Night Crawler

Autumn of the Dead

Autumn of the Dead
It is a given that, after birth, the only inevitability in life is death. This is not the moribund fretting of an overindulged existentialist, simply a statement of fact: Corporal beings come to pass. There are some cultures, like the Maori, who spend their whole lives - both waking and sleeping -- preparing for the moment when facial tattoos and a fierce countenance might be a warrior's only weapon against evil spirits. There are other cultures whose intimacy with death extends to holding the deceased in a vat that is used to make soup for loved ones once the body has been dismembered and spread on the cliff rocks for birds of prey; and still other cultures whose daily offerings to the world of shades erupt in a weeklong celebration of bright colors and music, where both children and specters are invited to dance through the streets in a loving embrace. In our Western society, death is usually held at arm's length, put behind closed doors, placed under dark veils, mentioned in whispered tones, or left in the hands of adolescent goth poets, pulp fiction directors, and coffeehouse philosophers. Folks can live an entire lifetime without knowing that the smell of a naturally decomposing body is that of overripe fruit mingling with moss.

Even Halloween -- our tepid exploration of ghosts, ghouls, and alter egos, seen through a Hallmark haze of plastic witch leers and candy benefaction - is threatening to some.

Last week, on the corner of 16th and Market streets, I was handed a bright orange flier adorned with festive black skeleton hands and Grim Reaper silhouettes. The flier-lady was female by birth, tastefully blond, mid- to late 30s, coolly dressed, smiling - not the sort of person I want hosting my All Hallow's Eve, if you know what I mean, and her leaflet read, "Trick or Treat, Indeed!" It went on to explain the dire implications of your standard Midwestern Halloween: Candles and jack-o'-lanterns can be used in witchcraft; black or red clothes are often worn by devil worshippers; pentagrams and ankhs are sure signs (see helpful diagram) of Satan; costumes can be used in shape-shifting spells; trick-or-treating is a ruse often used by witches to gather personal items from the neighborhood.

Obviously, if this woman is worried about trick-or-treating, she's never seen a 7-foot-tall drag queen get fist-fucked on top of a Castro Street bus shelter during our city's favorite holiday, and given the current frat-boy saturation of the city, she may never have to. Still, October is a strange time in San Francisco. While other cities in the country are witness to drastic color changes, the smell of wood fires, and a little nip in the air, we are usually enjoying our first days of fleeting summer. Autumn might go completely unnoticed in the town if it weren't for the moon, our love of lewd costumes, and our dead.

There are two Harvest Moons in autumn, one in September (sometimes called the Fruit Moon, Nut Moon, or Barley Moon) and one in October (sometimes called the Hunter's Moon, Big Wind Moon, or the Moon of Falling Leaves).

We gather on Mount Tam, a cheerful clutch of Girl Scouts and nature lovers carrying water bottles and flashlights. The sun has not yet set, but the crickets have already begun their ritual aria, and the smell of Douglas fir and tall grass is strong in the air. The hike is leisurely, winding up through trees, past giant craggy boulders and picturesque fence posts. The sun settles just as we reach the first flaxen hilltop, drenching the western sky in sherbet hues of orange and pink. Within moments it is very dark. Flashlights and the gentle laughter of people tripping over uneven ground keep thoughts of The Blair Witch Projectat bay, even as a screech owl swoops through the branches with an unearthly howl. We cross a wide plateau, then plunge again into forest where, in the darkness between sunset and moonrise, the natural-stone seats of the open-air Mountain Theater take on a druidic aspect. The stars begin to emerge through the leafy canopy overhead, and a coyote screams in the distance. Our volunteer guide talks over the nervous giggles of the Girl Scouts: This theater was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s. It seats over 3,000 ... Gasps halt the history lesson as the moon rises - swollen and distended, dripping molten gold over the San Francisco skyline.

"Is that the sun?" asks a bewildered young girl as she grapples with the scientific improbability. But she is not alone. It is the largest, reddest moon I have ever seen, and it's fast, climbing into the night sky with the dizzying speed of time-lapse photography, then donning the more common, less demanding pallor of a lunar body.

As we wind our way down the Mountain Theater steps in a tight line of flickering lamps, a young film producer says, "Now that was a horror-movie moon if ever there was one."


The smell of fresh cut apples, mulled wine, and French onion soup fills the air of the Exit Theater. Candles flicker on every tabletop, adding to the amber cast of the stage, where oil paintings of Ruben-esque women hang over a fireplace. The audience is a sophisticated blend of arty ponytails and balding pates clucking over their brie and baguettes, but since the Thrillpeddlers are hosting tonight's fete, there is sure to be bloodshed before the evening's end.

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