|My Ninja Turtle Costume|
Halloween 1991, age 5
|My Cowardly Lion Costume|
1999, age 13
I’ve long had a strange fascination with the paranormal, but as a child it was mingled with a tremendous fear of the same—death and dying, the living dead, ghosts and spirits, poltergeists, demons, haunted houses, and the “unknown” in general. It all terrified me, really, after each time I was exposed to it, and it would keep me awake at night fearing for my life if I were to shut my eyes for even a second. And nightmares—I had the most terrible nightmares sometimes, and I would wake up screaming for my mother. But my trouble was that I would often seek out such things because of my obsessive and stubborn curiosity about that which to me was unexplainable.
In retrospect I think my interest in fictitious horror and fright was perpetuated by the fact that I had no real knowledge of anything religious to convince me otherwise of the existence of such things. There was no basis of faith or belief to breathe truth into my fears of the supernatural and relieve me of the stress of fear or the curiosity for what I didn’t understand. I grasped simple things like heaven and hell, God and the devil, but I didn’t know, as I do now, what happened after death, or what the rules of a then-unknown God (or devil) allowed for the actuality of creatures of terror.
|Stephen Gammell's "Scary Stories" illustrations are un-|
mistakably creepy; they kept me awake many times as a child.
I indulged all the time in the “Goosebumps” novellas written by R.L. Stine, and the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” books of Alvin Schwartz, with their incredibly creepy illustrations by artist Stephen Gammell. Just seeing those pictures sometimes caused many sleepless nights as a child. But reading the stories was such a strong temptation that I had to give in to, and I would usually regret it.
In November 1996 my father’s brother passed away unexpectedly while I was in the fifth grade. I could be mistaken, but attending his funeral as an ten year-old boy was the first time I had ever seen a corpse. It absolutely terrified me to be in the viewing room. Aside from the fact that I barely knew my uncle and hadn’t seen him in many years, death changed everything that I remembered about the man. He was not himself; he was just a body now, caked in makeup, and dressed in his best for the final time.
|Seeing my uncle lying in state in his casket as a|
young boy terrified me.
One of my parents encouraged me to approach the casket where his body lay, probably knowing I was highly curious and frightened, too. After all, even at ten years-old children sometimes don’t understand death properly—why it has to happen, what causes it, where the essence of the person goes after dying—and I was no different. As far as I was concerned (with whatever concept of a “soul” I had then), my uncle’s spirit still remained in his body, though dormant, and it would be trapped forever there, within his coffin and buried six feet below a stone that memorialized his name and years of life.
Maybe Halloween still lingered in my mind a bit at that time, since it had recently come and gone. But my fascination with the eerie unknown was piqued even more after my uncle’s funeral. Staring just barely over the lip of the casket at the face of my father’s brother, I wasn’t entirely sure that he wouldn’t suddenly open his eyes and rise stiffly from the coffin to the sheer horror of all present. In fact, I almost expected it, and had a hard time averting my eyes from his (just in case); but eventually I realized that those eyes were forever closed.
|One day I jotted down some short|
poems with scary themes.
Whatever the reasons (and this event was probably it), death was on my mind for a while after that. I focused sincere, curious, and creative thoughts on morbid horror fiction, and had meaningful questions about dying in general. The recent highlight of my fifth grade school year was winning a city-wide Halloween poetry contest, to my own delight and that of my family. It was a simple, childlike work about iconic Halloween characters and occurrences. I am pretty certain that it was the first rhyming poem I had ever written (the first poem I ever wrote was a freestyle assignment I had in fourth grade), but with such a triumphantly successful outcome, I couldn’t help but develop a love for the art of creative verse and rhyming.
Time passed, and I entered middle school, still curious but yet still vaguely informed about death in general. Sitting one day in my sixth grade English class, with free time to write or read what I wanted, I began to jot down short lines of rhyme that popped into my head. I used different patterns that I had heard in class readings or songs. The theme was all-things scary, all that was frightening—everything I could think of that reflected the scary stories I had read since I was young. After I had several of them jotted down, I shared them with my teacher, who commended me for my talent and creativity, and encouraged me to save them.
