I wrote this on the day before Halloween.
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As October draws to a close, we pass numerous houses decorated with plastic zombies, grinning skeletons, and models of mummies swathed in threadbare gauze. While visions of the rising dead capture our imaginations, some peoples’ fears are resurrected as well. These anxieties, prevalent in the more conservative religious circles, are never quite laid to rest. They may be buried for a while, but awaken when Halloween merchandize appears in stores and neighbors adorn their lawns with tombstones. Many pious parents forbid their children to celebrate this holiday, lest it lure them into the occult. When asked why Halloween incites such unease, most will list the following factors: its Pagan history, its association with witchcraft, the provocative costumes, and its “glorification” of gore and violence. I would like to explore these issues and explain why I believe Halloween can actually be psychologically and spiritually healthy.
We might as well start with its history. Quite a lot of misinformation is circulated about the roots of Halloween. Centuries ago, it was known as Samhain. This was an occasion in which Pagans donned masks in an effort to ward off malicious spirits whom they feared would damage their crops. Additionally, the participants read each others’ fortunes. Some believed that the souls of their ancestors would come to visit on this day, so they held a feast in their honor. Details of Samhain have been expanded upon to include tales of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Those rumors are often spread by well-meaning but misinformed religious fundamentalists. Ironically, such stories mimic the B-level horror films often condemned by the same people. There is also a common myth that Halloween is a celebration of “the devil’s birthday.” However, to view Satan as a literal figure is to believe he is neither animal nor human, which would entail that he was never physically born.
Most adherents of organized religion disapprove of Halloween’s Pagan origins. It no longer entails Paganism, though. Christmas borrows such Pagan traditions as the use of pine wreaths and fir trees. Regardless, it is no longer associated with Saturnalia or ancient Roman polytheism. In the same way, Halloween need not be tied into Pagan practices. Some may wish to incorporate them, but it’s not an imperative.
Halloween is frequently criticized for exalting “witchcraft,” but the same point applies here. No one has to dress up as a witch. Besides, the witches displayed on cardboard cutouts are clearly imaginary. No one has warty green skin, the ability to transform foes into frogs, and a flying broomstick—although that would be far more eco-friendly than an SUV. I feel the same way about people who want to ban Harry Potter books. No kid is going to read them and then become a curse-casting agent of the underworld. At most, they’ll attempt to turn their younger sister into a gerbil, realize the futility of their efforts, and get bored. Children know those books are fictional, but some parents seem to have missed the memo (or in this case, the owl post).
Sexually suggestive costumes are another common complaint about Halloween. Again, no one is obligated to wear a revealing costume, and there are plenty who would dress in a similar style on any day of the year. Conversely, some object to people wearing costumes that are less metaphorically revealing. They liken a costume to a disguise, as if the act of dressing up is deceitful. However, is it any less “genuine” than complying with a formal dress code when you’d rather wear casual clothing? Costumes are a way for some to express their inner nature, rather than conceal it. For others it’s simply a creative, playful, and temporary escape from the mundane.
The fact that costumes can be used to display a hidden side of the self is worrisome to some people. Those who feel threatened by Halloween fear that the morbid costumes convey our darker inclinations. The same assumption is applied to horror movies, heavy metal music, and gothic subculture. From what I observe, though, macabre entertainment is a means of confronting the darkness.
From what I see, Halloween doesn’t “glamorize” evil. It mocks evil, along with our shallow perceptions of it. The holiday holds a funhouse mirror up to the faces of death, violence, and all other malevolent forces. It treats them with irreverence and exposes their farce, like a cartoonist who caricaturizes a politician. When we can laugh at what we fear, it loosens its grip on us. When we exploit a personified evil and throw pies in its sallow face, it loses the power of oppression. By poking fun, we drag it out from our shadowy nightmares and distinguish between what is truly nefarious and what is merely kitsch. This aids us in a multitude of ways.
Halloween depicts threatening agents for what they are, weeding out the imaginary from the real. It belittles the banes of our existence, lessening their influence over our psyches. For this, we owe gratitude. Halloween is only one day, but it makes a significant difference.It helps us to conquer our fears.