In Defense of Halloween

Heartbreak. Fellow Iron Ladies Susan Goldberg and Georgi Boorman are hating on Halloween. I love it.

An unexpected debate broke out behind the scenes here at Iron Ladies. It started with Susan Goldberg telling readers about her four-year-old son who is now old enough to understand the themes and is developing his own moral objections:

The other day a red light placed us directly across from a neighborhood lawn with a full-on display of an executioner about to chop the head off an undead zombie. The scene was replete with spider webs, blood, and screaming onlooker skeletons. Once again my son stared in complete confusion. Eventually, he cringed. When did this kind of gross nonsense become trendy? I never recall people covering their houses in such perverted displays of death when I was a kid. Yet, now my son, whose entire sense of the world is defined by the love of family, friends, his teacher, and Thomas the Tank Engine is forced to confront images of pure evil. On his neighbors’ lawns no less! You people are sick!

Georgi Boorman similarly took exception to the baroque horror that petrifies neighborhood babes, zeroing in on “tackiness” of the displays:

It doesn’t matter much if you don’t believe in supernatural evil: decking your home in their representations is either celebrating them, in that you believe the ability to instill terror is a power worth summoning, or, almost as disturbing, casually turning evil into amusement. As my colleague Jayme Metzgar has said, “When people have no deeper meaning in suffering, or hope for life after death, sometimes they try to cope by making death and suffering into a joke.”

The Ladies are so monstrously wrong, I had to take the time I had allotted to writing a review of a beloved horror film to address it.

One of many examples of how culture uses the dark

I don’t dispute that Halloween displays can fill the souls of imaginative preschoolers with terror. It’s just that their dread doesn’t strike me as a good reason to forgo the holiday. Small children are often terrified by their environment, things like the Blue Angels flying overhead, a nurse with a syringe, monsters under the bed, that guy over there with a beard (well, maybe not him, beards have, sadly, became so ordinary, they no longer mortify tots). Unless there are some kind of underlying issues that have absolutely nothing to do with annual trick-or-treating rites, youngsters outgrow their fears. By the time they are on the way to double digits, they enter the stage when they can’t have enough of witches and maggots. These tacky displays (I also give Georgi “tacky”) popping up on our lawns mid-fall are for them and [often] by them, which is why Halloween is such a big deal in family-friendly neighborhoods.

Halloween and related holidays, like All Saints Day and Day of The Dead, have a long time-honored history as a winter equinox festival. It marks a passage of time, and is celebrated with reversals, such as dressing up and engaging in otherwise prohibited behavior. The believe that during the festival the dead come back for a visit represents another reversal. Participating in Halloween festivities within the socially accepted parameters doesn’t make the revelers evil. The opposite is true: during carnivals (see also the Jewish Purim and the Eastern Slavic Maslenitsa, for instance) we explore the dark side to affirm what is good. The essence of Halloween fun is not in frightening your tyke; the night is thrilling because we are stepping over a threshold. [Editor’s note: And on this point, I tend to agree, even though, like Susan and Georgi, I hate Halloween death displays. Still, my kids made funny tombstones and I am hard pressed to resist more now that they are older.]

To think of Halloween as ungodly is kind of right and also kind of wrong at the same time. I’m not a theologian, but it is my understanding that Catholicism in particular is well adept at visualizing demonic forces. The ancient branch of Christianity is credited with taming the pagan traditions and even using them to its own ends.

My fellow tribesmen generally strike a Halloween-neutral position. I sent my kids to a Jewish preschool where it wasn’t celebrated because it’s not a Judaic holiday, but our rabbi has no issue whatsoever with any of the festivities. He tells us to hold on to the costumes for Purim.

Still, Halloween has fallen to over-commericalization

All that being said, it’s true that in the recent decades Halloween was commercialized, its gruesomeness and lewdness exploded. I have a pet theory, two theories, actually.

In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s Halloween was the beloved holiday of America’s children, but towards the end of the century the children stopped growing up. A wide array of the last weekend of October festivities geared towards the perpetual adolescents (and the married people who feel that hiring a babysitter to relive the glory days of five or so years ago is a worthwhile cause) are now the norm. Grown up themes infected Halloween celebrations for all, see sexy nurse vampire costumes for middle school girls. Then with graphic violence in media, gore is popular too. So in this perpetual adolescence sex or gore (or sex and gore) are available for purchase.