When I got out of school that day, I took the poems home to my mom and proudly shared them with her. She was taken aback by some of the macabre themes and suggestions of my ghost-story poems. She asked me immediately if everything was all right, and what I was trying to imply by writing the poems. I was shocked and saddened by her suggestion that I my creative outlet was some supposed cry for help. It took a lot of insisting to convince her that I wrote the short poems for fun, not to deliver a message of secret mental instability.
This was the poem that triggered her maternal instincts:
When will ours be?
There’s no use in asking,
Because someday we’ll see.
Stories of child suicide weren’t nearly as prevalent in the news then as they are now, and stories of parricide were limited in my knowledge to the playground rhyme of Lizzy Borden and her infamous bloody ax. I don’t know how my mother could think that her eleven year-old son might be suggesting his own or anyone else’s death with these four short lines; but I suppose that in light of difficulties and challenges that were arising at the time—namely, my soon-to-come diagnosis of Tourette syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder—that stress was an apparent companion in my life in those days, and she knew that.
Thinking about it now, it makes me laugh that my mom jumped to such conclusions. But life growing up was wrought with stresses in a home where my parents didn’t always get along, and she likely sensed that it could be damaging to us. My mother and father were raised in homes where the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) were taught—to what extent for my father I don’t know, but for my mother religion was not a choice or an option, at least not until she married my father and moved away from home.
Whatever the circumstances of their religious learning, my parents knew more than I did about life, death, and how the world worked. In our home when I was a child, there was no faith in anything divine taught or discussed, except perhaps at Christmastime, which even then I didn’t quite get. I wasn’t trying to touch upon terribly deep things with my little poems; I was just having fun and exercising my new love for poetry. Some of the poems were harmless childlike musings, like these:
Skeletons, Oh, skeletons,
Tall, skinny skeletons,
How white and bony are they!
All of my wondering
Ends up in blundering
On how skeletons get that way.
They haunt you, they taunt you,
They look like white sheets;
Trust me, a ghost,
You don’t want to meet.
The gate goes “clang!”
The old fence creaks and rattles;
These are the sounds of a haunted house,
When fierce winds have their battles.
Standing under a tree,
Engraved with the letters “R.I.P.”
The more grisly poems were representative of some of my favorite spooky tales, or ideas for ghoulish media that I would love to hate, like these:
Beyond the gates and soft green grass,
Stand tall, marked blocks of stone.
You see your grandfather a distance away,
Then you remember he died years ago.
My dearest friend is dead as can be,
Because he fell from aloft.
I want him back, alive and well,
So let’s hope the ground is soft.
Take the shortcut, my dear friend,
Through the cemetery around the bend.
But be alert from the beginning.
Because the dead don’t take mercy on the living.
The rest of the poems, I think, were truthful, honest reflections of my limited knowledge and opinion of the fate that every person ever born shares—that sooner or later, in one way or another, they will die. Though uniquely formed in my naïve and ignorant mind, I think there are messages that can be discerned from my poems that might not be as disconcerting as my mother assumed, but poignant and sincere nonetheless, especially for a child to ponder.
This one reflects my confusion about why people, myself included, fear death and dying, as well as hinting (like a few of the other poems) at my longstanding discomfort with cemeteries:
The death of folks is a terrible fate,
But for the Grim Reaper a death is great!
Death puts folks in a miserable state,
To wonder what lies beyond the graveyard gate.
The next poem was my conclusion that the reasons for and purposes of death were not within my ability to comprehend, and also that my first funeral attendance was an experience that I couldn’t remove from my mind.
Why? Why? That’s all I ask, why?
Why must our loved ones always die?
