Beware! This post carries a Trigger Warning for you if you’re scared of werewolves, pumpkins or autistic children.
Today I am suffering that peculiar kind of hangover-cum-exhaustion which inevitably hits the day after a meltdown. Even getting dressed seemed like a bridge too far, let alone venturing out into the world; but today was also unseasonably warm and sunny, and I desperately didn’t want to waste the nice weather by staying cooped up in the house.
Eventually, my friend and I agreed on a compromise, and decided on a short walk down to the harbour to look at the boats, which is something that usually makes me feel calm and vaguely contented. So I pulled on an old pair of jogging bottoms and ignored the fact that my hair needs washing, and we set out, taking the long way round so that we wouldn’t meet too many people that I might have to talk to.
In all the excitement of feeling like I wanted to die, I had completely forgotten what day it was; and it was only after passing a young woman with her face painted like some sort of freaky undead rag doll that I remembered that today is Hallowe’en.
Hallowe’en just isn’t that big of a thing in England, compared to the USA, so it doesn’t tend to provoke the same strong reaction from church folks (as in, I’ve never heard an English church leader tell a bunch of kids that Harry Potter should be executed, like they do on Jesus Camp). Most of the kids in my Church will be dressing up as witches or zombies tonight and eating a shed load of Haribo Fangtastics, and then they’ll be dressing up as Saints for Mass on Sunday and receiving Jesus in Holy Communion – and frankly, I don’t think that the two things are particularly incompatible.
Human beings have told each other scary stories since time immemorial, and most of the games and stories we associate with early childhood have a scary element (I challenge you to think of a fairy story which *doesn’t* feature murder, violence or child abandonment). Stories about goblins, witches and things that go bump in the night play an important psychological role for us: they allow us to express some of our deepest fears in a safe way, at arm’s length. We play peekaboo with babies, and teach them that fun can be a bit scary, but scary can be fun. Six-year-olds reinforce this lesson amongst themselves by jumping out on each other and shouting ‘Boo!’ – a game which provokes fear and laughter in equal measure (unless, of course, you’re autistic, and still find this enterprise by turns baffling and terrifying, even in your late thirties….).
So, by and large, I think that Hallowe’en is probably quite a healthy thing for children. In some ways, it even expresses a kind of ideal for how our society should be. After all, wouldn’t we rather tell our kids spooky stories than have to issue dire warnings about predators on the Internet? Shouldn’t they be able to dress up as monsters and knock on the doors of their neighbours rather than having to stay locked up at home because their neighbours might be monsters? Wouldn’t it be better if every eight-year-old girl’s first introduction to dress-up and make-up was pretending to be Count Dracula rather than the everyday clothing and cosmetics marketed to little girls which make them look like miniature porn stars? Surely we’d all rather live in a world where you just put a pumpkin in the window to keep the goblins away, rather than one in which you have to put another deadlock on the door to keep the burglars out.
But there is an irony in our modern observances of Hallowe’en. When our ancestors wanted to find safe ways of expressing their fears, they told stories of things that were completely different and other – werewolves, boggarts, fairies and ghouls. They told their children these stories precisely to emphasise the distance between what is scary and what is safe – the wicked witch versus the loving mother, the ravenous wolf versus the kindly woodcutter. But the stories we tell ourselves nowadays to tittilate or terrify us in the cinema or in books are of everyday bogeymen: the high school chemistry teacher turned drug baron, the psychiatrist turned cannibal, the sharp-suited businessman who enjoys beating up his partner for kicks. And what do we do for Hallowe’en? There aren’t many werewolf or monster dressing-up kits available to buy in the shops, but last year two British supermarkets did try to run a delightful ‘Mental Patient’ costume – because clearly there’s nothing more terrifying than someone who’s got a prescription for Prozac.
In moving away from telling scary stories about The Completely Other, we have demonised the Almost Like Us But Not Quite. It hardly needs spelling out that this has dire implications for disabled people, non-heterosexual people, members of minority ethnic communities or minority faiths, and basically anyone who doesn’t quite fit the mould of ‘normal.’
Back at the seafront, our seagull feeding was interrupted by a group of children walking along the sea wall. Amongst them was a boy of about nine or ten, inexplicably wearing a cardboard pirate hat and trailing slightly behind his companions. He was obviously having to concentrate quite hard at balancing on the wall, but he seemed happy enough. Then suddenly from quite a way behind us came a blood-curdling cry:
“John! JOHN! You’re flapping. You need to stop flapping!”
Neither I nor my friend had actually noticed John flapping (and, for obvious reasons, we’re both fairly attuned to such things), but clearly this public display of not-normal was causing his mother deep distress and embarrassment. She had soon caught up with him and was berating him for flapping, all the while glancing around to check that no-one else was watching, whilst talking in a voice which must have carried halfway across the county.
Poor John was trying to listen to his mother, and stop flapping, and explain to his mother that he had pins and needles and needed to “flap them out,” and keep up with the rest of his group, and walk along the wall, all at the same time. Within thirty seconds, the inevitable happened: he lost his balance, tumbled off the wall and landed on the ground with a shriek. Not just any shriek, mind you, but the Autistic Shriek; that high-pitched noise that we’re all supposed to have grown out of as pre-schoolers, but which I still make from time to time, and maybe you do too.
As the boy was lying on the ground like an upturned beetle, all the adults in his group stood around him in a tight circle. Nobody offered him a word of comfort, or a hand up, or even that faux-jolly “no harm done” thing that grown-ups do when kids fall over. They all just stood around, looking horrified at The Shriek. “There’s no need to make that noise, John. You’re not dying,” said his father, in a tone of voice which rather suggested that he wished the opposite were true.
As the adults continued to create a human screen around this poor kid, his mother looked furtively around, clearly praying that nobody had noticed her autistic child doing autistic things. I quickly hid behind my friend, because by this time I was flapping like mad, and was seized with the irrational thought that these people were about to throw both me and their child into the sea as human sacrifices to the gods of normality.
Eventually, the boy managed to get up his own, and the whole group moved off, while my friend steered me off in the opposite direction, until we were safely far enough away for me to flap and my friend to splutter and swear in indignation. But when I looked back at the boy and his family, I could just make out that his hands were flailing out at an older girl, and his father was moving in to restrain him. No doubt that episode will go down in family history as another incident of challenging behaviour, an unprovoked attack on a sister or cousin, another lovely family day out ruined by our dreadfully difficult and frightening autistic child. I’m sure that nobody will stop to consider that John was actually happy before they made him stop flapping.
That attitude was the scariest thing I have seen this Hallowe’en. Give me a Dalek any day.