Decoding Halloween

Designed by Committee

When Sanjay Gupta, the director of Kaante, was told that the movie was suspiciously close to Reservoir Dogs, he said, “ये किसी एक फिल्म की कॉपी नहीं है”. He meant that it also copied elements of Usual Suspects. Also, Heat. And built up a Chimera that didn’t quite get off the ground.

Halloween is a festival that always sounded like that sort of mish-mash to me. You have the threat of evil spirits haunting the earth. But you also have the saints walking the earth on the same eve. Then, you ask your children to dress up as the same ghouls and ghosts, but children doing this would suggest the arrival of the spirits is a happy occasion. And then you feed the children-as-spiris, which means that they are welcome. What you feed them candy. Why candy — how is that ghoulish? Oh and there is a pumpkin, which is related to spirits … not at all. And the pumpkin must be cut/carved. And there must be a lantern in it.

Kaante is highly confusing, until you see Reservoir Dogs. And then you see what the poor copycat was trying to do.

I finally understood Halloween, when I paid attention to the Hindu custom of Shraddha, the observance of respect to one’s departed ancestors, which happens roughly at the same time as Halloween. The rite is structured as a respectful acknowledgement, welcome and offering of food for beloved and venerated ancestors, who hopefully have passed on to peace, but may arrive on the earth for the hallowed period without jeopardising their spiritual evolution, to commune with and bless their descendants if the offerings please them.

And under this construct, with the knowledge that the new Church wanted to replace the existing observation with its own rite while also denigrating the old one, everything about Halloween makes sense. The pumpkin is holy to Hindus and thus maybe to pagan Europeans too. Cut (== Cooked?) pumpkin is an essential part of the offerings to the ancestors. All offerings and ceremonies occur under a havan, whose fire becomes the lantern in the pumpkin. It also takes the form of bonfires. The feast must include sweets, which transform into candy. The children walking in the garb of spirits represented the ancestors, which are welcomed with lanterns and pumpkins, and offered sweets respectfully and joyfully. So far, so good. But the modern, organised Church wasn’t content to just assimilate the festival. It also needed to ridicule its roots, because loyalty to a single, consolidated deity is threatened if every household had its own small-scale deities in the form of revered ancestors. So, the benevolent well-wishing spirits of the Shraadha are labeled as evil ghosts and witches.

But, then, there is also a nostalgia amongst the backsliders for the traditions of old and maybe some hurt at the invective to their ancestors. So, they are offered a sop with All Hallows Eve, a commemoration of departed saints. If the pagans chose the organised Church, their ancestors automatically became diffused with the pious sea of saintly souls.

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