October 28, 2007

Killing Death: The Cultural Significance of Halloween

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer 

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 j0436113 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 j0422741well-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 j0412704property 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 PH01560J 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 j0201686comfort 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.


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this is crazy morbid.
however, i would like to see an article regarding halloween's costume origins. if halloween is a chance for us to laugh at death, why is it that little girls dress like princesses and boys dress like firefighters? what caused the growing trend of the older, 16 - 25 year old crowd dressing in incredibly revealing and often scandalous outfits? i think that would be a very interesting topic to cover.

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



This was very interesting article to read, especially with the biographical aspect of it. Ms. Sternheimer's grandmother seems to have exhibited a vibrant personality.

Another interesting aspect that I feel that should be added to this article is the religious origin of Halloween and All Saints' (or Souls') Day on the following day, November 1. Ms. Sternheimer neglected to include the religious implications of the holiday. I am not saying that she needed to beat the religious meaning of it to death and apply it to the sociological but it would expand the scope of this sociological commentary.

This article made me think of how different peoples veiws are and how certain things in life begin one way just to loose the meaning all together. Personally, I think today people use any reason they can find to celebrate. Also I feel that companies use these "holidays" commercializing them for their gain. Come on, so many kids today just want to dress up and get some candy-they don't care why.

Mexican people have a day where they recozine death. A reminder to soften the heart. To respect the people who have pass on to another world. They dress like kids on Hallowen take food to the graves, have a party in the streets and people set and visit the dead. it is similiar to Hallowen, yet the meaning behind it is so much more powerful than getting candy and acting silly or even warding off evil. It can be an silly or a serious things. I just think they change the meaning of the day and it has less meaning now.

In John 1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Cultural significance of Halloween i feel is all around. we look to may different source to expland what we do not know or can not explain. in the city of new orleans they dance after putting someone to rest its a celebration. cultural fix on celebration of things beyond makes a promise that we will look to the sometime silly but, American consumers are expected to spend $4.75 billion on Halloween
"Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other."Sir Francis Bacon, Essays of Death

I think that Halloween has become a vital event for many Americans. It allows us to forget about dying and things like that, and to just have fun with the idea for a day. We take so much seriously today, so I think it is good that we are able to laugh at something that normally would never be laughed at. Without a day like Halloween there would be no release from the fear of murder, death, and other things of that nature. I think that it is good that we have a day like Halloween, especially in the times we are in today.

I just think of Halloween as a fun Holiday. It is a holiday where you can dress up and just have fun, the candy part doesn't hurt either. It is more gothic in nature then other holidays. I don't really think about death and all that during the Holiday. My mom wouldn't let me and my brother dress in scary costumes for fear that it would scare younger children so we were mostly had nice non scary costumes. Maybe that is a reason why I don't really think of death all that much during the holiday.

I think that Halloween is okay but I also think that we should know the difference between real and unreal.I also think that halloween is okay for kids.

I think that Halloween is a major part of American culture because people like to have fun and tease around. I do not think that the contemporary Halloween ritual is a way to laugh in the face of death because this event is a night to have fun with families and friends.

I think Halloween is alright and can be fun in many ways. At the same time this holiday can be very dangerous for young kids to just roam the neighborhoods at dark. I mean you should atleast check out the type of people you live around before just letting your children run off in the middle of the night.

I grow-up loving Halloween. We would go to our neighbors' house and would get all types of cookies, cakes even money. It was something that the whole neighborhood would participate in. Everybody knew everybody and we would have so much candy we eat on it for weeks. Communities have changed now. We don't know our neighbors anymore. We only know a few by name. I think there is a underline fear.

I love Halloween it is my favorite holiday. I love it because it is a day that you can shake the normal taboo associated with death and evil. On Halloween you can turn you house into a haunted house and it is totally accepted. You can scare the hell out of people and they laugh about it because it's halloween. You can dress up as your favorite horror movie monster or a super hero and no one looks at you like you are crazy. I believe this is why halloween is still so accepted in America.

well, I've never associated halloween with death but after reading the article I kind of see it now. But personally I think halloween is just for kids, just like the tooth fairy and and santa claus.

I think that most Americans celebrate Halloween because it the only day of the year you can be a different person. Costoms these days are not just scary anymore you can be anything you wish. I dont think that Halloween is about laughing in deaths face. I think that its accepting it and losing the fear of it as well as remembering the ones you have lost.

Halloween is a holiday that doesn't mean anything. Don't get me wrong, I think its a fun time. But there is no significance in it. Little if any. It is a good time of the year to use your imagination and nothing more. It's a good holiday for kids.

Halloween is celebrated in all parts of the world, it is also prohibited in others. For some Halloween is preceived as "worshiping the devil" to extremely religious people. In America, Halloween is celebrated in our culture because it is the one time children as well as adults can act and dress up like they normally would not.
Some people believe that in todays world, Halloween riturals are about laughing in the face of death. However, this not true. Yes, we do use tombstones, skulls and much more to decorate but these are not for death. Just as pumpkins, spider webs adn todays movie decor, it is all made to scare people.

Halloween to me is agreat holiday.It lets the kids dress and pretend to be something plus the walking doesnt hurt after recieving so many treats.However depending on where you were born halloween is also a time when you show respect to the dead and what they have contributied to society.

