Days are shorter, nights are cooler closing in on frost, trees are slowly turning color and losing their leaves, apples and pumpkins are abundant, and hopefully I can soon stop mowing the lawn. Also, we are nearing the biggest celebratory holiday of the year (though unofficial) next to Christmas. Once Halloween was only a day when kids dressed up to go trick-or-treating at night and maybe go to a Halloween party. Now it is a national extravaganza. Stores begin displaying Halloween paraphernalia in July.
Christmas traditionally was the season for outside decorations, with some neighborhoods actually having expectations of decorating and neighbors competing with each other for the most elaborate, stunning display. Halloween is quickly catching up, as decorations begin to appear early in September. Our son and daughter both decorate their yards for Halloween in tasteful moderation. I would like to decorate our yard, but Linda claims my decorating ideas are not tastefully moderate.
I enjoy passing out candy on Halloween night and seeing the kids in their costumes. When my sister and I began trick-or-treating, our getup was a couple of masks that our parents bought at the dime store. Now parents invest serious money to outfit their kids in the latest movie super hero or animated character. Dollars-to-donuts that more than a few adult Halloween party-goers will be dressed as Pennywise, the clown in the chilling thriller “It.”
For some, Halloween is the time to watch horror movies such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “Friday the 13th.” Our daughter mentioned that she and her daughter had “The Shining” playing while they decorated to help put them in the mood. I, too, love scary movies, especially science fiction monster movies such as “Alien” and “War of the Worlds.” This Halloween, however, I recommend a movie in the comedy genre — “Dr. Strangelove.”
With the subtitle “How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” the movie speaks to events now whirling around us and their potential consequences. Back in the 1950s when I was in grade school, nuclear war was a serious threat. We had nuclear attack drills in school, where we were taught not to look in the direction of the bomb explosion and to crawl under protective cover. We were warned about the dangers of radioactive fallout and that we should stay indoors for a time after a blast. There were other things as well; however, what scared me most and raced through my mind as I lay in bed at night were visions from the theater newsreels that preceded movies back then. What I remember is lines of soldiers quickly moving into trenches and tanks rolling up to participate in the bomb test. Closer to ground-zero were buildings and structures, cars and trucks, and even a family in one house sitting around a dinner table. The stentorian voice of a narrator explained the action in the newsreel intensified the drama.
Then came the explosion: The brilliant flash of light and the rising mushroom cloud. The camera now focused on the furious blast of wind over the tanks and the soldiers in the trenches, and the destruction of the vehicles and buildings. What scared me most was viewing the house with the family around the dinner table being blown away by the blast. That image remains vivid. I saw the soldiers double-timing into the trenches, but the newsreel did not show them reemerge. Were they OK? I wondered, was the family in the house real? My parents assured me that the soldiers were fine and the people in the house were not real. Still, by showing it in the newsreel, did that not mean that it could all become real?
On Halloween we celebrate a world of fantasy with imaginary horrors and terrors. Meanwhile, the real horrors are all around us — destructive hurricanes and earthquakes, uncontrollable forest fires and floods, and senseless shootings. Though all these natural and not-so natural disasters are horrendous, they are insignificant compared to a nuclear conflagration. In the present context of relations with North Korea and Russia, the Science and Security Board of the “Bulletin of Atomic Scientists” set the Doomsday Clock only two-and-one-half minutes before midnight, the fatal global catastrophe hour. Since the Clock’s inception at the beginning of the nuclear age in 1947, only during the 1953 U.S.-Soviet Union nuclear arms buildup was it set closer to midnight.
In the opening credits of “Dr. Strangelove” the U.S. Air Force included a disclaimer that the scenario depicted in the movie, a rogue Air Force general setting in motion a sequence of events leading to nuclear war, was not possible. But what about a scenario that includes a rogue leader of an insular nation whose generals, for fear of their careers and even lives, may be afraid to give him an honest assessment of the strength of his country’s survivability in war? The booty of trick-or-treating in the Halloween of life is not a bag of Skittles or a Snickers bar. Let’s hope those directing this escapade understand the ramifications of their actions, and cooler heads prevail all around.
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.