I love Halloween. Maybe it’s because of the theatricality of it, with costumes and props, or maybe it’s because of my addiction to chocolate. Author Peg Aloi, an expert on Pagan holidays, explains that Halloween, or “Samhain” as it is sometimes called (which means “summer’s end”), is observed as a celebration of the last harvest of the year before winter. It is also a time to reflect on and honor those who have passed on before us. The “veil between the worlds” of the living and the dead is said to be at its thinnest on this day, hence its association with séances and ghosts. For me, as a mental health professional, I think one could view the Halloween season in October as a time about confronting our fears.
By dressing up in costumes and embracing things scary and ghoulish, making a sugary feast of it all at a time when the days grow shorter and green fields grow brown, we are confronting and even embracing our fears. Fear is like an internal smoke alarm for our minds; it shrieks and screams as a signal to warn us that the house might be on fire, that we’re in danger, that we had better move fast to prevent harm. But sometimes the smoke alarm of fear goes off because we burned the toast and it’s nothing to worry about. Our internal fear trigger doesn’t know the difference; its job is simply to give us that early warning signal; it’s up to us to check it out to see if a threat is real. Our instinct of fear is a much older brain function than our cognitive ability to reason out things. In the evolution of humankind, if we didn’t have a good fear sense as a species, we never would have outrun the saber-toothed tigers. But sometimes our fears hold us back, and keep us from the wonderful things we would have said, done, visited, read, tried, dared, or been.
When faced with a decision that scares us, we can look at what can happen, what we want to happen, and what will likely happen. We can look to our supportive resources, do our homework, and know within reason what the outcome will be. We need to confront our fears with informed reason. If I enter an airplane and a four-year-old child is at the controls, reason tells me to get off the plane. But if I enter that same plane and see a trained, adult crew in uniforms, I can reasonably place my trust that the trip will be safe.
How many of us living with HIV have to confront fears every day? We live with a virus that has been deadly to so many in all the world, yet for many in Western countries with the good fortune of access to expert care, often we can remain stable and healthy indefinitely. October and Halloween are not just about life and death, but about all fears. We might fear illness and death as people with HIV, but what other fears do we face? Are we afraid to enter a relationship because we’ve been hurt in the past? Are we afraid to date because someone might reject us because of our HIV status? To accept a new job because of fear of losing disability benefits? To try medication because we’re not sure what side effects it might have? To have children because of the small chance of perinatal transmission? To speak our minds to our insensitive landlord, boss, doctor, spouse, partner, sibling, parent, teacher, or neighbor because we think we lose our right to stand up for ourselves once we test positive? All of these can provoke paralyzing fears that immobilize people into a stagnant misery, when some of those fears could be managed or eliminated when confronted with a few questions from informed reason. If you’re afraid of something, ask yourself realistically — How likely is it? What about trying it a little bit? Who can support you in this? What do you need to know about this to make a better judgment about you’re afraid of? Who can teach you more? What’s the risk of “not” trying this?
Halloween is a time for putting on masks, embodying our fears, looking them in the eye, and then knowing that when it’s over, we can take those masks off again and be OK. In the words of Danny Elfman and Oingo Boingo’s classic song, “Dead Man’s Party”, “Don’t be afraid; it’s only me; don’t be afraid of what you cannot see.”