I consider the ghost story essentially optimistic: it presupposes something, after all, beyond this mortal coil.
This first week of November promises to continue the interesting variety of autumnal as well as desert coastal weather that can lift our corner of the world from a maddening monotony. This juxtaposition of Santa Ana days and some dark and stormy October nights might seem an analogy with back-to-back holidays this time of year along our border.
“The traditional celebration of Dia de los Muertos started over 3500 [years] ago by the Aztecs, who practiced a month-long celebration that honored those who had died and welcomed their spirits back to Earth for a visit. During this ritual, they would often display skulls that they had collected as symbols of life, death, and rebirth.” (“Sugar Skulls: History & Significance of Dia de los Muertos [Day of the Dead]” By Karen L. Hudson, About.com.)
This cultural observation, now some few days in the past, went not only unobserved but unnoticed by me for 30 years prior to my moving to San Diego. An October 1975 train trip through the Sonoran Desert provided a foreshadowing of a kind of bonus Halloween south of the border, a way to extend celebration of the macabre for my morbid, youthful self. I remember the train slowing to a halt in the middle of featureless sand dunes between horizons, much like the Sahara and a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. A black-robed figure — distorted by heat mirage — approached across the expanse carrying a bucket of thick, tepid coffee and three newspapers dated November 2. It was a cowled crone of a woman, toothless and with hands like brown garden tools.
“[The Spanish Conquistadors] brought with them their Catholic faith and began an effort to convert the natives and put an end to the ‘sacrilegious and pagan’ observance. Their attempts to squash the ritual were unsuccessful. Over time the celebration was altered to coincide with the more ‘acceptable’ Catholic holidays, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.” (K.L. Hudson)
It had been this last, the Catholic feast day, that had intrigued my callow fascination at about the same time that I discovered the fiction of Shirley Jackson, Richard (I Am Legend, A Stir of Echoes) Matheson, and H.P. Lovecraft. Still, I never learned much about who, what, or why what is probably the ultimate abstract was celebrated, or at least observed, on November 2. The word “soul” invoked not only the supernatural, but supernatural horror. And that, by the way, is why I consider the ghost story or any supernatural horror essentially optimistic: it presupposes something, after all, beyond this mortal coil.
Now we have The Catholic Encyclopedia online. Under “All Souls’ Day,” it reads: “Legend says that [on October 31] the gates of heaven open at midnight, and that the souls of dead children — angelitos — are the first to visit their loved ones still on Earth. They roam the Earth for just one day, and then the following midnight, the gates are opened once again to allow the adult souls to descend.
“The dead are welcomed by their families here on Earth through the construction of elaborate altars known as ofrendas, or offerings. The altars consist of many items that are well considered with the dead loved ones in mind. Flowers, particularly marigolds, are laid out to add their bright color and strong scent, which is supposed to lead the dead to their altar. Other potent smells such as spices, incense, and scented candles are often also part of the ofrenda construction for the same reason. Pictures of the deceased, portions of their favorite foods and drink, toys for the angelitos, and other personal items are displayed on the altar table in honor of those who have passed. Even grooming items such as soap and shaving supplies are sometimes left, in the belief that the souls will be weary from their long journey and in need of freshening up.”
This last bit gave me an idea for another Day of the Dead ghost story involving an electric razor that might be heard switching itself on at exactly midnight in between November 1 and 2, in that borderland between the living and the dead, humming contentedly to itself as it wraps its cord around the neck of some murderous family member. I say “another” Day of the Dead ghost story because I wrote one years ago for the now-defunct Twilight Zone Magazine; it took place on that November midnight on Otay Mesa and through the corridor of the very real Dead Man’s Canyon, still claiming lives today. In that story, “The Mesa Is a Lonely Place to Die” (changed by the editor to “Borderland”), the ghosts of desperate migrants turned to tumbleweeds when Border Patrol headlights struck them.