What is Halloween, anyway? It’s long been one of my favorite holidays, and it exercises a stronger hold on the American cultural imagination than any other. Yet it bears little resemblance to what it once was. It’s been sexed up and tamed down until it feels almost entirely divorced from its roots. A Frankenstein’s monster, if you will, that instead of barging off into the wilderness has gone for a well-lit stroll down cultivated garden lanes.
Dia de los Muertos celebrations are closer in many ways to the original European All Hallows Eve than our current trick or treating. Halloween is rooted in Samhain (“sah-win”, meaning “summer’s end”), which marked the end of the pagan year. The Celts of the British Isles believed it was the day spirits were closest to our world–just as the people of Mexico have long believed that this is when spirits not only come close to our world, but come back specifically to be reunited with their loved ones. There remains a pervasive sense of otherworldliness about Day of the Dead celebrations, whereas Halloween has become all too worldly.
It didn’t start that way. Catholics, back in the 800s A.D., tried to turn the pagan Samhain into All Saints Day and held a vigil the night before. Called All Hallows Eve, this is what became our Halloween. It got a bit smushed up with another Christian holiday (All Souls Day) as well as old Roman days of the dead, and the roots of the modern holiday–costumes, trick or treating, bobbing for apples–grew out of a variety of traditions that immigrants brought to the New World.
Halloween proceeded to spend much of the 20th century evolving into a secular holiday, and the 21st devolving into commercial-dom. And yet there’s still some kernel of the original intent: using treats to placate mischievous children is not far off from using them to placate spirits, and Halloween still serves as a marker between the season of plenty and the season of wither. Half-bare branches and the scuttle of dry leaves in the gutter are as much a part of the holiday as jack o’lanterns and candy bars.
Costumes today may not be intended to confuse demons, but the trend towards satire does convey a sense of cultural exorcism. And then we have aspirational costumes–superheroes, royalty, pop stars–which seem uniquely and almost touchingly American. They suggest a world where everyone is encouraged to dream big and rewarded when they do.
Our Halloween may not be spooky. It’s no solemn reminder, as it once was, of the thin veil that separates us from eternity. It is a glittering daylight heartthrob vampire, not the monster you run from in darkness. Still, it’s a time to celebrate strangeness, to get a peek at what scares or amuses those around you, and to look at lots of extremely adorable small children.
I would like to see a return to honoring this liminal time. This Halloween, take a moment to think about our year sliding towards darkness. Watch a scary movie and feel how close you are to panic at any moment. Wear a mask to the grocery store to understand the mask you wear every day. Wear a “vote for Trump” button. Make Halloween weird* again.
*Suggesting something supernatural; unearthly.
‘Sounds emitted from the bushes: weird uncanny sounds made by unknown animals, for all sorts of things lived in forests.’
Synonyms: uncanny, eerie, unnatural, supernatural, unearthly, otherworldly, ghostly, mysterious, strange, abnormal, unusual