a grand theory of halloween, step one

Here’s a broad and vague overview of my current project on Halloween. It makes big promises it almost certainly won’t keep, but it’s a start, so I am going to not worry too much about that, and just see where it goes.

Halloween. A night of costumes and candy. Also a night of transgression and terror. Both fun and frightening, Halloween marks a special holiday, a night carved out from everyday life, where we are allowed and expected to become something other, do some thing else. We celebrate Halloween as a night off from reality, but today’s reality won’t give us that much space to breathe. In fact, it is better to treat Halloween not as rejecting the everyday, but as reflecting it. Nowhere is this more true than for Halloween’s newest and most committed converts, emerging adults. More than just the holiday for emerging adults, Halloween is the holiday in which emerging adulthood is forged, performed, and represented.

We live in a time of disruption, whether political, economic, or social. Unsurprisingly, in a time of disruption, many people’s lives get disrupted along the way. Nowhere is that more true than with young adults. Recently confronted by the worst job market in a long time, one that only slowly recovered to a new normal of lowered expectations, they find themselves negotiating significant cultural, technological, and political upheavals. These changes have left deep marks on their lives, for better and for worse. The emerging adult, a fluid group, but generally between their mid 20s and mid 30s, is a category recently created to describe the ambiguities of modern adulthood. It captures a group trapped in the space of transition between childhood and adulthood, not quite one or the other, while enjoying some of the benefits and suffering some of the constraints of each category. Sometimes they experience this as freedom. Other times, as deprivation and exclusion. The emerging adult is a hybrid category, at once too much and not enough. In short, emerging adults are monsters. And what better place to study monsters than in their natural habitat, Halloween?

This larger project takes Halloween as a case study to explore key issues facing young adults today: What does it means to be and become an adult today? How do they manage the flexibility and constraints of modern identity? What are the borders of that identity, and how are those borders defined by and against social others? What is the role of technology, particularly as it is more fully incorporated into all aspects of life, creating cyborg actors and hybrid identities? How is this group responding to their economic and social dislocation? What is the interaction between spaces and identities, particularly how both virtual and real spaces intersect in urban places, a playground of emerging adulthood? [note to self — these questions can be better formed] These are big sprawling questions, and Halloween is a particularly useful focus for engaging them. A celebration of duality and contradictions, Halloween directly engages the main themes of this project on the changing meanings of adulthood: identity and otherness, recognition and exclusion, and placemaking, both virtual and material.

Unprepared to “grow out” of the holiday, young adults flock to the “kid stuff” of liminality, creativity, and performance, signaling important changes to adulthood. Adult early adaptors of Halloween, primarily artists and gays and lesbians, came from society’s margins. Studying Halloween’s jump from marginal to mainstream provides insight into current processes marginalizing the mainstream. Collapsing norms of adulthood and exploding virtual worlds both promise the chance to become someone different. Halloween shares this promise. People dress up in costumes to explore and expose the self, to be recognized, but also to hide, to misrepresent. They transgress some boundaries, but reassert others. It is a holiday to play with identity, find the edges of self and otherness. But some get to play more than others, as this holiday remains rooted in structures of inequality.

Halloween relies on public performance, one that brings individuality into conversations with collective norms and expectations. Its intense sociability can reveal how young people relate to and imagine their audience, juggling competing demands to be present and still to be with others who may not be. Halloween thrives on attention, fitting smoothly into the burgeoning attention economy. In performing for audiences and competing for attention, emerging adults must manage desires to be and to be seen, to be both authentic and spectacular. While this has always been true of the holiday, technologies multiply the sites of public visibility and social interaction, making them broader and more complex.

The holiday has its dark side. That’s part of its draw. A night where the dead walk the earth, the demands of the excluded for inclusion have always been central to the celebration. As emerging adults face a world of diminished opportunity and waning hope, Halloween may offer a place to more fully play with that exclusion, to engage it as a source of power or to give up and escape. Once a pagan holiday, today Halloween is better understood as a capitalist one. Halloween puts the contradictions of capitalism on display, sometimes dressing them up to look nicer, and other times exposing its rotting core. Consumerism can be used expresses freedom and resistance, even many participants find themselves trapped in cycles of spending and debt.

Halloween has left the suburbs behind, following our society’s larger re-embracing of the urban. It is most visible in the gentrifying cities, in neighborhoods and places marked by positive change as well as exclusion. Halloween urban space is haunted space. On the one hand, ghosts of former urban residents no longer there, but still present. On the other hand, virtual reflections and representations proliferate, which mirror and amplify the urban, creating new hierarchies and exclusions online and off. Halloween follows and spreads these trends, contributing to the creation of new identities not only for emerging adults, but also for the places they inhabit. To be sure, Halloween is not just in the gentrified city. As much as the story of emerging adults has focused on young urbanities, most young people are far less mobile. Here Halloween space is again haunted, populating the ghost towns of middle America, young people stuck in places without young people.

Since Halloween is all about representations, this work will primarily focuses on the construction and circulation of representations, collecting and analyzing media representations, primarily, but not exclusively online, from recent years — including those produced by individuals, but also by businesses and place marketers. Data will not necessarily be systematic and representative, but will start from identifying examples and exemplars of the themes of interest, providing closer readings to a few important cases, drawing primarily on visual and discourse analysis.

Halloween provides a compelling lens for studying the tricks and the treats of contemporary American society. Given the disruptions of self, community, and place currently experienced by many young adults, it follows that a holiday for playing with these concepts serves as a laboratory for experimentation. New technologies may have brought ideas of unstable meanings and performed, partial selves into people’s everyday lives, but Halloween got there first. Today the holiday looks less like an inversion of the everyday and more like a barely exaggerated form of the new normal, an anxious, exhilarating, exhausting, and seemingly constant state of flux. Therefore, Halloween can help us better understand how emerging adults make sense of their lives today, as they work through efforts to build and to resist new forms of self, community, and place.