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Essays

Hysteria

October gets me in the mood for Halloween, my favorite holiday mostly because it parades its own meaninglessness. Despite the fears of certain moral traditionalists, Halloween doesn’t really stand for anything. It’s just a autumn harvest celebration that got overshadowed by Thanksgiving. Sure, it has an official Catholic designation as the day before All Saints’ Day, but any of the pagan imagery associated with Halloween is just the influx of thousands of cultures and their various death holidays. It’s all a mishmash now, and very few people take it seriously. And that makes it all the more fun. Especially for kids, getting to do on that one day which they dream of all year long: Taking candy from strangers. Every other day of the year, kids are specifically verboten from taking candy from strangers, which makes perfectly good sense, even if that’s all that kids want from anyone. But Halloween, the trick becomes the treat, and the only perverts in the neighborhood are those that give out pennies or fruit. And it was ever thus, until the early eighties when news reports came in telling every parent that apples were found all over the place with razor blades stuck in them, and kids were not safe to eat the candy (or the fruit) that they got for Halloween. The holiday took quite a beating then, which it has never really recovered from, except that those children of the eighties, like me, like to throw parties now, and we keep the Halloween industry alive. But every October, when thoughts run to Halloween, I think of the sadness and fear that brewed over twenty years ago. We gave into a hysteria that had no rational basis. There were verified razor blades stuck in apples, for sure, but each one led back to the person (usually a pre-teen) who found it there in the first place. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of supposed injuries, but always in some other town or state or nation, and without the Internets, it was difficult to research the truth. What triggers these fears? In the case of the razor bladed apples, which was a rumor bubbling beneath the surface of mass hysteria for years, it was probably the cyanide-laced Tylenol that blew it all out of proportion. But there are other less-explainable bubbles of fear and irrationality that burst into the national psyche, like spitting on Vietnam Vets, or spider eggs in chewing gum, or needles in soda cans, or fingers in fast food. Once these things are seized by a certain percentage of the media, the whole nation reacts as if society is going to collapse. We hear these things that sound plausible, but disturbing, and assume that they must be true, and that some nefarious agent (usually a lawyer or the Government) is trying to keep the truth from us, and once some brave, smiling hairpiece on the six o’clock news confirms our fears, all rational thought is out the window. A razor blade in an apple? Look a the goddamn fruit before you bite into it. See that 2 inch long slice and the brown oxidation on the skin? That’s bad. Cut that part out. Or one could just assume that every single person is a child molester and apple-spiker and go from there. It is frighteningly obvious to me that we don’t like to actually think about anything. We get most of our information from authorities that are authorities only by dint of looking good in front of a camera (or by writing angrily enough on the Internets). We do not trust ourselves or our fellow non-sparkling humans. Everyone by now has heard of the massive mugging, raping, and murdering that went on in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but this was hysteria in it’s finest form. It took a group of three time losers (they were poor, black, and then displaced) and turned them into something we could deal with, with baser emotions (they became evil criminals). Instead of feeling compassion for people experiencing an upheaval completely unexpected, and unnecessary, in postwar America, we could hate them for not acting like Jesus or Ghandi or whomever else we would expect to just rise over it all. Even better when we could turn the reality of overflowing plumbing and unsanitary conditions into a fantasy picture of animals shitting all over each other. See, then we could feel superior again: We wouldn’t spit on vets. We wouldn’t spike the candy bar. We wouldn’t shit on the floor of the Superdome. We are not the animals. Those other people are. But maybe hysteria does prove that we’re different from animals. It must be a completely human affliction. No other species would go apeshit crazy when it found a finger in its collective chili.