Balmoral Castle, 1874. It was a Halloween to remember. Queen Victoria planned an elaborate party, taking charge of designing every element of the night herself. Something in the incongruity of that touches me. Victoria, living with the ghost of Prince Albert, sought to stave off the monstrous with a Halloween bash.
Diana Millay’s The Power of Halloween, is a witch-friendly potboiler that you need not bother reading. But even a bad book can have something worth plucking:
The Queen’s lavish preparations and attention to detail may have run a close second to her coronation. Masked balls were nothing new to her. Nor were holidays which she believed she was born to celebrate.
The Queen invited not only friends and royal relatives, but also her tenant farmers and castle servants to join in a torch light procession around the palace grounds. They walked while she rode in a four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage. With a fiery torch in every hand (including the Queen’s), this strange but exotic procession was only the beginning. How cleverly she had set the stage for her indoor celebration: Balmoral by candlelight. It must have been hard to tell the ghosts from the guests.
That last sentence is a bit breathy but it suits the day. More precisely, it is of a piece with what the day has become. I prefer real ghosts to the cheesy inflatable ghouls that sway on every front lawn between here and the Henry Hudson Bridge. Even the city—the Upper West Side, for heaven’s sake!—has its growing share of orange lights and fake cobwebs. The campiness of it all irks me. I prefer a good fright. Something to curdle the blood.
Either that, or bring me some sign of genial accommodation with the dead. Each of us lives with ghosts. We call them saints to console ourselves for the mystery of their whereabouts. There is solace in the word saint. It deflects dread but does not erase it. Some humor brought to the unseen, to all that is concealed and goes unnamed, complements the hope we have for ourselves and for our dead.
Contemporary Halloween aims at nothing more than mocking the death-conjuring unease inherent in mortality. There is no humor in our Halloween stuffs, only inanity.