And why do they have that big ceremony,
For the dead, pale white, un-bleeding, and bony?
Finally, the last poem I wrote for my short series shows clearly my inadequate knowledge of the afterlife, as I wondered what became of the wisps of spirit that escape the bodies of the dead. Are heaven and hell the only options? What about ghosts who remain on earth and cause a ruckus with the living? In my mind, the final destination of those whom I loved was consignment to an expensive shell of wood and metal, never again to have purpose or feeling, as we who are left alive have nothing remaining of them but slow-fading memories.
They close the lid eternally,
And cover it so sound.
And it shall remain there, forever more,
Deep, deep underground.
When I found these short poems recently, a seventeen year-old original series which I titled “Poems from the Grave,” they brought back to life (in an ironic sort of way) many thoughts and memories from the past and present, mostly about the vast changes in my understanding of the purpose of life, the purpose of death, and the existence of a hereafter. My fear of death and dying still plagues me to some extent today. I try to ignore the intolerable fear of the hopefully-far-off day when I have to say goodbye to the most important and loved people in my life. But I know now that it will not be the last time I will see them.
As pertaining to myself, I have high hopes and expectations now for where I’m going when I die. I’m grateful beyond measure to know and testify of the truth of my faith in a loving God, our Heavenly Father, and His perfect Son, Jesus Christ the Savior; and also of the promise that life not only continues after death, but that there is great opportunity for glory and increase in the divine realm of heaven.
|As a child I didn't know that my divine heritage |
made me stand out among all other creations.
I remember as a very young child being in the backyard of our home, looking at a rock in my mother’s flower bed and an earthworm wriggling near it, and thinking to myself, “I’m so happy I wasn’t born as a rock or an earthworm! I’m glad that God made me a human and gave me the family I have.” That ignorance was very distressing to me at the time, to think of how close I must have come to being something so small and insignificant, but I didn’t know any better; I couldn’t figure out how out of all the things in the universe I could’ve been, some Being somewhere liked me enough to make me a person, a boy, a son, a brother, and grandson.
The most important thing I have ever taken into my heart and mind is the knowledge and understanding that all creatures are God’s creations, and that among them all, I am one of His most prized and loved because I am a part of Him, His literal offspring; I am an individual child of the Divine Creator, and He is my Father. We all are—every member of the human race that has ever existed in all the world. The plan of salvation which God set forth is one which will maximize, not minimize the number of His children who will return again to live in His glorious presence. This was His desire and purpose all along. With that in mind, death doesn’t seem quite so grievous, so detrimental.
Not only that, but through Jesus Christ I am promised that the grave is not the final resting place, as all will be raised from the dead, returning to our then-immortal and perfected bodies to live again, forever! In that light, I have actually learned to see cemeteries in a different way, with the potential to be some of the most glorious places on earth when the morning of the resurrection finally arrives.
|Death has no sting in light of the glorious reality|
of the resurrection which Christ gave to us.
I marvel sometimes at what I learn from reflecting upon my past and combining it with my awareness of the present, especially as things change, as they always do. Naturally, Halloween isn’t like it used to be when I was a kid, but it’s still one of my favorite holidays. I still love the gruesome, the frightening, and the spooky, though I don’t lose sleep over that indulgence anymore. Really, I am at peace with the concept of death, and I know that passing on will not destroy my comfort in my Lord and my God. And this year I think I have found a new reason to love October as I reflect upon how my faith continues to dispel all my fears of what might be lurking around the corner.
NOTE: My inspiration for the title of this post is taken from the American folk song of the same name. My favorite version of this beautifully contemplative piece, arranged by Mack Wilberg, can be found on the 2009 Mormon Tabernacle Choir album “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Click HERE to hear the song as performed by the BYU Men's Chorus.
|My wizard costume; Halloween 1996, age 10.|
Also pictured is my older brother (far left) and
his childhood friend (middle).
|My Henry VIII costume;|
Halloween 2007, age 21