As a Floridian who’s weathered his share of hurricanes, I can more than sympathize with my northeastern countrymen as they begin the lousy task of cleaning up after Sandy. But there’s one commonality that stands out for me as a parent. Just as “Frankenstorm” struck days before Halloween, so did Hurricane Wilma wreck South Florida seven years ago this week. My kids were tweens then (remember Harry Potter costumes?) and I have a piece of advice now for the parents of trick-or-treaters from Virginia to Maine: Don’t cancel Halloween, as I’m seeing so many towns up there announcing they’ll do. Postpone it. Delay it. But as soon as you can, have it.
That might sound like fairly trivial counsel given the deadly havoc the Northeast is dealing with at this moment. But that grim situation — and the impact I’ve personally seen it have on children — is precisely the reason I’m offering it. During times like this, one crucial thing kids need is a reassuring sign or two of normalcy. What’s more, if you’re going to have a hurricane hit you during a holiday, Halloween is the best when it comes to children: For all its lighthearted revelry of costumes and candy, this delightfully gothic autumn festival also manages to teach kids a thing or two about confronting life’s darker side.
Wilma tore across Florida a week before Halloween in 2005, on Oct. 24, littering the peninsula’s southern half with uprooted trees, exploded rooftops and glass shards from high-rise condominium windows. Almost 40 people were killed; more than 3 million of us were without power for weeks, and the damage topped $20 billion. I remember interviewing a group of shell-shocked elementary school kids who’d been having a “hurricane sleepover” in a Miami Beach high-rise when the Category 2 winds destroyed the apartment and almost blew them into Biscayne Bay.
Many people considered shutting Halloween down amid that mess. Still, when I looked up long enough from my own aggravating cleanup work, or from my deadline stories about the disaster, I could see the dispiriting effect that the prospect of ditching Halloween was having on my children, then ages 10 and 8. It wasn’t just that they were losing out on the fun. Halloween by then had also become a comforting part of their children’s almanac. Not having it would have left a hole that only compounded the hurricane trauma they were trying to absorb all around them.
I might not have been so tuned in to their funk had I not covered Miami’s Elián González debacle five years earlier. The one thing the child psychiatrists I interviewed then kept telling me was that Elián, like any kid that age, needed structure returned to his life, especially after the horrifying experience of watching his mother drown in the Atlantic Ocean. I remembered that wisdom after Wilma, and it made me and a number of other parents in our community resolve to forge ahead with a proper Halloween. Not just the trick-or-treating but a party afterward with ghost stories, bobbing for apples and limbo dancing. Observing Oct. 31, damn the mess, helped the kids forget Oct. 24 for a while, and I’d be willing to bet they remember it as one of their best Halloweens.
And maybe, in retrospect, one of the more meaningful. Halloween doesn’t just help kids forget their cares; it invites them to face their fears. I’ve never understood parents who boycott Halloween because they believe it introduces children to the occult or even Satan worship. As far as I’m concerned, it does just the opposite. Halloween doesn’t embrace death — it mocks it. (I would also remind conservative Christians that while it’s a secular holiday today, “Halloween” traditionally means “All Hallows’ Eve,” the night before All Saints Day on the Roman Catholic calendar.) In that sense it’s a lot like Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which unfolds every Nov. 2 in all its skeletons-and-marigolds splendor. I call the Day of the Dead the Mexican Halloween because it serves much the same harvest-season purpose: to make us less scared of death by letting us party with it for a moment.
That kind of positive ritual comes in handy when children are trying to make sense of tragedy. When I look at the 2005 Halloween photos of our neighborhood kids today, I see more than youngsters laughing at their fantasy frights. I also sense children who might be coping a bit better with the real mayhem they’d just witnessed. So in spite of this week’s catastrophe, let the kids put on a Frankenstein costume — because it might help them put away their nightmares of Frankenstorm.