Dark Shadows

October 31, 2009

Later today, a ninja warrior and a king with a cape will leave our house and walk from door to door with friends who may have reinvented themselves as witches or a ghosts for a night. On this last evening before the time changes, we’ll start our journey as daylight fades. But soon the edges will blur; porches will become bushes, trees will become people, and darkness will make things appear what they aren’t.

That’s when Halloween starts, regardless of how many Kit Kats or Skittles rattle around in the bottom of the treat bags. No matter what we call this night — Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, or the Celtic celebration of summer’s end known as Samhain — it’s a time to acknowledge the thrill and the power of the dark. In pagan times, people considered the moment between the “lighter half” of the year and the “darker half” a time when the membrane between the physical world and the spirit world was most thin, when the barrier was most porous between what we know and what we can never know for sure.

We don’t need this background — or the scary costumes — to be reminded that darkness alone carries a special power. Who hasn’t lain in bed at night and been scared by the wind rattling windows in some far-off corner of the house, or heard the scurrying of a mouse in the walls and sworn it was something much larger and more dangerous? The dark plays tricks with what we know, but can never know for sure. That edge of uncertainty raises something primal in us. It put us in touch with our primitive instincts of survival, and our primal dread of death.

When you combine the darkness with the outdoors, that edge of uncertainty intensifies, especially for children, who haven’t yet learned how to let logic and reason push down irrational fear. In the safety of a back yard, a night out in a tent can feel like an adventure — or a brush with death. A walk in the park, in pitch black, can be anything but a walk in the park — is that a tree? a person? Collecting night crawlers by flashlight can be absolutely thrilling. The air feels charged, alive. Our senses heightened, we listen and look harder, notice things in a way we don’t during the light of day.

Tonight, walking in the dark stretches between houses, amidst make-believe ghouls and villains, we’ll feel an edge of that power. It’s my favorite thing about Halloween.

Learn more

Classic ghost stories from Ambrose Bierce (“A Vine on a House” and
“A Summer Night”) and Washington Irving (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”).

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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Kristen Laine

In 2013, Kristen Laine won an EXCEL gold award for outstanding feature writing for her work in AMC Outdoors.