Halloween digs itself out of the chilly autumn ground for a few weeks each year, too weird and primal for governments or religions to claim. It is an ancient pagan harvest festival and a leering plastic skeleton in a front-yard cemetery of styrofoam tombstones. It is candy and liquor, sex and death, and the only "moral lesson" of Halloween is a sneering threat from a child in the night: Give me mine or you'll get yours, mister. It is the only honest American holiday.
Late October is also the happiest time of year, with leaves crunching under your shoes and a hint of woodsmoke in the crisp air. Great piles of squash and pumpkins are stacked around the markets, and people look wonderful again—women in scarves and boots, men in wool coats, the stench of summer forgotten.
Storefronts are suddenly revealed to hold secret societies of retail artists, as strange and whimsical displays pop up in the shops that generally skip the more mundane holidays of Easter or July 4: optometrists, tailors, hardware stores and especially the beauty salons are transformed into camp scenes of undead mannequins and morbid jokes. Halloween has become the greatest city festival of all: a do-it-yourself riot of schoolyard fairs, community pumpkin patches, ridiculous parades, drunken costume parties and temporary social chaos.
There is crass commercialism, of course, but what is America without crass commercialism? From the three aisles of black-and-orange seasonal crap at the Walgreens to the life-sized Spanish-language Elvira beer ads at the liquor store, it is the one time of year when everything is marketed with the nighttime glamour of death, which is coming soon, for all of us.
Handmade tissue ghosts and gloomy plastic yard displays, crows eating candy corn off the sidewalk, giant felt spiders and acres of poorly stretched synthetic webbing, all of it laughs at death, which is one of many reasons why religion and government keep their distance. The afterworld faiths are powerless when you greet the inevitable end of life with a grin. Politicians and their wars and their laws die a little more each time a 300-pound bald man in a Miley Cyrus twerking costume tells a cop to "blow me."
There are those who complain about the alleged intrusion of adults into what is nostalgically remembered as an amusement exclusively for children. But why take offense at American adults finally getting a national carnival after centuries of puritanical oppression? Children have finished their trick-or-treating long before the slutty whatevers and their zombie paramours take to the streets, and masquerade balls were a normal pastime of the American city dweller until the forced conformity of the 1950s. The gays and the punks and the drag queens of New York City finally busted out of those dull chains in the 1970s, transforming Halloween into a hard-earned civil rights celebration of the weird.
The pre-schoolers dressed as scarecrows and superheroes march door to door at twilight in occult solidarity with the lingerie-clad vampires and sleazy popes who work the late shift. Every all-night diner looks like a horror movie backlot or Star Wars cantina scene once the bars close and the Halloween parties shut down after the third noise complaint. Moldy pumpkins are smashed in the booze-soaked rituals of 4 a.m., hangovers are quietly suffered in cubicles and college classrooms, and for a few short days and nights it's actually fun to look at Facebook.
Everybody who wants something from Halloween gets it. Your version is as valid and awesome as anyone else's, whether it's a hyper-violent haunted house or a tasteful block party with local pumpkin soup and upstate hard cider. It is perfectly fine for you and your adult roommates to dress as Hogwarts students or characters from a Netflix series or giant boxes of wine with crotch-level spigots. You are encouraged to hold Satanic rituals in the woods or drink enough of those pumpkin-spice coffees to trigger sugar-caffeine psychosis. Solemn Wiccan ceremonies are as legitimately Halloween as a porch loaded with rubber monster babies from those awful "Spirit" stores that pop up in unloved malls this time of year. Halloween may be your annual stab at bisexuality or a last wild drunk before the pre-Thanksgiving dryout. As a Crowleyan sigil at the end of this month's Google calendar, it will do what you ask of it.
Some people despise Halloween, of course. You'll find them mostly way out there in the exurbs, where the local megachurch franchise demands that even public schools skip the ghoulishness, and you're lucky to even get a "harvest celebration" of smiley-faced pumpkins that suck the joy right out of the autumn air.
If you're stuck in such a place this Hallows' Eve, do your friends and neighbors a favor and host a Halloween party in your house or backyard. You can do a Martha Stewart thing with the bobbing for apples and an iTunes playlist of funeral marches and Carmina Burana, or you can get drunk and watch horror movies while eating pizza. It does not matter, as long as you let the spirit of Halloween inside.
The miserable alternative is to let it scratch on the window glass all night long.