Autumn is a season overlooked; a 13 week long wasted opportunity. The Halloween-horror hyper focus and excessive commoditisation around it overshadows these truly beautiful darker months. Shop shelves are saturated with grotesque goodies the very second summer is declared over; a proliferation of Christmas products primed to spread into the space.
It's not Halloween per se I get so grumpy over though. I genuinely do enjoy peppering our year with seasonal celebrations, this one included, and M revels in the near constant state of festivity in our home too. Plus the history of Halloween, like most festivals, is pretty fascinating, particularly going back to pre-Christian cultural roots and discovering how many weird and wonderful customs have carried through from early folk/pagan influences, and others that have been lost in time.
Alas, the spirit of this season is co-opted by some sinister elements of capitalist culture that we could well do without. Let's journey through some of that ick together. We'll get the bus...
(I promise it gets less grumpy after this bit!)
Have you also noticed that at this time of year horror film adverts are plastered, thoughtlessly, so thoughtlessly, on the side of buses and set off cruising around town for e.v.e.r.y.o.n.e. to see? It blows my mind that is has been deemed acceptable for these campaigns to be rolled out to the mixed demographic of society at large. This year's offerings included a very disturbing torture scene from Saw X, with the strapline "You can't unsee Saw". Why, then, are hideous images from it being shown to children? Is it beyond the reach of a team of advertising executives to come up with a neater way of targeting an audience of over 18s for their 18 rated film? Children haven't been spared a single thought here, and that is truly sickening. But not surprising.
Off the bus. We're at the shops now, where it's clear not only that throwaway retail culture is alive and kicking, but that fancy dress manufacturers are as guilty of losing their minds as the bus advert people. Still, in 2023, plenty of costumes could be accurately categorised under sections for 'gender stereotyping and the history of misogyny', 'cultural cringe', and 'sexualisation of children is apparently fine at Halloween'. The actual horror.
[A still from an animation by Lotte Reigner: the original creator of motion pictures. (Yes, before Walt Disney!) Her short films are labours of love that play with darkness and light. A pinch of natural creepiness, but plenty of sweetness too. Would look stunning on the side of a bus. Just saying.]
Let's head somewhere else, because I've started to grind my teeth over the unchallenged existence of burlesque costumes for little girls. What's that twinkling in the Estate Agents' window display over there? Oh, it's a glitter encrusted plastic gibbet, complete with grimacing skeletal occupant. Nothing says casual glorification of torture and capital punishment like a be-glittered gibbet. How fun.
Severed limbs and bloodied weapons are casually strewn all over the place, and I can't not dwell on the fact that for us, safe and cosseted here in the U.K., fear and gore are optional fleeting frivolities, but for others they are inescapable daily realities. Is it just me, or does this side of things seem in poor taste to you too?
No, thank you, I don't think a pumpkin spiced latte would help. Take me home. The bus is coming and has a haunted little girl from the new Exorcist film staring out from the side of it this time. Sigh.
Happily, the heaviness of this horror show isn't how Halloween has to be. There is much else besides and beyond all the terror and tack, so let's focus on that. Hopefully what follows here can also shine a light on some practical ideas to help work around or through the less desirable elements of the season, which may present a particular challenge for 'sensitive' children.
Let's take a walk through the scrunchy autumnal ombré of fallen leaves together. Thaaaaat's more like it. Perhaps we will meet some darkness on the way, and that's OK. Darkness exists naturally, within us and around us. Our own thoughts and imaginings, shadows and dark realities of the world are more than enough to be dealing with. We don't need to be wrangling with any artificially conjured creepiness, though if we happen to encounter any about there's a wonderful spell to make it 'not scary anymore' below. There are also several lovely books. Of course there are books!
[Teddy pumpkin, inspired by Jane Hissey’s ‘Peter and the Pumpkin Bear’.]
A poetic spell to cure fears and unwanted spooky feels
Last year we discovered a precious gem of a story in box of treasure a library. We found an audio version of Rosa's Singing Grandfather stories in a box of battered old CDs, and M loved them instantly. The book - by Leon Rosselson, published in 1991 - is well worthy of a spot on your shelf if you can find a pre-loved copy.
A lyrical poem is featured in 'How Grandfather lost his fear of the dark', from this story collection. It has a wonderfully neutralising effect; taking sinister sights and sounds and transforming them into something silly.
Bingles and bangles and bongles and boo,
Jingles and jangles and tu-wit-tu-woo
Higgledy-piggledy fee fie and fang
Flipperty-gipperty - BANG!
When you feel nothingness waiting to swallow you,
Prickles that tear at you, nettles that sting,
When you hear footsteps that follow you, follow you,
This is the song you must sing -
When you see monsters lurking in doorways,
When you see shadows crouching to spring,
When you hear noises that scuttle in corners,
This is the song you must sing -
(Repeat, ad infinitum)
It's very effective. The book recommends closing your eyes through the chorus until the 'BANG!', which should be shouted very loudly. Laughter, above all else, is a wonderful remedy to fear.
