Growing up, the 31st October was the one time I felt like losers like me came to the forefront. I’ve spoken before about how Hallowe’en felt like my natural calling as a kid, so I won’t recap that here. I will say that during my childhood, Hallowe’en hadn’t yet caught on in the UK, and so it was my American relatives who sated my need for deathly decor and creepy clothing. My mother took me out with her fellow displaced American Mom friends and their kids. Us yank kids would go trick-or-treating in a weird mishmash group around neighborhoods that didn’t really understand what we were doing. I found out later that some years our parents forewarned the neighbours, and even supplied them with candy.
It’s unthinkable now that a kid would have to explain the concept of trick-or-treating in the UK. In the last few years, Hallowe’en has really taken off in Britain in a big way. Shops have caught on that there’s a whole generation of kids they can market the season to, nearly every cafe is offering some sort of pumpkin treat, and every blogger worth their salt is either posting Tim Burton looks on insta or lolling around a pumpkin patch (guilty as freaking charged). Hallowe’en has become so pervasive that I’ve seen at least four bloggers writing about how and why they don’t “get” Hallowe’en. Like they’re the weird ones.
Unfortunately, right as the rest of the country was embracing what had always felt like “my” personal holiday, tragedy struck. Three years ago my best mate died at Hallowe’en. Again, I have talked about this a lot, but as a quick recap: he was ginger, and orange was his favourite colour. Reaching this month and being surrounded by death, ghosts, and tombstones, alongside the colour I strongly associated with him, has just felt overwhelming the last few years. As Hallowe’en has grown, it’s become harder to avoid, and I’ve had to really work at separating my grief for my friend from my all-time favourite day of the year.
This year, I think I may have cracked it.
For me, Hallowe’en was never about obsessively watching spooky films (I saw Hocus Pocus last year for the first time, still not seen Beetlejuice or the 90s Addams Family). It also wasn’t about trick or treating, or dressing up. Hallowe’en was more just a vibe and a set of ideas and mostly, feeling comfortable. Things were hard for me as a kid, and Hallowe’en was a day where I didn’t need to bother trying to fit in – or worry about getting the shit beat out of me for not fitting in. If I wanted to spend the whole day turning my parents garage into a “bat cave” and listening to Thriller on repeat, then that was cool. Decided to watch my homemade VHS tapes of Elvira and spooky animated shorts? Go right ahead. Reading my ghost stories book on a walk to the local cemetery? ‘Tis the season. Any other time of year I was a cause for concern, but on Hallowe’en, the rules didn’t apply.
I was reminded of this weirdo, misfit, younger self, bizarrely, when I was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race a couple months back. Sure I’m about a decade late to the RuPaul party, but better late than never, right? One queen in particular stuck out to me: Sharon Needles, of Season 4 fame. Sharon entered the series wearing a witches hat, had a pumpkin tattooed on her arm, and talked frequently about her love for horror, spookiness, and Hallowe’en. Through the competition, she supplied an endless run of innovative gory and witchy looks – but it was non-drag Sharon that really ended up speaking to me. Towards the latter half of the season, the queens started speaking about their experiences growing up. Sharon Needles talked about being bullied, feeling ostracised, and why Hallowe’en had meant so much to her growing up. And what she was saying just really clicked with me. It made me feel like my younger self had been validated in a weird way, and I had a lot of strong memories of mini Laila, the friendless Hallowe’en weirdo.
I want to be clear here that obviously, I am not a gay man who does drag, and I can’t begin to know the struggles our LGBT brothers and sisters have to face, so I’m not in any way comparing my experiences of being bullied for my appearance/race with Sharon’s experiences growing up. It’s also clear that I am not the target audience for a show like RuPaul’s drag race, and I know that. I’m not trying to take away from anybody else’s fandom, co-opt somebody else’s passion, or just step all over what the show may have meant to somebody in a different circumstance to myself. What I’m saying is the way Sharon Needles expressed her love for Hallowe’en really chimed with me. Because after Pete died, I mostly just avoided Hallowe’en altogether, and in a way, it’s like I was avoiding a pretty key part of myself. Seeing how Sharon incorporated Hallowe’en into her artistry and her work was inspiring. Surely, in my own way, I could do the same?
My grief for Pete is, unsurprisingly, most strong this time of year; it builds through October until we get to the actual date. Unfortunately, this fits in with the mounting excitement most people have for Hallowe’en: starting on the 1st and increasing until 31st October. But this year I’ve been making a conscious effort to remind myself what I love about Hallowe’en and how important it was – and really, still is – to me. Making costumes and wearing my spookiest clothes; watching my favourite scary movies and scouting out screenings of cult horror movies; decorating the house and crafting little things to hang up around my room. These are all things I’ve done throughout my life, for reasons quite separate from grief. I’ve found some new traditions as well; carving pumpkins with Ryan, taking spooky photos with Maggie, and seeing Hallowe’en shows (including Sharon on her UK tour). Honestly? It’s helped.
I don’t feel as threatened by the Hallowe’en decorations around me: in fact, this year, I feel part of it. A couple times I’ve thought of Sharon, almost as a kind of guiding figure; her decision to make all things spooky and incorporate a Hallowe’en celebration in everything. It sounds bizarre but it’s true. Grief works in mysterious ways. Like Sharon, I’ve made a choice to bring spookiness back into my life – because it is a part of me that has existed my whole life. After Pete died, it felt almost like different bits of me became broken and scattered, and slowly, each year, I continue to gather them up. Putting myself back together like Frankenstein’s Monster. I didn’t know Sharon Needles would end up being a part of this monster reconstruction, but there you go. Life is weird. This Hallowe’en eve, my grief is the part that’s been momentarily lost somewhere else. I am the one whose right here. In my decorated haunted house, with a basket of candy for the trick-or-treaters, lighting a candle for my pumpkin lantern, and musing on all things beautiful, stupid, and spooky.