The bloodcurdling scream pierced through my drowsy brain like a knife. But for the next five minutes, and for the rest of my life at family gatherings, I laughed until tears ran across my cheeks.
That scream was not a banshee's wail; it was my older brother trying to save his hand from mutilation. Several neighborhood guys had pitched a pup tent in our backyard and decided to spend our night consuming trick-or-treat goodies and telling ghost stories. We never dreamed of my father and oldest brother's plan to scare the dickens out of us.
Counting on a neighbor telling his tale of a dismembered hand, they dipped my brother's hand into some white paint and waited. At the right moment, Tom let his hand creep under the tent's wall and across the floor as my Dad emitted a low ghostly moan, thinking that we would probably tear down our tent getting out.
What they did not think about was the teamwork of the kid next door and my next-older brother. Jerry grabbed the ghostly hand while Kenny pounded it with the flashlight he had brought with him. While Tom screamed and my dad threatened mayhem if they didn't let him go, the rest of us burst into uncontrollable laughter. Fortunately, Tom suffered only some light scratches and a bruise. But the incident was a valuable lesson for him and the source of mirth for my family for the rest of our lives.
Thinking back on that fateful night brings memories of all those moonlit evenings spent in the enchanted land of trick-or-treat. And, always, we either ended the night in our living room watching "Shock Theatre" all night, or sitting in another rendition of that pup tent telling old ghost stories.
The stories were as much a part of Halloween as the candy and costumes, and I have to wonder why a child (or adult) would be so enthralled with something which evokes such frightful visions. My parents, apparently, were no more worried about our watching horror movies and telling ghost stories than they were of our reading comic books.
So, why would they take this nonchalant attitude? My belief is that, on an subconscious level, they realized that these supernatural tales contained a much deeper and more significant meaning.
The one element present in just about every ghost story is that of a crime or injustice never resolved. Whether it is the urban legend of a Confederate soldier haunting the Augusta State University campus, or the story of a ghostly hitchhiker forever trying to get back home, there is always some unjustifiable theft, pain or death involved. Mark Twain even included in his speaking tours the tale of a man being haunted by his wife after killing her and stealing her "golden arm."
Like ancient Greek mythology, ghost stories exist not only to entertain but to implant the mind with the idea that no crime goes unpunished; no injustice is left unresolved. The spirit of the victim cannot leave this world until justice has been served. In fact, some of the most famous tales, including Poe's "Telltale Heart," engage the acceptable outcome within the tale: with the criminal being arrested for his crime.
Yet another element in these tales, and one which perhaps holds our interest just as much, is the reassurance that the human spirit is eternal. Even as a child, the scare evoked by ghost stories told around campfires was only temporary; but the tales always made me ponder whether I would also survive death. My mother's reassurance that I would go to Heaven, and my minister's sermon the following Sunday, helped to convince me that death was not final.
Yes, with hearts fluttering and paper bags in hand, we wandered through our neighborhoods in complete ignorance of the tragedies and horrors that might face us in our future lives. And in today's world, those same kids are now parents who worry more about drugs, bombs and kidnappers than things that go bump in the night. But even so, we know that despite the existence of these horrors, justice does prevail in the world and the human spirit does go on in the hearts and minds of the next generation.
Equipped with these two firm beliefs, I find renewed hope in the light of this world, not the darkness. This Halloween, I take confidence in the thought that the disembodied spirits of Iraqi genocide victims silently watch and wait for the outcome of their persecutor's trial.
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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