Why Halloween Matters
Overheard once in the aisles of a Halloween Costume shop: “Look at all these. There’s no creativity. No one knows what Halloween means anymore.”
Respectfully, I disagree.
Yes, it’s true that Halloween’s a monster of an industry. We’re spending somewhere around $6.9 billion on it this year, $310 million of that on our pets (and by pets I mean dogs; I’d like to meet the cat who would tolerate a Louis XIV suit). There are Halloween-y skulls on our mouse pads, fangs on our kids’ stuffed animals, and claws on energy drink labels. We owe this Halloweening of America not just to commerce (all holidays are market-driven to a point; it’s part of what gets us on the same page), but also to cultural events in the not-too-distant past. Without a renaissance of the occult, there’d be no fascination with the world of spirits; without a clinical, hands-off relationship with our dead, no curiosity about death. Without our post-Viet Nam, post-9/11 worldview, no need to fight back against a pervasive fear that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.
Here, and in many other ways, Halloween can help. At Halloween we can wrap our arms around the reality of the other 364 days and satirize, emulate, exorcize, and celebrate it. Levees break. Banks fail, jobs vanish, and markets tank. The joy of Halloween is not that it’s dark and we revel in that; it’s that Halloween can bring a bit of light and laughter into this darkness. Our onetime children’s holiday turned blood-and-guts carnival may just be the right antidote for a myriad of ailments. In so many ways, Halloween keeps us together.
Consider this: Halloween’s the only holiday we have left where we open our doors to strangers. The holiday doesn’t cocoon in living rooms or backyards but spills out into the streets, wild and egalitarian. It’s a throwback to the age of neighborhoods, a day we stand together in a shared flight of imagination, agreeing for an evening that little babies are peapods and our pets are superheroes. We welcome men in high heels and women with Mario Brothers mustaches, pre-teens who look a worldly 20 and dads dressed like Marshmallow Peeps. In the cold, hard light of the following morning, few of us would tolerate a six-foot tall Peep.
Also, we create Halloween for each other. Despite multibillion-dollar marketing, this holiday is at its core both homemade and original (ask any parent who’s been asked to make a cat/pickle/stoplight costume at the 11th hour.) The decorated yards that multiply each year bear witness that Halloween’s not entirely driven by a group of people sitting around a board room trying to decide what we’ll buy, but by people in their garages and basements trying to come up with something really, really cool. Pneumatic zombies that pop out of trashcans, maybe. Or ghosts on a zip line and spiders made of pool noodles. Of course the bar’s been raised—gore-wise—over the past decades. It takes a lot more visceral props to create thrills for a generation raised on “Hellraiser” as opposed to, say, “Betty Boop’s Halloween Party.”
Most of all, Halloween is about tolerance, a delightful gimme for any number of alt-cultures normally banished to the fringe. “On Halloween,” a Goth friend told me, “everyone looks like we do.” This works for the rest of us, too. Whatever box you check, queer/straight, geek/jock, Halloween’s your chance to come out, because on the morning of November 1, we’re going to be cantankerous as ever about people who don’t look the same as us.
Which may be why we hold on so tightly to Halloween. No matter how much we try to stretch it, Halloween happens only when the light casts a certain length of shadow and the temperature slides. The night is dug into the year like a marker. Before Halloween: creativity, anticipation, endless possibility. After Halloween: winter. The sheer G-force of accelerating time makes us cling to something organically cyclical, to hold tight to this one night of benevolent exhibitionism and group glee before the bitter dissension of November politics hits.
Halloween is our rogue holiday. It’s not tied to a person (Mother’s Day), event (Thanksgiving, July 4th), or even ethnicity (St. Patrick’s Day), so it is free to ride the cultural currents and express who we are and what we need. More Gaga? Maybe. Tributes to Steve Jobs? I think yes, we may see a lot of ipads and imacs this year. More than anything, though, these: community, imagination, and generosity.
October 31, 2011