It is that time of year again when I become irritatingly sanctimonious. My family readily expects that the last day of October will arouse my deepest antipathies. Blame it on my upbringing. Since, as an Australian, I was not privileged to be raised with the Halloween tradition, it is difficult for me to appreciate the holiday as one of the sacrosanct rites of American childhood. Sadly, it has always looked much more to me like a gruesome celebration of death. Call me a curmudgeon, but no luminous jack o’lanterns, shimmering skeleton backed costumes, or enticing mounds of corn candy have ever been able to convince me that Halloween is anything other than the commercial expression of America’s obsession with a culture of death.
That was until last week. As I passed a home in my neighborhood, where the splayed feet of a plastic corpse poked out of the dirt, I had a revelation. I finally understood that Halloween is not a celebration of death at all. It is death’s denial. Americans are led, by a relentless assault of media images that promote youth and health, to believe that there is no finality to life. We trivialize death and while mocking it, treat the dead as comic book characters. Movies, video games, books and music of the last twenty years all offer evidence of a culture dismissing death as a fiction. From Alice Cooper (who wrote that lovely paean to necromancy, I Love the Dead) to the The Mummy, we live in world where death has acquired the teasing patina of farce.
While it may well be easy to dismiss such raillery as over-sensitive paranoia, it can’t be forgotten that Halloween has become an important calendar event, not just among young children but also among adults. For many, Halloween is a convenient and excusable means of revealing one’s dark side, discreetly hidden away at other times of the year.
And not simply for party-goers. To the consternation of many, necromancy, black magic and witchcraft are gaining discouraging momentum in our society, enjoying a revival as a sub-culture that propagates, among other things, orgiastic sex, animal mutilation and devil worship. A quick search of the Internet under the words ‘witchcraft’, ‘ paganism’ and ‘occult’ unearths thousands of skillfully developed websites, devoted to the transmission of the black arts. Among these websites a researcher will find dates for regular group meetings in every State, shops that sell sacrificial knives and prayer books for worship of the devil.
Those who so innocently celebrate Halloween as an event catering for children should also be aware of some of its less appealing antecedents. Many of the surviving Catholic holy days commemorating the lives of saints, long ago absorbed the rituals and even theology of their surrounding pagan cultures. Thus, St. Patrick Day, originally designed to commemorate the teachings of its martyred namesake, has leprechauns, drunkenness and other assorted foolishness crowding out the memory of that saint’s original teachings. The unfortunate St. Valentine sees the Roman god Cupid exalted on his feast day with nary a thought dedicated to his personal legacy.
Similarly corrupted was All Saints Day, (which became All Hallow’s Eve), a day set aside to commemorate the many saints and martyrs who had no special annual remembrance of their own. It may well have been the adoption of the practices of Druids in England who went door to door on the day asking for gifts and threatening spells for the ungenerous that lent Halloween its special form of corruption. Popularized in America in the 19th Century by immigrants, trick or treating soon became so hazardous to life and property that by the 1890s a number of States were forced to legislate against the practice.
Today Halloween trick or treating is a custom so readily accepted that even churches and synagogues host Halloween parties. Dressed as goblins, ghouls, witches and demons, our children roam the streets of our suburbs not thinking of this rite as anything other than a good time costume party. Decades ago, perhaps, this might have been so. But then children had a cushion of comfort provided by religious faith which affirmed the value and dignity of life. But with the general collapse of participatory religious life and the rise of a vacuous death culture promoted by the entertainment industry which celebrates vampires, zombies, ghosts, demons other resuscitated life forms, children are no longer recipients of such affirmation. Instead, they are taught to regard life, not as a privilege to be revered and exalted, but as a manifest joy ride. In contrast, those who have passed to the beyond are transformed into figures of fun, to be ridiculed for no longer having the ability to share in the general joviality.
Why, sensible voices should be asking, can’t we leave the dead alone? Why is it necessary for us to figuratively exhume corpses and treat them with the kind of mockery we should reserve for the real life merchants of horror and death – Islamic suicide bombers and their sponsors who daily wreak carnage around the world?. As I walk the streets of my suburb and see the elaborate lengths parents go to festoon their homes with cobwebs, fake graves, skeletons and other assorted symbols of death, I have to wonder why the same kind of effort is not invested in demonstrating a converse loathing for the real life forces in the world which traffick in death and would gleefully dance on our graves.
This doesn’t happen in liberal democracies around the world today because Islamic fundamentalists are not regarded as the true grave dancers. That distinction belongs to corporate bosses, Wall Street traders, armament manufacturers and conservatives. According to our houses of learning, our media groups and our entertainment industry, they are the demons with ghoulish intent – plotting to destroy our environment, vandalize our wealth and prosecute war when peace is so close at hand. This peculiar world view, in which those seeking to kill and destroy us are ignored while those attempting to protect us or ensure our safety and prosperity are vilified- is an affliction of the West that would roil the graves of the millions who fought in many wars to protect us.
Perhaps that is the reason Halloween, year after year, leaves me with the creeps. I look around and see a real life enactment of Plato’s hypothetical cave dwellers who spend their existence viewing shadows projected on a wall, believing them to represent reality – and failing entirely to recognize that real life actually goes on outside the cave. While true evil lurks in this world, stalking us and waiting for an opportune moment to strike, we spend our time mocking death, rather than reinforcing our faith in life and its profound purpose.
If Western civilization loses its faith in life, it will succumb to those who have a fanatical faith in death. Maybe that is not so obvious to the young children who will innocently knock on our doors this weekend. But without reinforcing in those same children the notion that death is not a laughing matter and simultaneously affirming the supreme beauty and uniqueness of life, our future may indeed be quite grim.