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Whistling past the graveyard

Boo! Did I scare you?

Probably not, but as days get shorter and nights cooler, ghoulish expressions and macabre symbols abound. People’s thoughts and decorations embrace ghosts, skeletons, graveyards, spiders, black cats, bats and anything that can be conjured up in a witch’s cauldron. Spooky stuff.

The motifs associated with the upcoming Halloween observance feature items with which humanity has had longstanding, anxious relationships. Portraying them in fanciful and comic ways helps bestow a type of calm courage. The idiomatic expression “whistling past the graveyard” seems to capture the seasonal spirit as folks partake in colorful festivities and wear costumes—activities that display fortitude while disguising culturally ingrained fears.

Other cultures around the world embrace holidays with similar elements. During the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, people offer entertainments, meals, and gifts to placate the sometimes-mischievous souls of those who have died. In Japan, the Obon Festival honors the dead, who are thought to revisit the earth annually. Celebrations feature traditional foods, and people light bonfires and paper lanterns to lead spirits off into the night. The Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) combines Old World and New World elements to fashion a joyous welcome for visiting spirits. Somewhat incongruously, cheery revelries feature skulls, skeletons, candies and masks.

Here in Farmville, Halloween is perhaps the best known among these types of holidays. Halloween (a shortened form of Hallows’ Evening) occurs just before the Christian observances of All Saints and All Souls Days, two holidays commemorating groups of people who have died. Popular Halloween customs link to the theme of death and incorporate ancient Gaelic and Celtic traditions borrowed from the observance of Samhain, a festival that marks the turning of the year from light to darkness. These seasonal elements prepare folks to acknowledge human mortality, apprehensions and dreads. At Halloween, the things that frighten us take center stage.

I used to be afraid of bats. Once, when I was 8 or 9-years-old, some bats made their way into my bedroom. I recall being terrified and swinging my hands over my head to beat them away. I’m not sure what input led to my beliefs, but I “knew” that bats would become entangled in my hair, and then they would suck my blood.

Fear of bats is called chiroptophobia. For me, the fear was not long lasting. My father explained that the bats, with small fragile bodies, probably feared my comparatively huge, flaying arms. Their fear, he said, was likely much greater than my own. Further education helped me learn that most bats eat insects or fruit rather than blood. Now when I see one (preferably outside), I may experience an initial, slight shudder but that sensation is quickly replaced with gratitude as I watch it dart about eating mosquitoes.

Fear of spiders, arachnophobia, is much more common. For the most part, I have managed to avoid it, perhaps because one of my first introductions to the world of spiders came through the arachnid made famous by E.B. White as the eponymous heroine of Charlotte’s Web. In case you’ve forgotten, Charlotte helps save the life of a young pig named Wilbur by weaving into her web messages proclaiming the young pig’s greatness. Along with millions of other children, I cried when Charlotte faced her own death, but I felt consoled upon learning that hundreds of offspring would take her place in the world.

My relationship with spiders soured some years later when I met J.R.R. Tolkein’s Shelob, the enormous, lethal spider who guards a passageway that must be traversed by a pair of heroes from Lord of the Rings. Shelob personified evil, and I experienced the terror of the tunnel as Frodo confronted her. Here in Virginia’s heartland, I’ve been impressed with the abundance and variety of spiders. Many small ones seem as friendly as Charlotte’s offspring. Fortunately, none have been as fearsome as Shelob, but some certainly deserve respect and distance.

As for the rest of the Halloween panoply, I won’t admit (at least out loud) that the things that go bump and boo in the night make me jump out of my skin. I’ll try not to scream, but you may hear me whistling.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.