Halloween seems to be the only time, outside of horror films, the United States culturally wanders through the brambles of eerily silent forests to encounter the unknowable, or even unspeakable evil, as a presence in this world.

Gato is not talking about running into your 48-year-old, middle-school English teacher at a party, dressed provocatively as Christina Aguilera.

Expand your beliefs beyond what one can prove in Chemistry 108. Spirits of the dead, los muertos, appreciate a party with cheap rum more than the living. Think about inviting them over this Halloween.

Corny plastic skeletons don't suffice for a sophisticated shock. This holiday, Gato dares you to decorate your abode with black skull candles that are actually used to bring evil upon an enemy.

Bonafide practitioners have been consulted for the reader's safety. Besides, Gato would not want amateurs performing rituals that could backlash and ruin the Badger Football winning streak. Santeros from the South Bronx already have to answer for the Yankees miserable loss.

Seeking protection from his estranged wife, who is a certified bruja, is when Gato first encountered what might be reduced to Latin American magic.

This is not Gato's version of Jim Belushi gender humor in Spanglish, es la verdad — the truth. Gato's estranged wife actually practices the blackest of magic, Santisima Muerte, or worship of Sanctified Death.

Day by day, Gato grew more nervous about the bedside altar with the grim reaper statue. Gato's friends assured him that it was just something purchased at Spencer gifts.

After Chicago Cubs-level mala suerte (bad luck) that rained down after Gato's separation, Gato sought the consultation of a Santera. She helped Gato cleanse his life of negative spirits and gain the protection of Yemaya, goddess of the ocean.

Santeria is a practice that has been miscast in popular culture by TV shows like Law and Order: CI. A synthesis of the West African Ifa tradition brought to the New World by African slaves and Catholicism, Santeria does not use human sacrifice as Hollywood stories have proported.

"Some call the Ifa tradition 'Spiritual Technology,'" world-renowned Babalaow Aikuloa Fauehememi said in an interview from his New York practice. "It is all based on predestination, in the sense that everyone's life has a blueprint and that blueprint can be improved upon or it can be made worse."

Gato wants to correct those who think only crazy, unstable people engage in Santeria. Jennifer Lopez practices.

Aikuloa is a high priest of a community that represents believers who have moved away from the Catholic/African synthesis to exploring the religion in its original Nigerian form. In parts of Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico, one can find families whose practice has remained unbroken from Africa.

Supposedly sheltered UW gets high regards from the Ifa/Santaria community for offering Yoruba as a language.

Babalows, Santeros and Santeras help guide their clients through divination using cowrie shells, the little white shells that often adorn dreadlocks, plat-braids or urban jewelry.

"Through the cowrie shells one can find which Orisha governs them and we can fully meet our destiny," Aikuloa advises.

Orishas, also called Santos, are often synchronized with the visage of Catholic Saints. Hence, the collection of Saint candles in the Hispanic aisle of the grocery store.

Aikuloa reminds those who want to use the Orishas that the practice is oriented towards "life-affirming energy."

Many who seek a quicker fix by trafficking in spiritual currency opt for darker paths.

One of those paths is Palo Mayombe, a religion with roots in Central Africa. For those who have taken Intro to Hispanic Literature, Cuban poet, Nicolas Guillen's poem, "Sensemaya" incorporates chants from Palo rituals.

Herrado Rigera of the Miami-Dade Sheriff's department assured Gato that law enforcement has evidence Palo is practiced in the United States, mostly in secrecy.

Palo's spiritual leaders, Paleros, use the spirits of the dead, or los muertos, to carry out requests of petitioning clients. Paleros, unlike Santeros, readily name themselves as brujos.

Gato consulted with Ruben Texidor, a renowned brujo/palero from San Francisco in the service of less scrupulous Grainger MBA students.

Paleros work over a black steel caldron called a nganga that contains ancient (or some say, not so ancient) human bones buried in dirt from a courthouse, a graveyard and other sites where life oscillates wildly with disruption. Around and in the cauldron are tree branches, central to Palo work because they also contain spirits. Atop everything sits a human skull.

Texidor, unlike many charlatans who can be found in the classifieds of Spanish newspapers, will not simply ask the spirits he controls to do a clients bidding for money. "The muerto has to say that something needs to be done," Texidor said.

According to this palero, muertos make their will known by possessing someone participating in a Palo ceremony.

Not just anyone can become an initiate in Palo. "Someone already has to be born with a muerto that lives with them. Palo helps them work with the muerto," Texidor advised.

Santeria clearly states that in this world there is good and evil. On the darkest end past Palo, some choose to recruit the ultimate evil as a friend — Death.

Santisima Muerte statues found in some Botanicas depict a grim reaper holding the scales of justice. Santisima followers believe death is the ultimate arbitrator, so why not freely bribe her?

Surrounding the practice are all sorts of rumors of unsavory and illegal behavior Gato can't confirm.

Santisima Muerte has rapidly grown in popularity as a saint in Mexico, to the chagrin of the Catholic Church. Immigrants have spread the practice in the United States. Disregarded by legitimate Santeria and Palo communities, Santisima serves as a reminder that desperate circumstances can navigate people to extreme measures.

Botanica Congo, near North Avenue and Pulaski in Chicago, transferred ownership from a Palera to a Santisima bruja. For the super-rational who don't get shivers from a life-size statue of Death in the middle of a room, she also reads Tarot cards and Gato can bet they're more accurate than readings done by the girl in the lot outside of Phish concerts.

So what things are safe to bless your home with or channel spirits? Both Paleros and Sateros advise that candles and basic herbs aren't risky.

Having bad luck? Bathe with an astringent herb called Rompe Sayagüey. Not exactly moisturizing but you'll feel cleaner than ever.

Through mail order, Rick's Spiritual sells skull candles in a range of colors. These are usually put in front of a home at night with a person's name placed under it to bring bad luck. No name, no harm.

Decorating your Halloween party with Santo candles brings an authentic 'house of spirits' ambiance. Santisima Muerte statues and candles are the creepiest of all but don't blame any permanent hauntings on Gato.

Chicago's Voodoo Love Shop sells Santaria-inspired jewelry, like the kind worn by Marc Anthony and Dave Navaro, as well as love spells and potions for beginners.

Gato promised to give readers Mexican recipes for a Day of the Dead Party but he's out of word space. Next week will bring recipes along with advice on buying South American wine.

Gato is also sorry to hear Mary-Kate Olsen has dropped out of NYU. Gato hopes that when you get better, gemela, you can still read his screenplay about Palo.

Where to find:

Candles and herbs online: www.augustinespiritualgoods.com

Rick's Spiritual Supplies (215) 545-8160 or Botanica Yemaya (773) 342-4460

Voodoo Love Shop 2137 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL

Contact Babalaow Aikuloa Fauehememi: [email protected]

Think you have a muerto? Call Ruben Texidor (415) 821-9127

Want to make CEO at 26? Botanica Congo 4105 W. North Avenue (773) 235-9582