The National Catholic Review

Some see Halloween as a time for pretty outfits and make-believe—“My, what a handsome scarecrow” and the like. Personally, I always looked on the holiday as an occasion for casting ourselves headlong into our fears—of mortality, monsters and the dark—and laughing at them. Spider webs, tombstones, masked figures chasing you through haunted houses—now that’s Halloween. If only I had remembered the “laughing at them” part on the evening of Oct. 31, 1999. My costume I had been planning since coming face to face, the previous spring, with a scowling, scary visage on the cover of a bookstore magazine—a blood-red face covered in black tattoos; pointy, stained teeth and burning red eyes. Beside the image, a caption: “Meet Star Wars’ newest villain: Darth Maul.” It’s true that I myself was a dimple-faced late 20-something on the shorter side who tripped regularly over his own feet. So what? I knew I could pull this off.

 

On the night of Halloween I emerged from my Jesuit community residence looking every bit the character, complete with shaved head covered in red and black face paint and horns, and headed toward the carnival at the Red Cloud Middle School gymnasium. Children in the parking lot popped out of cars like jumping beans, mothers and grandmothers attempting to hold them in place long enough to straighten their outfits. Within, boys dressed like werewolves chased Malibu Barbies, and Bob the Builders competed against Dora the Explorers in contests run by faculty, while mothers admired one another’s warty witch noses. Red Cloud’s Halloween carnival was an annual event held for the younger children of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, something for families to do after it grew too dark for trick-or-treating. There were games and prizes, a haunted basement and lots and lots of candy.

At the sight of me, some children squealed with fear and delight. Others did not notice me until I stood behind them, at which point they howled and took off running. I moved through the crowded room quietly, my movements deliberate and implacable. Oh yes. Oh yes. Darth Maul was in the house.

Until, that is, a chubby boy no higher than my waist approached me. He was wearing a big felt pirate hat, a black marker beard and beads. I took him to be about nine. “What you got, Darth Maul?” he asked, bumping up against me. “Huh? What you got?” Gesturing, he answered the question himself: “You ain’t got nothin.’

I stopped in place and turned just my head toward him slowly, my lips revealing a slit of yellow and black stained teeth. Kids around him lurched back.

But not the pirate. “Yeah? Let’s go, then, Darth,” he said, throwing his arms wide and banging up against me once more. “Come on, Sith. Bring it.” I felt as if I were in a “Sesame Street” version of “West Side Story.” As he stood there, children dressed as slasher movie villains and Disney princesses pushed in and added their own taunts with the same sneering intonation: “Come on, Darth. What you got?”

They had a point. Beyond the scary look, what did I “have”? A double-bladed toy light saber that glowed red when I pushed a button. It had looked very cool hanging on the rack at Wal-Mart; but in action, I wouldn’t say it qualified as terrifying. Hokey, maybe.

Furthermore, how scary did I even look in this crowded, brightly lit gymnasium? Judging from the children’s smirks, not very. Without a word I doubled back outside to the parking lot, where teenage girls dressed as cheerleaders giggled nervously at me and scuttled away, and adults smoking cigarettes under the streetlights kept their distance. In the darkness, with lots of room to move—this was more like it. I spent the next half hour surprising people as they emerged from cars or the gym.

Then something whistled past my ear and exploded against a car behind me. On the ground lay an unopened, child-size carton of chocolate milk. A child giggled; it was the marker-bearded pirate. He was surrounded by his tittering princesses, a pint-sized Freddy Krueger and a host of others. Sugar and time had emboldened them, I saw; they stood there grinning widely, their mouths and faces stained with chocolate, hands held behind backs or inside trick-or-treat bags. A sudden visual: myself, stoned into unconsciousness by candy apples and chocolate milk cartons. I took off running, first back and forth in the lot, trying to seem playful, then, as kids poured from the gym like clowns from a circus car, their pudgy Lilliputian fingers grasping at my robes, back into the building and up to the gym’s balcony, where students were not allowed.

