Frightening for all the wrong reasons
by Natalie Sirna
photography by Mya-Lin Lewis
It’s Halloween night but I feel like I’ve been wearing a costume for months. Masks aren’t just for dressing up anymore, and 2020 has felt like a bad horror movie that never ends. It’s hard to get into the spirit of Halloween when there’s no shortage of real frightening events happening every day in the news. “Trump 2020” and “Make America Great Again” signs scattered across La Verne homes send more chills down my spine than any Halloween decoration ever could. As a young person, it’s becoming harder and harder to not be jaded and disillusioned with the American government. I can hardly remember a time when I felt truly supported by the system. Little-by-little, I feel like I’m watching my country unfold right in front of me. It’s hard to believe how we got to this point as a nation, but here we are nonetheless. Out of Halloween, the pandemic, the election, and our ever-present climate crisis, it’s hard to pinpoint which one is most terrifying.
Despite the country unfolding in more ways than one, there was a collective effort to make Halloween seem normal, especially for kids. Children are supposed to be frightened by scary monsters and costumes, not the incredibly real shortcomings of the American government. Even though officials strongly discouraged venturing out this Halloween 2020, the thought of staying home on Halloween proved to be too depressing. After all, what’s Halloween without trick-or-treaters? And so there was an attempt to keep the spirit of Halloween alive. Drive-thru events were a popular hit, and several schools passed out candy to kids in cars. One of the most popular drive-thru events this year was the Haunted Hayride through Bonelli Park in San Dimas. There, you could experience all the thrills and scares of a haunted house from the safety of your front seat. After driving down a winding road, you park your car where zombies, vampires and killer clowns run amok with fake chainsaws and knives. They sneak up to car windows and terrorize participants—all in good fun. There, a giant projector shows short horror films while dancers in skeleton makeup perform on an elevated stage. All in all, the event proved a success, and it was a fun alternative to simply skipping out on Halloween altogether.
While drive-thru experiences may have been this year’s saving grace, there is an obvious downside to them, which is the barrier they place between us and the outside world. The small degree of separation is enough to make us feel disconnected from the thrill of the moment. Halloween marks nearly eight months into the pandemic, so we should be used to distancing by now. However, we still long for authentic, in-person memories that we once took for granted. We’re still haunted by feelings of isolation and loneliness brought on by weeks of quarantine. We deeply miss the feeling of being truly immersed in the present moment and not behind a barrier of separation, whether that be a computer screen, a glass panel or a car window. It is difficult to shake our innate human desire to connect with people face-to-face, not just mask-to-mask.
Even though Halloween looked different this year, holidays in Southern California have never been truly traditional. For one, the typical fall weather we associate with not only Halloween but Thanksgiving and Christmas barely touches Southern California’s perpetual summer. The final months of the year can largely be spent in the same outfit attire as June or July, and that’s usually a t-shirt and flip-flops. Cozy rainy days occur sparingly and are appreciated all the more because of it. October is often just an extension of summer, a continuation of sunny mild weather.
But despite the lack of rain and snow, people in La Verne hold a deep appreciation for the holiday season. To say Halloween is a big deal in La Verne would be an understatement. Every year, people are lining their rooftops with orange and purple lights, decorating their porch with hollowed-out jack-o-lanterns, and setting up frightening inflatable monsters that tower 10 feet high. The week leading up to Halloween is full of parties and costume contests, and the University hosts its annual horror movie nights on the Sneaky Park lawn. Students always have something to look forward to and something to get their minds off midterms. But strangely, this year I found myself using my midterms and school work as a distraction for everything else going on in the world. My daily homework routine, however tedious or mundane, can at least provide a sense of normalcy amidst all this chaos. Others saw Halloween as a means of attaining a bit of temporary normalcy. The lure of a fun night would make a good distraction from the constant noise of the pandemic.
It’s not unusual for people to use Halloween as a means of escape. Everyone knows Halloween to be a light-hearted and spirited night of fun, one night where you don’t have to be yourself. It’s a chance to evade the seriousness and mundanity of every-day life. You can dress up, go out with friends, and enjoy a break from reality for just one night. But this year, reality was painfully inescapable for so many people. Many who experienced the virus first-hand had to grapple with the devastating changes it brought. Fear, anxiety, and grief are emotions currently shared by thousands across the country.
Sadly, with an ongoing, politically-charged pandemic underway, people are yearning for an escape from reality now more than ever. Those who haven’t been affected by the virus fail to accept its legitimacy. Some are denying the reality of the pandemic altogether and continuing their life as if this public health crisis is over. A popular saying that’s circulating online is, “The pandemic isn’t over just because you’re over it,” but that message doesn’t seem to be getting through to everyone. Although several parents and children roamed the streets this Halloween night with masks and gloves, many chose to go out unprotected. Those who chose to leave home tonight without a mask are ignoring the dire reality of living in a pandemic. It’s become apparent that masks are a political statement. Only in America could something so basic to public health safety become politicized. Public health safety has been twisted into such a contentious political issue that it leaves many ditching CDC guidelines left and right. Tragically, this can only mean a rise in cases and a rise in deaths.
The growing spike in deaths is hard to ignore, especially with the arrival of autumn and winter. These seasons can often remind us of death. The trees start to become bare, with some dying and others returning to life in the spring. Nature is a continuous cycle of death and rebirth, reminding us that all things must come to an end. But this year, it didn’t take the arrival of fall for death to be on our minds. COVID-19 has blanketed the country in a black veil since March 2020. The sheer amount of loss is difficult to fathom, and it is even more difficult knowing there is still more to come. As of Halloween night, COVID-19 either directly killed or fatally exacerbated the pre-existing conditions of more than 220,000 Americans. Halloween in some ways is a mockery of death, and something feels wrong, perhaps even insensitive, to adorn one’s house in fake ghosts and goblins when we as a country have experienced such a mass amount of real death. The pandemic has effectively turned the United States into a graveyard. Some people may feel even more inclined to have fun this holiday given the bleakness of this year. Yet, I can’t help but feel a tinge of discomfort when I think of how the unfolding of events this year has been scarier than anything to do with Halloween. 2020 may sound like a horror movie, but it’s anything but fiction. COVID-19 is a stark reality for us all, even those of us who have yet to experience the illness or the pain that comes with it.
It can be easy to proceed with our fall festivities without a second thought of the larger issue at hand. Even though cases are spiking again in the United States, the news isn’t as loud as it used to be. The numbers aren’t at the forefront of our minds anymore, not like the early months. Many have become disillusioned, numb, or just plain complacent. But complacency is dangerous in a pandemic. Now more than ever, it is important to practice safety precautions so as not to overwhelm the healthcare system and keep businesses open.
The problem with being safe and cautious is that we are restricted in what we can do. Quarantine fatigue has many people wanting to just let loose and have fun for the first time in months. In our privileged society, we are not quick to sacrifice our fun. As showcased by the appalling number of mask boycotters, there is little stopping people from doing what they want, when they want. The danger, of course, is that the virus is also free to mingle right along with them, passing from handshake-to-handshake, one germy encounter after another. Especially to college students, fun and safety often appear mutually exclusive.
Even though there are guidelines in place, this does not mean there have to be fewer memories made. It only takes a small stretch of the imagination. The pandemic forced us into our homes and made us seek joy in ourselves and our families again. As fall sets in and the holidays await eagerly around the corner, the idea of finding joy in the simple things at home with our loved ones still holds true. COVID-19 has once again forced us to get creative and come up with doable activities given the circumstances. This Halloween was not about sacrificing a beloved holiday altogether, but rather it was about compromise and making the best out of what we are given.