Whenever I write about Halloween I get into very hot water. My kids, my friends, my readers , my editors – all voice astonishment that I should feel disgust for such a quintessentially American event. They regularly pass off my distaste as evidence of my foreign roots, insisting that no one who grew up in this country could possibly feel the same way.
But I can’t help myself. As I witness the lawns of my neighbors’ houses being ploughed up and planted with fake headstones; skeletal remains poking out of flower beds and clover rings and cobwebs festooning trees and hedges, I get a sense that all is not well in the American psyche. Since some begin populating their front lawns with these necromantic accessories as early as September, this is an unease that resides with me for many weeks and sometimes even months.
One of the reasons for my despair is is that I fail to see the same slavish penchant for detail being lavished on Christmas, Easter, Channukah or almost any other religious event. The same houses that sport the cobwebs of October can barely bring themselves to hang up the mistletoe of December. While I am well aware of the demise of traditional religious practices, I do have to wonder how the fascination with death and the dead has taken the place of the celebration of life.
Our television and movie culture isn’t helping matters much. This week sees the first episode of the new AMC series The Walking Dead which premieres appropriately on Halloween night. It follows the travails of Rick Grimes who wakes up in a hospital bed only to find the world over run by zombies. His survival in this nightmarish landscape is dependent on the maintenance of his own moral framework – apparently not such an easy task. This week will also see the release of the Mexican film maker Guillermo Del Toro’s phantasmagorical new novel. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Pat Morrison, Del Toro explains how in his native Mexico the Day of the Dead, a time in the Catholic calendar reserved for paying respect to dead relatives and dead saints, has transformed into a day in which the dead are mocked and treated with contempt:
“Sadly, in Mexico, the All Saints’ Day aspect of it has faded into straight Halloween. I miss being able to show my daughters what it is to pay your respects to a grave and bring food and drink and spend the day in the cemetery.”
Del Toro points out something important here. Halloween began as All Saints Day – a day of reverence – and then over the course of a century transformed into something far more macabre and outlandish. Becoming first a children’s spectacle, it has transformed again over the past 20 years into an adults’ affair which supports an entire bacchanalian industry in costuming and accessories.
I was reminded of this by a friend in his mid 50s who explained to me that when he was a young boy ghosts, ghouls , witches, skeletons, obscene behavior and death worship were not part of Halloween playfulness. The Halloween of his youth was the Halloween of the Peanuts strips – grinning jack o’ lanterns, corn candy, neighbors eager to stave off the threat of a trick and only a few houses begirdled with anything like Halloween cobwebs.
In the transition between that youth and today, something vital has been lost and something terrible gained. A creeping nihilism has seeped into the American suburban consciousness where, unseen, it has torn to shreds any idea of reverence and moderation. If you asked any adult today what Halloween is about and why we do it, they would, in all likelihood, answer that its not about anything. It is done because it is fun.
But that in itself is the problem. In this day, when there are myriad other ways in which to have fun, why involve yourself and your children in something that is so clearly centered on death? It is not a question most parents , if they are thoughtful, would be comfortable answering. Because it would require an admission that they see nothing wrong with the death-centered messages being subliminally given to children and the contempt this suggests.
But it is a fine line between the jaundiced kind of death mockery we see today and celebration of the occult. And from there, the field is wide open to the practice of witchcraft and the pursuit of a host of other pagan rites that challenge the very foundations of our civilization.
No one who celebrates Halloween today considers him or herself as contributing to anything but happiness and community joy. They have little understanding of the absolute moral wasteland that yawns open to accept the performance of the Halloween ritual. I can only hope that others, even if not foreign born, will begin to realize where this “innocent prankish” little festival is taking us and why it is vital to apply the brakes to its continued spread.