Every year on Halloween the kids in my little Minnesota town gathered on darkened corners in their costumes and whispered about certain houses of special interest, houses to visit quickly and run away from. We had developed antenna for these matters. One dubious indicator, as I remember, was the work the homeowners put into their costumes, costumes which, to our judgmental young minds, they shouldn’t have been wearing. One slim old fellow dressed up as a vampire in an alarmingly dapper satin cape, his face pale with makeup, his blackened hair combed smooth. One lady was a red-nosed, green-wigged clown. They tended, these types, to make their houses inviting, dressing their porches with extra jack-o-lanterns and cotton-wool cobwebs infested with rubber spiders. They knew to lure us with over-indulgent treats such as full-size boxes of Cracker Jack popcorn. When we peeked past them inside their houses there was sometimes a grumpy, silent spouse watching TV and dressed like an adult.
What reminded me of these characters this Halloween season was watching the news from Washington DC, that vast granite mausoleum of democracy. It is ruled, to my inner-child’s eye, by creeps now. Cadaverous old over-costumed creeps. I don’t want to name them because I sense they’re vengeful, but I think you know who I mean and know the signs. Suspiciously genial manners, folksy voices, strange spells of whispering, sudden bursts of wrath. The way they lift glasses of water to their dry lips while narrowing their bitter little eyes. They seem to be rich old devils, most of them, just as they often were in my small town, and some of them have greedy, grabby hands. Their hair, if they have any left, is stiff and coiffed, and yes, they offer candy to make us like them. Candy in the form of cash and benefits. In the form of benevolent programs and free injections. They care about us -- they’re always saying so -- but sometimes their caring feels overly intense, as though it conceals a tiny pearl of venom. They contend they are deeply concerned about our welfare, about justice, about democracy, and they warn us of reservoirs of dark ingratitude that threaten our civilization, and their power.
There are younger creeps too. They have a different aspect, more robotic, wiped of human expression, and they tend to be located on the other coast. One of them jumped out at me today. Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, which has suddenly changed its name to “Meta,” a creepy non-word shorn of resonance and context, launched a video on the Internet he half-owns depicting a 3-D digital environment he calls the “Metaverse.” It began with him standing in a normal house that flowered into a Xanadu-like mansions surrounded by snowy mountains and tropical seas impossibly adjacent to each other. He called this zillion-dollar pad “your home space,” implying we’ll be as rich as him someday, or will feel like we are if we’ll just put on our headsets. Arrayed along this space’s window-walls were numerous peculiar objects resembling space suits and suits of armor. They were alternate bodies we might put on. One of them resembled him, but thinner, and was dressed all in black and responded to his waved hand by becoming a skeletal X-ray of itself, then an astronaut. Cut to a scene of a spacecraft and its crew, one of whom was a turtle-beetle creature who raised one claw and greeted him by name.
I do not wish to enter this vivid digital limbo, now or in the future, but I watched the short video five times. Enchantment and horror are similar emotions, and creepiness is a hybrid of the two. It feels like the reigning sensation of our times, strangely magnetic in its repulsiveness, holding us fast in a fairy-tale paralysis. It is part of the reason, I think, we feel so stuck now, like children who want to run away but can’t. Creeps surround us, creeps at every turn, working their creepy magic, casting spells. The worst of them are figures of authority, billionaires, politicians, even doctors. It doesn’t help that they sometimes appear in masks.
On Halloween my little elementary school would turn its gym into a haunted house. It was run by the teachers, dressed up as ghouls and monsters. We’d put on blindfolds and they’d lead us through, pushing our hands into bowls of slimy noodles that were supposedly human brains and organs. We were made to hold eyeballs – two peeled grapes. Werewolves leapt out and growled under black lights and we froze and pretended to scream. It wasn’t scary. It wasn’t even creepy. But then one year this changed.
I’ll call him Mr. M, my sixth-grade teacher. The parents all loved him. He had a hippie vibe. He was known for his love of kids and animals. Every October, on St. Francis’ Day, he organized a pet parade in town that featured a priest who wore a chunky cross and blessed our cats and dogs. He also mounted a huge school play each year. That year, it was the musical Tom Sawyer. He had us try out for the lead parts, which were Tom and his sweetheart Becky Thatcher, by calling us up to the blackboard two by two and holding our shoulders and making us kiss. We resisted, but he pressed us, so we did it. “Harder,” he said. “Like you like each other.” Awful. Even worse was the day he interrupted math, moved by some sudden impulse he didn’t explain, and drew a big drooping penis on the board, informing us that certain men existed who didn’t feel comfortable having this body part. The lesson ran on for a while, but I checked out, drifting away through the window to the playground, swinging on the monkey bars or something. Days later, while I was standing in the lunch line, he came up beside me and put on arm around me and slid his long dry fingers inside my shirt. “Does that feel good?” he whispered. I jerked away, saying nothing, and he walked off. I chose to forget about it.
Then Halloween came.
When my pals and I reached the haunted house after a couple of hours of candy-begging, I spotted Mr. M in the far corner manning a table where treats and punch were served. I don’t remember what he was dressed as. I was a ghost, with a bedsheet pinned around me. I watched him dip Kool Aid out of a big bowl and fill a cup being held by a small goblin. The sight made my stomach ache. I shook it off. I walked to the table in my dragging sheet and picked up a cup from the stack and held it out and let Mr. M pour red liquid into it, which I thanked him for and drank. It made everything better. He was a nice man. He was my teacher. He liked me. I liked him. I knew it was all a lie, but I could do it. I felt I had to do it.
But now I don’t. When I get the creeps, no matter who gives them to me, I say so. I admit it.
America this Halloween gives me the creeps.
Your teacher was born 30 years too soon. He’d be the head of a teacher’s union now.
You may get the creeps but it seems that many of the grown-ups don't or just look away and pretend. Citizens old enough to vote act like children who must do (and believe) as the authorities say because the candy is too hard to resist and the punishments for disobeying too frightening to contemplate.