While they shook their little fists and stomped their feet, stuffing candy from their jack-o’-lantern buckets into their mouths, I stood on the balcony, hands on hips, gasping for breath and taking stock (in other words, stalling). My robes were ripped and dirty. My horns had fallen off. My makeup was smeared. And the only thing that had been scary all night was the look on those kids’ faces.

My night as a card-carrying member of the Dark Side had been a complete disaster. In retrospect, it was all actually just as St. Ignatius imagines in the Spiritual Exercises—face down the spirits that frighten you, and you’ll see them for the hollow threats they are. A marvelous little lesson, until you’ve got costumed children pinning you against the pavement, force-feeding you Tootsie Rolls until your fillings pull out.

A new figure approached up the stairs, an adult dressed in a long brown robe. It was my friend and colleague, the Christian ethics teacher. Thank God: an ally. He stopped before me somewhat dramatically and pulled from his robes a plastic green light saber. As I stood there dumbfounded, he began hopping up and down, imitating “Star Wars” hero Obi-Wan Kenobi before his big duel with Darth Maul, while the children cheered him from below, all the time eyeing whether they were close enough to pelt me with Bit-O-Honeys from there. All I could think was, my friend, the Christian ethics teacher, is picking a fight with me. What’s up with that? (Then again, I was a Jesuit scholastic dressed up like a demon hoping to scare people for the evening. Talk about your plank in the eye.) Seeing my options were to fight him or be torn to pieces by the sugar-crazed children below, I dutifully uncoiled my saber and beckoned him forward.

Two grown men swinging undersized toy light sabers, pretending that the child-safe plastic was dangerous, all the while being extra-careful not to hit too hard, lest the plastic break, and having to hum to make the cool light saber sound effects—not exactly dazzling. More akin to the guys who go to “Star Trek” conventions dressed like Mr. Spock—amusing at first, then just sad. (At least we didn’t speak Klingon.) After what seemed like hours of badly choreographed whirls and parries, out of sheer exasperation I threw myself back down a far staircase to its dark, barricaded base, faking my own death. Anything, anything to end this night.

Rather than leave, however, this Obi-Wan wannabe stood above, glaring down at me, saber still drawn and lit, while the pirate and others taunted me from beside him. Maybe the night would end only if I actually died. At this point, it didn’t sound like a bad idea.

And then a very tiny boy broke from the pack and turned on his peers. “Stop it, you guys, Darth Maul is cool,” he said. “He’s not a loser. He’s my friend.” Standing in front of me, he kept right on until the jackals sourly crept away.

He turned to address me: “It’s O.K., Darth Maul. Don’t be sad. I think you are really cool.”

Dressed as a dark lord of the Sith, hoping to scare people, saved from being thrown from the balcony by the pity of a child who could not yet spell his own name—this was not exactly the Halloween thrill I had been seeking, but it was touching. I really did look scary; most children this boy’s age wouldn’t even approach me. Yet somehow he saw beyond all that and even treated me with kindness.

The rest of the evening I spent hiding in the darkened rafters above the gym’s curtained stage. I couldn’t leave because mobs of children and other high school teachers dressed as Jedi hunted for me inside and out, looking for another chance to pick a fight. It was the lamest Halloween ever.

 

Each year at this time, I think back to that night. I do so with great laughter. It’s one of my own personal Lucille Ball moments—my detailed plans going completely awry to hysterical effect. I will always love the chutzpah of that little pirate who taunted me.

But it’s interesting, too, to reflect on the lengths to which I went to play that malevolent character, and the lengths to which others went to defy me. Perhaps it offers a parable about how evil functions, not so much by doing harm to others but by seducing them into listening to darker parts of themselves? Or a story of how the assertion of power invites not submission but further assertion? An object lesson in the power of scapegoating and the miracle of charity?

Perhaps it’s as simple as this: if you want to overcome the devil, you have to learn to laugh in his face. (But let me add: If it’s Halloween, try to be kind.)

Jim McDermott, S.J., is an associate editor of America.