. We had an on-campus cemetery with a bona fide black monk. Students reported seeing ghosts, and with such a small population of religiously devoted people the imagination grew like toadstools. One morning at around 5 a.m. the door handle to my apartment rattled loudly. I’m sure it was just someone trying to get into a forbidden chapel whose only access was through my rooms. Thunderstorms echoing through the kettle moraines that surrounded the Wisconsin campus could be impressive indeed. On Halloween the maintenance man drove a hayride through harvested corn fields and the cemetery where opportunistic ghouls would pop out to frighten the slow-moving, exposed riders.
Since those days Halloween has instead become just a day of work. No more the grandeur of All Saints’ Day being an actual holiday, holy day, followed closely by All Souls’. This is just another day except for the kids who can come around and get some candy if I’m not too tired to hand it out later. I suspect this is why I spend so much of October reading about monsters and ghosts and scary movies. I no longer have a Halloween to focus my energies. So here it is Halloween. It’s dark outside and I’ll be standing in that dark, waiting for a bus. When I climb off at the end of the day, I’ll be sharing the nighttime streets with children who are perhaps the only ones who celebrate holidays as they should be commemorated. Already a month ago I began noticing the Christmas displays in local stores. It was my first real scare this season.
Posted in American Religion, Current Events, Higher Education, Holidays, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Halloween, Holidays, Nashotah House, Wisconsin
Just a quarter of an hour, studies show, of time in the woods can reduce stress. I suspect that if those fifteen minutes are spent running from a bear the opposite might result, but in general time in nature is an incredible solace. The weather hasn’t been particularly cooperative for October walks in the woods around here, but yesterday my wife and I managed to spend some time, along with many others, in Hacklebarney State Park, one of New Jersey’s gems. Living in the most densely populated state, to gather from the number of hikers we saw, encourages time in the woods. It was good to be reminded of the compelling scent of autumn leaves, the wonder of seeing their colors in the daylight when daily commutes begin and end in the dark. When work days are spent in the grayness of the city. Being out with nature, to borrow words from the Good Book, restoreth our souls.
I suppose there’s nothing really logical about it. We’ve built civilization to protect ourselves from nature. Solid walls to keep predators out. Heat, running water, and electricity so that we can surf the internet without ever going outdoors. Permanent settlement always within reach of cell phone service and work email, we are the scions of civilization. Being unplugged just for an hour or two—even fifteen minutes—can feel like salvation. If that fifteen minutes is spent among rocks, trees, and the peculiar light that reflects off a lazy river. The internet will always wait, won’t it? Thoughts of work can be suspended until Monday, can’t they?
Hiking among the other expatriates of civilization in what used to be the Garden State contrasts so sharply with the image we project to the world. The Chris Christies and Donald Trumps who bluster that nature is there to be exploited. They may not say so with words, but lifestyles speak so much louder than syllables. Gaining wealth requires putting one’s own agenda first. We’re out here picking our way carefully over a rocky path. We have to stop frequently to let others go by the other way, or to let those faster than us pass by. But we’re all out here for the same reason. It’s a beautiful autumn day and spending it indoors feels wrong. I know that even getting online now feels like my time is being demanded by a million distractions. Unplugging, walking at a moderate pace, feeling the cool air and breathing the aroma of fall deeply into tired lungs, I can feel the stress draining away. If only for a day.
It’s that spooky time of year when nights have surpassed days and the chill in the air suggests an oncoming period of bleakness. Leaves are raining down off the trees and strange sounds fill the dark. So when a friend sent me an article on The Vintage News entitled “Website ‘Died in House’ can tell you how many people have died in your home & how” I had to look. At the story, I mean, not the actual website. You see, I’m not sure if I want to know too much about those who lived here before me—or died here before me. Like many people near a major city, we rent. I’ve never owned property (never had a job that paid well enough to do so) and as a renter you’re limited in what you know about your home. We’ve lived in our current situation a decade now. Of the four families in the two houses that make up the property, we’ve been here by far the longest. The house, however, has been here even longer. Has someone we’ve not met?
We live in a rational age, but we still fear ghosts. Belief in the lingering spirits of the departed goes back to the earliest written records and, we have every reason to suppose, far before that as well. We just can’t seem to shake that feeling, no matter what our rationality tells us. I didn’t go to the actual website, but Vintage News reports that it is a paid service. You want to check your address, you’re going to pay. And the results only go back to 1980. I don’t know about you, but to me it seems there’s a lot of years before that to wonder about. I mean, I was in high school in 1980 and there were lots of houses in my town that looked pretty old even then. If you’re going to pay to learn about ghosts, you want to be sure you’ve got the older periods covered as well.
