23 October 2022 – Today I learned:

why I like spooky but don’t like scary [1]. Eliza Brooke at Dirt: On Spookiness covers it really well. I love her take on the liminality of spookiness:

“Technically, spooky means ghostly or spectral, two words that relate to liminality. To me, spookiness is a suggestion. It leaves the door open to the possibility of life beyond death, of a world that’s much bigger than what we know. It can be brought on by a misty night or a front porch covered in store-bought cobwebs and spiders. … Unlike the scary — which is often literal and urgent, embodied by monsters, zombies, and grotesque clowns who are definitely out to get you — spookiness invokes the spectral in an uncertain and ambivalent way.”

That’s what I like about spooky, the uncertainty and ambivalence, the shivery sense of possibility — not knowing what’s out there on the other side of the threshold.

Deanna Lack in Samhain As Liminal Space at Loving the Questions provides a good basic understanding of liminality:

“Samhain is often described as a liminal time, or liminal space. Liminal is defined in the dictionary as “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process,” or “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” The term comes from the Latin word limens, or threshold. In anthropology, the term is defined like this: ‘the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.’ This is according to Victor Turner, who studied rites of passage among African societies. So liminal space is a little limbo, a pause between what has passed away and what is yet to be.”

Halloween, the Gaelic/Celtic celebration Samhain, the Mexican (Aztec-Toltec-Spanish) Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), and the Catholic All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) are all circumscribed spaces of heightened liminality between the living and the dead, the finite and the infinite, the now and the not yet. The veil between the earthly plane and the spiritual world is felt to be thinner at this time of year, as we transition from the season of life and light to the season of death and dark (in the northern hemisphere). It’s a time when we may feel more connected to the dead or to the spirit world (ghosts, ancestors); we may see through the veil of our own illusions; boundaries, or what seem to be boundaries, dissolve into the vibrating ether.

Day of the Dead Pumpkin People

Reading Brooke’s essay reminded me of Richard Beck’s series on “Monsters” at Experimental heology. Brooke presents monsters differently than Beck does. From Brooke’s essay, quoting a folklore professor: “‘Horror, to me, can be remarkably dull, because there’s such certainty to it. … The monster may be wholly other, such that you can’t comprehend it, but when horror happens, there’s certainty.'” For Beck, monsters are scary because they’re not wholly other and we know it. In one essay he writes Monsters are liminal creatures. They exist “in between” civilization and the abyss. Monsters come from dark unknown places and enter our world. In this sense, they are like angels, the liminal creatures of the good place. Intrapsychically understood, monsters come from the unknown abyss inside us, the dark corners of the id.” Monsters are us.

An essay by Hannah LeGare at Texas A&M Univ. College of Arts & Sciences News, titled “Beyond and before ‘Boo’: A Halloween story,” actually brings the spooky liminal nature of Halloween together with the idea of scary horror film monsters. She notes that “during these [liminal] moments of connecting the secular and divine, people believed hierarchies of society could be disrupted. Therefore some sought to overturn social conventions or believed they could get away with petty crime: … ‘As a society, each time there is a moment of crisis in liminal [time] we project our anxieties onto them,’ said [Hilaire] Kallendorf. … [Monsters and monstrous occurrences] became a tangible representation of their intangible fear.

Halloween decor at Christmas Tree Shops, Cape Cod

Leaving aside liminality and monsters, I think Brooke is also on to something when she says that “Spookiness is always pricked by fear, but it’s warmed significantly by the very human traditions of Halloween. In part, spookiness feels cozy because it’s nostalgic, transporting us back to carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating as children. … Spookiness is also wrapped snugly in associations with domestic comfort — decorating the house with gourds and cobwebs, lighting candles, making graveyard pudding topped with crushed Oreos and gummy worms — and community festivities. More than most holidays widely celebrated in America, Halloween dissolves social boundaries, giving us permission to knock on strangers’ doors.”

And with that one word, doors, we’re back to liminality again, thresholds, dissolving boundaries between social classes, between people we know and strangers, as children stand on one side of the door and adults stand on the other.

[1] I don’t like scary when it comes to horror movies, horror books, thrillers, suspense stories, true crime, rollercoasters and commercial haunted houses, or other human-made products designed to “spike your adrenaline and set you uncomfortably on edge,” as Brooke puts it. I do like crime fiction, which some might call scary; I don’t experience it as scary (or spooky). It’s challenging like a puzzle. In the best crime fiction, there’s often a lot of ambiguity, and monsters (or elements of monsters) lurk in people who seem pleasant, including in the detectives.

Brooke also notes that “scary experiences need to feel fundamentally safe in order to be fun, giving us an adrenaline rush followed by a renewed sense of confidence. Around Halloween, haunted houses and ghost stories have the added bonus of giving us a space to safely play with the idea of death.” For me, that’s what meditation and poetry writing do, give me a safe space to consider death, even to practice it — that pause between each breath, a liminal transitional space between living and not living. The adrenaline rush, the (perhaps false) sense of confidence, I can do without. I’d rather not suspend disbelief, which is what enjoying scary requires, but if I’m invited in, as spooky allows, I’ll probably walk through the doorway.

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