Last weekend, I took a bunch of eighth-graders to a "haunted mill" out in the country, where they were chased through rows of corn by shrieking ghouls dressed in black with chain saws and knives. Waiting for them on a bale of hay under a Day-Glo poster of the Grim Reaper, I had an odd feeling I couldn't quite place.
Later, on the way to the gas station, I passed a house flag with a little white ghost and letters reading "'BOO."
"Boo," I said to myself. Right.
Halloween is coming at a strange time this year. We don't need to play scared. We are scared. Planes have crashed. Buildings have toppled. A letter has the fairy-tale power to kill anyone who touches it. Evil henchmen are hiding, perhaps somewhere nearby. No wonder there was a bizarre quality to the carnival signs that said "Dark Zone" and "Field of Screams."
Fear is just not going to be as much fun this year. The whole iconography of late October--the skeletons, the tombstones, the potions and the demons--seems out of place in a nation that's just endured thousands of deaths. Are we going to put on Osama bin Laden masks and go door to door saying trick or treat?
As the anthrax monster lurks in the darkness of every mailbox, our resolve not to be terrified in the wake of terror attacks has begun to crumble. It's becoming sensible to think twice about what we do, where we go, how we travel.
My family doctor just discussed anthrax and smallpox vaccines (not available and probably not a good idea anyway) as part of my baby daughter's exam this morning. He's not an alarmist and neither am I. This is apparently something we talk about at wellness now.
I know how much the U.S. hates "cowards." This word has become an all-purpose denunciation for everyone from terrorists to pacifists, though I don't see what's particularly cowardly about either one of them.
A coward, according to my dictionary, is one who lacks courage. Other quibbles aside, it's certainly not being afraid that makes you a coward. Even tough guy John Wayne said: Courage is being scared to death--but saddling up anyway.
There's something else important about our fear, beyond that it is the soil in which our courage takes root. Fear is our glue right now. It's the thing we all share. Because we have been attacked, because we are bereaved, because, hawk and dove alike, we are afraid for our children; these are the reasons we will never be as polarized about this war as we were about Vietnam.
Fear is what is going to make it possible to "stand united," as the hand-painted signs and beer ads everywhere are urging us.
It's just like we tell the kids when we send them out into the Halloween night, trembling a little in their pumpkin suits and kitty-cat costumes: Stay together.