I used to be all about Halloween. Really. I mean, I guess everyone is all about Halloween when they’re a kid, but even as a teenager/young adult, I was all about Halloween.
But in my mid-twenties, I lost the faith. It had nothing to do with the underlying concepts of the holiday; it had to do with its practice in the modern day.
According to National Geographic, and I include the link because I wouldn’t feel comfortable making assertions like these on my own, modern day Halloween is descended from an old European holiday called Samhain, during which both monsters and the souls of the dead were said to walk the earth. Revelers dressed as monsters and as the dead to avoid being harmed, possessed or otherwise hassled by these visitors. These costumes included the wearing of animal skins, blackening of the face (which makes a kind of sense, when you see the color of the preserved skin on bog mummies), and even cross-gender dressing. The holiday was a time for the breaking down of the usual societal norms; it was a time for debauchery and licentiousness. Folks dressed up as spirits and monsters would (apparently) take advantage of an even older custom, that of leaving food out for the souls of the dead and other supernatural beings, and go door to door begging for food.
As a side note, does that custom sound at all like Dia de los Muertos to anyone else? When did we become so pathologically afraid of death that we eliminated these arguably psychologically beneficial practices from our culture?
It’s not that I think that we should all believe that the souls of the dead and also monsters walk among the living on one day a year. I do feel like a chance to pretend to be monsters, the things we are inside, or the things we fear the most, is good for us. I believe that our culture fails to provide a release for those of us (hint, it’s all of us) that are anything other than all good, or all pro-social. I think it’s important to acknowledge that monstrousness and madness are a part of who we are. I think it’s important to acknowledge, as a culture, that death is a part of who we are (it’s also a part of all of us).
What better time to turn our thoughts to fear and death than autumn, a time at which (at least in pre-industrial times) life became more tenuous, more difficult, and more of a struggle? What better time to believe that the land of the dead was closer than at any other than the time at which death itself seemed to draw nearer and nearer to us?
So then we come to modern day Halloween, in which people, even children, don’t so much dress in costumes that echo that original spirit. I’m not saying that little girls (or little boys for that matter) shouldn’t be able to dress up as princesses if they want, but maybe they can do that on their birthdays. It’s not even the kids’ fault; they have been raised in a time of cutesy Halloween. Even kids costumes in more modern times used to be creepier and scarier, as can be seen on the internet in many places, but for an example, look here. I have to say, I suspect that a lot of the reason for this is that we gave away Halloween to marketers and retail stores… kids often wear costumes that aren’t just not scary, but are… well, homogenized.
Then there’s grown-up Halloween. Grown-up Halloween, as far as I can tell, is more of an attempt to have as much fun and distraction at one time as is possible. Again, lots and lots of non-scary costumes, lots of homogenization, and in (mostly) the case of the ladies, lots and lots of skin showing. Look, I’m not here to tell women to cover up. I think ladies should show off their bodies if that’s what they want to do… it’s their body. I will say, though, that the last time I went costume shopping as an adult, it was very difficult to find a woman’s costume that was not bizarrely sexualized. For adult costumes that are scary costumes, they’re usually the tamed down, glamorous version of the scary thing. Add a whole bunch of booze and it’s this shit-show of scrabbling desperation to distract ourselves as thoroughly as possible from our normal lives, and in the mean time, it’s been stripped of any real cultural or spiritual significance.
Doesn’t anything mean anything anymore? Grown-up Halloween is just American Saint Patrick’s Day minus the green beer and add costumes.
And there’s a sort of a loss of innocence wrapped up in all of this that I find murderously depressing. If Halloween doesn’t mean anything anymore, why should I participate? That’s why, on the occasions that I celebrate Halloween, it’s usually with a friend and their children. Because to children, there’s at least some meaning there. There’s some kind of… feeling. There’s SOMETHING.