Candles light a path through the darkness of the forest floor and we creep forward, alert for the next horror awaiting us: witches, grim reapers, ghost brides, and a wolf behind the bushes. But the kids with us are brave. A skeleton sneaks up behind KlÃ¡rka and taps her shoulder. She just looks back at him, solemn-faced. NatÃ¡lka, KlÃ¡rka, FrantiÅ¡ek, and JenÃÄek touch the hair of the beautiful but very dead girl in the coffin. They put a severed head in a bucket to tidy up for the executioner's next victim. They hardly shy away from Frankenstein's monster. The wolf, however, frightens them, and they change paths. Smart kids.
We’re in JablÅ¯nka, a village in Wallachia, a beautiful rural region of the Czech Republic. Zuzka, a colleague at the language school where I work, invited me to this Halloweeny event in her village, held in early October. They call it Stezka odvahy, and when Zuzka first explained it to me, she called it "Scary Path." Even if it translates more accurately as "Path of Bravery," I prefer the first.
Protection from the Scary Path
The party starts at the village tennis court where kids make voodoos out of sticks and string to protect them from the dangers of the trail to come. There’s face painting, a raffle, food stands, a blazing bonfire watched over by a man dressed as a wizard, and free sausages. These tasty morsels are short and chubby and scored at the ends so that when you roast them on the blazing bonfire, the ends splay open like cloves. The juice pops and sizzles, teased out by the cheery flames.
When your number comes up, you head off on the "scary path," up past the cemetery, through the fields, and then into the forest"”best after dark. Along the way, you stop at stations where spooks or fairy tale characters set the kids with scary tasks and ask questions, the answers of which you must record on your map if you want to earn treats at the end. The walk takes a bit more than an hour. This year the last few stops"”now in complete darkness"”include a cauldron full of hearts and one gold ring which the kids must fish out, some truly frightening masks, and a nun who makes the kids dig up a bloody hand from a fresh grave.
It’s Not Halloween
There’s also a fire show this year. The black-clad members of Boca Fuego delight and frighten the audience with their spectacular control of flame and their practiced showmanship. Not only do they swing long staffs with fire at both ends, whirling them around into fiery arcs in time to stirring music; they also light whips on fire, cracking them at each other with snaps of sparkling blue. They sword fight with flaming weapons. They waltz, entrapping each other in their fire. They do things I’ve never seen in one of these shows. And when they spin their staffs the right way, mushroom clouds of fire erupt into the sky and we feel it on our faces and through our jackets and wonder if our eyebrows are still there.
Zuzka, her daughter NatÃ¡lka, and their friends go home, but I hang on a bit, watching people roast more sausages and roam around in costume. There's a high percentage of witches here, and nearly everyone's scary: no doctors or ballerinas or cowboys, like you'd see in the US at Halloween. But of course this isn't Halloween.
As I wait for the bus to take me back to VsetÃn, where I live, they shoot off fireworks, a spectacular end to a fantastic night. And I wonder as I get on the bus: why is it that we like to be scared"”by horror movies, by fire, by monsters that jump out at us from forested paths, by chainsaw-wielding crazies in haunted houses? I guess it’s the adrenaline high without the actual danger. But whatever it is that makes an entire village come together to scare each other, I’m glad for it.
May ghosts and ghouls and goblins live forever in our collective creativity.
Written by Melinda Brasher