Killing Death: The Cultural Significance of Halloween
If your neighborhood is anything like mine, yards are filled with skeletons, foam tombstones, and other ghoulish décor. Some homes even have orange and black flashing lights and giant inflatable skulls. One house is lit up by strobe lights and has the 80s song "Ghostbusters" playing on an endless loop.
Our annual embrace of the macabre began as my family and I had to deal with the real thing: the loss of my grandmother. Tombstones aren’t fun and festive when you’ve just buried someone in an actual cemetery, one that doesn’t get put away on November 1st.
In many ways, Halloween exists as a ritual to confront death during a time when most of us (fortunately) don’t have to deal with death on a regular basis. We fight wars overseas so they seem to happen to “other people,” and when people do pass away they tend to be in hospitals. Before the twentieth century, most people died at home and families were often responsible for preparing their bodies for burial.
When my grandmother was born in 1911, death was all around her. Born in Russia, she was a child during the battles of World War I. Her father died in the Influenza Pandemic soon after, and her village was attacked and civilians were killed after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia. She hated to remember these times, but in her later years would tell us stories about hiding up on a hill and returning to her village to find bodies everywhere. Once she hid with her family in a neighbor’s home, only to have soldiers find them. “There are only women and children here,” her mother told them, pleading for their lives.
They later escaped into Romania, crossed a river in the middle of the night, made their way to France, and sailed to Ellis Island. They never looked back, always preferring to focus on happy times in America. After her harrowing escape, my grandmother hated the ocean and rarely went in the water, even when she retired to Florida.
But she really loved Halloween, and even when she was an adult she would dress up to celebrate. She loved to tell a story about when she and my grandfather dressed up and rang the doorbell of friends, demanding candy. They were so well-costumed that their friends didn’t recognize them and slammed the door in their faces. When they took off their masks, they and their friends were overcome with fits of laughter.
I don’t think it’s an accident that she took such pleasure in Halloween, a chance to mock death. She cheated death many times in her life; in spite of a heart attack and cancer in her 50s, as well as several serious health complications in her later years, she lived a full 96 years.
And that’s really what our contemporary Halloween ritual is all about: laughing in the face of death.
Halloween began as a Celtic holiday to ward off evil spirits. In its early incarnation, instead of giving away candy people would provide gifts in exchange for the promise that the recipients would pray for their dead relatives.
The holiday came to the United States courtesy of the large influx of Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century. Far from a celebration for children, it began in the U.S. as a night of mischief for teen boys and young men. According to historian Gary Cross, treats were offered as bribes to assure that property was not the target of pranksters.
Cross argues that this holiday became infantilized as cities grew and the idea of young men “blowing off steam” seemed more menacing. According to Cross, it wasn’t until the 1940s that children began wearing costumes and going trick-or-treating.
Halloween is a night when the boundaries of acceptable behavior are turned upside down. People of all ages dress in costumes, sometimes hyper-sexual, occasionally gender-bending, and sometimes challenging conventional standards of good taste. Children are allowed to dress as powerful and scary creatures, demand candy (often from strangers) and are allowed to roam the streets after dark (albeit usually with a parent in tow). And rather than fearing death or trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist, we laugh at the idea.
Adults actively try to scare children with haunted houses or by dressing up in a scary outfit to answer the door for trick-or-treaters. I remember we had a Halloween festival at my elementary school, where we were encouraged to walk through a dark room while scary music played in the background. The teachers were dressed in costumes and tried to scare us (and often succeeded). We were told to put our hands in a box filled with cooked spaghetti and were told it was filled with brains.
Of course, the people who really get scared now are parents, afraid that their kids will come home with poisoned candy. As sociologist Barry Glassner notes in The Culture of Fear, there is no documented case of a child’s Halloween candy being poisoned by a stranger. But the belief that this is a real threat seems to add a dangerous mystique to Halloween. It’s a bit ironic that Halloween fears run so high that some communities don’t even have trick-or-treating. The truth is, most American children have never been safer: crime in the United States is way down compared to the early 1990s, and children are unlikely to die of disease or in infancy compared with past generations.
Yet the fact that we have come so far in “curing death” means that we need Halloween even more. This is the same reason that every other network drama takes place in a hospital, police station, or crime lab. For most of us, this is the only way we deal with the idea of mortality on a regular basis. Rather than “desensitizing” people, as critics sometime suggest, these rituals are a way of allowing us to face death from a safe distance on a regular basis.
Laughing at death can be very cathartic. My grandmother had a wonderful sense of humor, and recounting the funny things she said was a tremendous comfort in the days following her death. Likewise, Halloween gives us a chance once a year to poke fun of death.
Of course, no matter how clever we think we are, death always has the last laugh.