Where the Wild Things Are: Why We Love Halloween


We love Halloween. On Halloween you can get naked, don a tinsel wig, paint yourself silver and dance down Christopher Street explaining to two million other paraders that you are mercury in retrograde.  The parade in our town starts at the Co-op at six and traipses up Main Street in a misaligned mayhem of pirates, fat little huggable pumpkins, lady bugs with black felt spots and flowers in wagons pulled by mommies dressed like watering cans. The moon was almost full this year and it piddled rain but the kids didn’t care. I was taller that Shaqueel O’Neal with my nine-inch afro and platform heels, which said STAR on them in big silver bubble letters.  Everything looked sort of glittery through my rhinestone eyelashes, and I felt very risqué, tattooed all over, even in the face, like an Angola inmate. Peter was the devil in his leather mask and red cape.  His tongue was forked and kept flicking out to burn me with its lava spit. Or something. Anyway, we went to a party afterwords where cat women ran around on stilts and burlesque girls swung above us on trapeze and huge silver hoops.  We were fairies and cats, toucans and Groucho Marx, we were butterflies and drag queens and Lady Ga Ga with white bob wig.  One guy was The Beatles, in a yellow submarine that had four heads, all with bowl haircuts. I had that slightly drugged feeling I always get on Halloween, that maybe this is all a Jungian dream, where the shadow sides we normally try to hide finally push us aside and have their say.

Halloween started as a Celtic holiday when the ghosts of the dead came back, and told the future to the priests.  Everyone dressed in costumes of animal heads and skins and built bonfires so they could burn crops and animals as sacrifice.  Sounds sort of like Burning Man.  Then Pope Boniface IV tried to ruin everything by making it about saints and martyrs, but the true holiday prevailed, the big bonfires burned again and people paraded down the streets in costumes of angels and devils.

Unnecessary ceremony and ritual usually dies out, but, like weddings and funerals, Halloween is here to stay.

The day after Halloween, we went to see Where the Wild Things Are.  I’d read about the movie, how Spike Jonze was over budget, running around the beaches of Australia, ripping up trees and trying to figure out how to balance the top heavy monster costumes Jim Henson sent.  The Maurice Sendak book was my very favorite as a child, and the screenwriter, Dave Eggers, is the renegade Springsteen of the literary world, but I wasn’t so sure about Spike Jonze. He’s supposed to be underground grunge, riding around on his skateboard, acting like a very talented prodigy who just happened to make Being John Malkovich and some really good videos, when actually he’s a rich kid from Manhattan, who changed his name.  I thought maybe this would be one of those Antoinette moments where the economy is falling down around us and some cocky filmmaker is telling us to eat cake.

But then there was Max in the first scene, making snow tunnels across the street, and suddenly I was in fourth grade with an overwrought mother and an aloof older sister, making forts in my bedroom, holding court with my stuffed animals, while the teacher at school tells us the sun is going to die, and we have to eat bagged corn for dinner. In the movie, Max tries on every identity, from warrior to explorer, until finally he gets up on the counter in his little wolf suit, and tells his mother he’s going to eat her up, and then he bites her and runs away.

NPR said Max was about a spoiled little boy and all the monsters are big spoiled adults. I wondered if the commentator popped out of the womb fully grown, understanding absolutely everything about the world. He always played by the rules and never snapped his mother’s nylons for fun. Max was far from spoiled and the monsters, as you will see, were just big hairy children.

After he sails for a night and a day, Max meets the monsters and, just like Halloween, the movie becomes a Jungian dream.  Each monster represents a part of himself: the tantrumming but very fun trouble maker, the co-dependent who wants to take credit for everything, the self deprecating scared one no one every listens to and so on… Max alternately tries to control the monsters and play with them, tries to fight them and then looks for reassurance in them, until finally he emerges from the belly of the whale (or the mouth of the monster, or the second womb, depending how Freudian you want to get) and admits that he is just a boy, and all the boy really needs is to be loved.  He doesn’t need to be king, he needs his mother.

And then he sails back through a night and a day, and his mother feeds him, and he lives happily ever after and Spike Jonze, who might actually be living his dream, instead of the Manhattan one his parents set out for him, gets rich.

The film was political and psychological, it was complex and heart wrenching, and it was embarrassing how often I wanted to cry during it. I felt sorry for children in their complicated journey toward adulthood, and I felt sorry for people, like that NPR commentator, who have forgotten what it was like to be a kid, and I felt sorry for all us adults because really we are still kids, building forts and wanting to be kings.

The moon was rising over Wantasquit while we drove home, a big blanched face that cast light over the confluence of the Connecticut and the West River, and I thought about Halloween, how it’s the one day we can make peace with those weird shushed tendencies inside: being six-foot-four disco queens even if we live in reserved New England, or princesses when in real life we are linebackers, we can be the Beatles when really our voices didn’t make it past first grade singing classes, we can dance with skeletons, goblins, witches, drape cobwebs over our doorways and rot our teeth.  Halloween is when we make friends with our alter egos, it’s when we look fear in the face.

That night in bed, I took my husband’s hand. He squeezed it in the dark.  “Sometimes I’m afraid,” I whispered to him. “I’m afraid something will happen to you, and I will be all by myself.”  I felt him nod on the pillow next to mine.  “Sometimes I’m afraid, too,” he said. And then he turned around and spooned me.  I could feel his breathing get rhythmic as he fell into sleep, and I realized what I had just said was that I was afraid of myself.  And I understood that Maurice Sendak’s book is about exactly that.  Whether we are running too fast to notice it or not, we are probably all a little afraid of what makes up this mysterious thing called the self. And once a long time ago, the Celtics realized this, and let themselves become animals around the fire, singing to those dead ancestors, or maybe they were singing to the dead parts of themselves, that every once in a while need to be woken up so they can parade down Main Street in the rain under an almost full moon with all the other wild things.