For fairness sake, I have to add that the best, the most tasteful Halloween trimmings are handmade creations of perpetual adolescents who sometimes plan for the holiday months ahead and execute their fanciful designs with great skill.

Then there is our disconnect from actual death. Although our media is full of graphic violence, we see very little of real-life death. It used to be common; life expectancy was shorter, and when family members and neighbors passed, open casket funerals drew communities together. Funerals were followed by regular gravesite visits.

A four-year-old today might be driven to tears by the site of an overpriced piece of glow-in-the-dark plastic, but in a traditional society he would had witnessed several funerals, including perhaps the final rites of his parents. Our children are not needlessly assaulted by horror, they are sheltered.

The funerals are different today, too. When a friend’s father finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s, she explained death to her preschool age daughter in what she thought was an age-appropriate manner: grandpa is dead, his body stopped, he can’t walk and talk anymore. The daughter listened, but when they got to the cemetery, there was no body they stopped to say goodbye to; there was an urn and two men in vests who put it in a safe-like cavity in a wall and screwed on the plate. Nearly half of the dead in the United States are now cremated.

I used to think that when my time comes I’d like to be laid to rest in a coffin, just like my grandparents and my great-grandparents were. Then I met my husband. “What, you want the worms to eat you?” He asked me. He thinks like a person raised on a steady diet of horror flicks, and he has a point.

In a world where dying might take a long time but death of loved ones feels alien, Halloween gives children a creative visual process they can use to understand the reality of death.

People have emotional needs, ignore them at your peril. If a shoddy 18” cauldron goes for close to $40 at Walmart, it’s probably because the accessory is supremely important to significant subset of the population. Leslie Loftis wrote about fandoms filling a hole where religion fails. Halloween, obviously, fills another such hole.

The need doesn’t diminish with time, either. When my mother-in-law passed away last month, she was cremated, her ashes deterred in a crypt. That was her wish, but observing the ceremony I couldn’t help thinking that I would prefer mine to be dispersed.

Coming back from the funeral, I met a girlfriend of mine, originally from Moscow, for lunch. We commiserated about the graves of our grandparents halfway around the globe. The cost of travel to Eastern Europe is not something that a typical middle class family can realistically budget with any kind of regularity. Crossing the Russian or Ukrainian border is no cakewalk either. Then there are the time limitations and conflicting family obligations. We can’t be relied on to clean up the ancestral burial grounds every spring as is the custom around there.

Back when the children and grandchildren stayed in towns where they were born and raised, caring for the gravesides was a reasonable filial obligation. This is not how we live now, and the world is not going to be a better place if we return to this simple life. I don’t want my children to be bound to tombstones, I want them to go where their dreams take them and find other ways to remember their ancestors. Traditions of my new home can do that.

A bonus reason to like Halloween

Not to accuse Goldberg and Boorman of insufficient patriotism, but there is another reason why in today’s United States Halloween should be seen in the positive light. In the country torn apart by politics, race, ideology and whatever else can possibly tear it apart, we look for some sort of a common ground. When I walk around my neighborhood on Halloween night I see streets full of revelers of all ages, races, religions, income levels and political persuasions, cheerfully collecting candy and wishing each other a happy holiday. No other night is like that.

Halloween is a holiday that foreign born like me understand to be authentically American. We might feel obligated (and for a good reason) to celebrate Thanksgiving and Independence Day, but All Hallow’s Eve is pure fun. And sure, not every immigrant celebrates it, but the ones who do assimilate better.

As a naturalized American I consider it my most delicious patriotic duty to wrap my Victorian in zombie crossing tape, don a pointy hat and bring my children out to the crowded sidewalks. When they grow up and flee the coup, I will sit on my front porch all night passing out Kit-Kats and Milky Ways — until the wind takes my ashes.


Image appears to be a cross stitch of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow from a now closed etsy shop, K Graham Studios.

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