I’ve lost track of the number of places I’ve lived. Some of them have been fairly old and some I have been curious about. Would I want to know if anyone had actually died there? I’m not so sure. One of the seminary houses I lived in had a spooky, neglected feel. I never saw anything that most people would characterize as a ghost, but I knew nothing of the history of the place when I moved in. It never occurred to me to ask. Now you can ask. A few keystrokes and a few dollars and you can learn if your house has “that kind” of history. The question is, with the increasing hours of darkness, and the wind whistling through the gaps around the windows, do you really want to know?
Back when I first started this blog, I regretted that I had read Douglas E. Cowan’s Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen so long ago. You see, I try hard to post on a specific book only once—there’s really no rule about that, but I read a lot and don’t like to play favorites. Since it had been a year or two since I’d read it, my memory was a touch hazy about the details at the time. I did a post anyway. Now that we’re in the thick of fall, and my daily commute both begins and ends in darkness, I decided to read it again. This particular book is validating for a guy like me. Many scholars feel they need to apologize for such low brow peccadilloes as watching horror movies. I mean, don’t scholars read all the time? And when they’re not reading, surely they have better things to do with their time than watch cheesy exploitation films? My generation, however, has started to come to terms with this basic disconnect. A few of us have somehow made it past the bouncers.
Cowan’s book is the one I first read that dared make explicit what many of us feel—religion and horror are not so different. As a sociologist of religion Cowan brings a specific lens to the subject, and his book analyzes different societal fears (sociophobics) that these movies address. And even though he admits being a bit squeamish, he brings an impressive number of films to the table. The fears of hoi polloi, it turns out, are often the very same ones religion seeks to redress. After reading his book the first time, my list of must see DVDs grew. The same happened this time around.
It requires a certain maturity of character to both realize and admit that horror meets a deep need. We don’t like to feel vulnerable. More than once, armed with my Ph.D. and years of training my rational faculties, I’ve still ended up sleeping with the lights on. I can tell fact from fiction, but there’s an itch that horror scratches which other genres just can’t reach. As much as I enjoy science fiction on the screen, its debased little brother has fingernails just the right length. As Cowan points out, fear is one of the primal human emotions. The world we’ve constructed hasn’t eliminated fear—although I can’t recall the last time I saw a cougar or wolf in the wild—but has constructed it as more of our own making. In our own image, I might suggest. And since nobody likes to be alone during a scary movie, it gives me some comfort to know that Dr. Cowan is out there, somewhere, watching with me.
Weekends, it seems, are incomplete without being among books. You might think that someone who works in publishing might want to get away from books in the off hours, but quite the contrary. I love a good walk in the woods in autumn. Especially if it’s followed by a trip to the local independent bookstore. It just feels right being among books. I realize that I’m in the minority by expressing such an opinion, and that the book buying (and book publishing industry) is (are) small compared to other forms of passing one’s time, but they are significant beyond their size. My wife and I have scoped out the various indie book sellers all around. When we have to take the car in for service, we drop it off, have lunch at a diner, and stroll down to the bookshop. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Here’s the sign on our Clinton indie. In case you can’t make it out, the legend says “This is a book shop. Cross-roads of civilization. Refuge of all the arts. Against the ravages of time. Armoury of fearless truth. Against whispering rumour. Incessant trumpet of trade. From this place words may fly abroad not to perish as digital waves but fixed in time. Not corrupted by the hurrying hand but verified in truth. Friend, you stand on sacred ground. This is a book shop.” I especially appreciate the sentiment of sacred ground. Indeed, sanctuaries of all sorts often house books. As libraries experience funding difficulties, civilizations are in the throes of collapse. Just to have books around me makes me feel secure.
Some months ago we had to have a refrigerator replaced. Our apartment has a strange, offset back door that makes getting anything of size in or out difficult. The front door is a fairly straight shot, but just beyond the entryway I had set up a bookshelf after we moved in. The appliance guys came in, jaws literally dropping. “I’ve never seen so many books in one place,” one of them said. They then complained and told me they couldn’t get the old fridge out as the landlord had said they’d be able too. “Your books are in the way,” they complained with accusatory tones. I had to unload the books from two shelves and move them while they watched. I, the lover of books, was duly chastened. I’m afraid my love affair with reading has only become more passionate since that day. The books are back on their shelves and they’ve been joined by more friends. What is a weekend without books but a wasted opportunity?