My favourite part of Halloween last year was, while out trick or treating for the first time, walking down a darkened street, holding hands with M (then 6), swinging our arms and singing with gusto and glee, utterly indifferent to the rain, impervious to the various horrors on display in gardens and windows, and not giving a hoot that we sounded bonkers.
[I want to add a photo for this bit but it's already taken me eleventy billion years to hit publish so I'll do it later. Professional I am not*.]
Friends from the shadows
From the Shadows by Clare Thompson is a wordless story book featuring beautiful, thoughtful artworks.
The blurb on the back says: "While providing a stimulus for shadow play, transient art, outdoor creativity and enquiry into nature, this book shows how adult reassurance and a growing understanding of the world enables us to overcome fears and approach our experiences with joy and curiosity once inner calm is restored."
It encourages us to play along with our imaginations to turn fear on its head it, and also offers an irresistible and important invitation to befriend, appreciate and understand the much maligned and misunderstood creatures of this season (spiders, bats, owls, frogs, toads, worms, crows, black cats, maggots...). Are they really so 'scary'?
[Definitely a book that's 'a bit different', but we really like it and it's opened up some interesting discussion and enquiry.]
Look upon darkness with kindness
Sticking with the 'poems as spells' theme, here's another couple of short and sweet verses; sympathetic to the season that welcomes in the dark:
For an acknowledgement of the fantastical opportunity of imagination and the limitless wonder of it all, try the first verse of Anne Brontë's Night:
I love the silent hour of night, For blissful dreams may then arise, Revealing to my charmed sight What may not bless my waking eyes.
The other two verses of this, though beautiful, are laced with grief and heartfelt longing and take it in a totally different direction, but take the first verse alone and it has a feel that's useful for fostering a friendly feel towards night.
To look lovingly upon the shadows, try:
In the absence of light,
The shadows, in fright,
Cling close together,
And call themselves night.
I read this years ago and can't remember where, or find who wrote it (it wasn't me, alas!), and it the lack of attribution is driving me a little nuts. If you know please tell me - I'll leave the comments open below, or send me a message on Instagram and end my obsessive torment!
[Another good'un: 'Hortense and the Shadow' by sisters Natalie and Lauren O'Hara. A sweetly illustrated story about loving your whole self, and realising that just because you've thought something it doesn't necessarily make it true.]
Darkness in a different light? Try ultraviolet!
When the nights draw in it's time to bring out the light up play selection. A light box, LiteBrite, disco balls, fairy lights and 'glow in the dark' anything (paper, beads, stickers, magnetic sticks...anything!) are all good shouts, but if you want to level it up then turn a lamp into a blacklight with a UV bulb and open up a world of fluorescent possibilities. Or a torch. Torches are fun.
For inspiration/example: Ikea's neon Måla paints glow up nicely; fluorescent washi tapes and neon face paints are a thing; all the glow sticks!; just shine a UV torch into a craft stash and it's amazing how many possibilities this uncovers for an autumn collage with a difference...
However, this year's discovery of discoveries is that riboflavin (AKA vitamin B2) glows under UV light and (ohmygoshyay!) can be bought in dissolvable powder form for making such exciting delicacies as glow in the dark play dough, or ridiculous novelty eerily glowing foodstuffs. Icing, cakes, drinks...quiche? Anything glows. The possibilities are endless (but fortunately the body's absorption is limited and excess B2 ends up in urine...maybe this glows under UV too! I'll get back to you...)
[Fluorescent play dough. Not easy to photograph, but simple enough to make. Just add a small amount of riboflavin powder (I used this one) into a basic play dough mix and enjoy under UV light. My favourite 'don't overthink it' play dough recipe is a 2:1 ratio of plain flour to table salt + a spoon of cream of tartar + a glug of vegetable oil + enough boiling water to make it squishy.]
The magic of the music of the night
Partly because it's an absolute belter of a tune, but also because of the strong 'making peace with the darker side of life' vibes, we listen to The Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera. (As much as one simply 'listens' to a tune this epic!)
It's a lot of fun to sing with more than the requisite degree of enthusiasm and less than the requisite degree of musical talent.
But you don't even need to listen to the song if show tunes aren't your thing - which would, ironically, make you a monster 😉 - just take the wisdom it offers into conversations.
(1) leaning in to the darkness, not away from it. Finding, noticing, appreciating the beauty in it; (2) weird creaking sounds? Rustling branches? Howling wind? Scuttling, hooting, cawing noises? That's 'the music of the night'. Get into the groove and dance with it; (3) reconciling the darker thoughts within ourselves. Acknowledging that our thoughts, our imaginations, our dreams can have a darker edge, and that this forms part of our whole selves. That there is power in knowing our whole selves, and that this is nothing to fear.
If it's not already clear, I love this song. I love the whole musical. I love allllll the musicals and I don 't care who knows it! I've got a recording of the stage show to watch with M for the first time this year, and - no pressure or anything - am hopeful that this sets a new tradition of a night in together with The Phantom that will last for the rest of my Octobers.
Slow-ly, gent-ly, night unfurls its splendour,
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender,
Turn your face away from the garish night of day,
Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light,
And listen to the music of the night.
*swoops cape, exits stage left as curtain lowers*
*Nobody is paying me anything for this, or any of the links herein, so I can do what I like.