Halloween is not at all a holiday to me, it's just a day when people get to waste alot of money on custumes and candy. Alot of people have moved away from the door to door treats and moved halloween into the churches. I think halloween is just for kids and the scary stuff is demonic.

I think people celebrate Holloween because they are ignorant and do not know the true meaning. I think it was something they were taught as a child and enjoyed getting the "free" candy yet comes with a price such as health. I do not believe it is to "laugh in deaths face" I watched a documentary on it, on Holloween little babies are sacrificed and satan is worshiped. I used to celebrate it when I was younger but now I'm older and wiser and I have done my research.

Halloween has been celebrated for centuries with kids dressed up to scare others and have a good time. I do not think that it was really originated to laugh at the face of death. I agree with you Johnson. I watched part of a documentary on it as well. Halloween is the day to worship the devil.

Children love halloween and as a result it remains an important aspect of American culture. Besides children love holidays and halloween is the perfect excuse to celebrate something. Its lots of fun and the time of the year is perfect. Right before thanksgiving and christmas. As far as laughing at death i dont think so. Besides the occassional skeletons you see from time to time death is not a big aspect of halloween. At least not for me. Scary movies around the holiday may portray killing and therefore death but other than that its just an excuse for childern to dress up and eat candy.

I think that Halloween is simply, to most people, just a night to dress up and be somebody or something that you could not be otherwise. I don't necessarily believe that it is laughing in the face of death. Sure, people do set up cemetaries and such in their yards, but I dont believe those people are mocking death by any means. It is simply a night to step outside of the norm, waste money on expensive costumes, aquire some cavities, and have a little fun.

I feel like people should have their own interpretation of what Halloween is. Who's to say I look at Halloween the same way another man looks at it. Halloween is a game consisting of taunting death and bringing mythical evil spirits and representations of darkness to life.

I feel Halloween is a big part of having fun as a kid and yes i see it as laughing in the face of death because it's an easier way of dealing with death. And people always go the easy way.

Halloween to me isn't a holiday, although it is very fun as a child! I personally don't look at it as laughing in the face of death. It is a time for children to get dressed up as their favorite charecter and get way too much candy!

I believe that the reason that Halloween has such a significant impact on the American culture because the of the traditions such as dressing up, trick or treating, and the scary movies. I believe that kids have a lot to do with it, it they are the ones who are the driving force behind the tradition. I do believe that the contemporary Halloween ritual is laughing in the face of death. It's all about cheating death and in turn, laughing in its face.

I think Halloween is pretty significant to some people. However, in some opinions, Halloween is a holiday that is based on a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation. I think that people like the idea of "free candy" so they dress up their children and take them out trick-or-treating. Halloween was once a revered day a long time ago. It was a day to, not celebrate death, but to acknowledge the dead, and what is associated with it. I think that Halloween doesn't laugh in the face of death, but makes us realize that death is inevitable and it is coming. Back then, death was more respected on Halloween than it is now. Now, Halloween is just a holiday to dress up on and get free candy, and to do whatever a person sets their mind on doing.

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. As a kid growing up in a middle-class home we weren’t always promised a big Christmas but we always managed to have fun on Halloween.

we continue the celebration of halloween because our youth of today wants too. No, because when was the last time you seen dress up as a grim reaper, you havent. Instead they dress up as batman or superman, or some other fantasy character.

I believe the celebration of Halloween continues to be a significant aspect of American culture do to the attraction towards evil and all that it represents. Halloween represents the opposite of life, goodness and purity. We, as people, tend to view Halloween as very innocent to celebrate; and yet, it represents nothing that is innocent.

I do believe that the contemporary Halloween is about laughing in the face of death. We must all face death on the basis of how we lived our life. Death is final; there is no turning back. The celebration of Halloween definitely makes light of how each of us will face eternity.

Lot of facts that I didn't know about Halloween in this article especially its origin. The Irish immigrants having a hand in the creation of the holiday. Kind of shocking to see that it is looked at as a day to mock or laugh at death. Kind of disturbing and makes me not want to celebrate anymore but it's interesting nonetheless.

I dont think that many people these days dont even think of cheating death when they are looking forward to Halloween. Many think of getting to dress up in various costumes, children get to have fun with costumes and get candy( which are two things they love), many adults dress up and go out and have fun. Regardless of how the celebration was brought to America as long as I can remember, this has been most peoples view of Halloween.

Halloween remains to be a significant part of American culture, in my opinion, because businesses know that they can make tons of money on costumes, decorations, and candy during the month of October. Kids love to dress up for this holiday and love to get a truckload of candy. I do not believe that Halloween is about laughing in the face of death because it is intended to be a joyous celebration. I can see where some people would take offense to the holiday in the wake of losing a family member, but Halloween seems to be mostly for kids in this nation. I just dont think we are making fun of death. It is just a theme.

i love Halloween but i can see how it could disturb some people... but i think its too big of a tradition to try and change it now

I think we still celebrate Halloween because it's a chance to be something that we're not and it's fun. I've never looked at it as laughing at death because this is the first time I've really read about Halloween!

I think that Americans continue to celebrate Halloween because they are looking for a way to escape from the sadness and seriousness of death. For that time, they can dress up and be whatever they want to be and "laugh in the face of death" and enjoy themselves.
My family and I do not celebrate Halloween because of the things that take place on that day and the spirits that come out. I remember this guy who told his story. He and this girl were Trick-or-treating and these satanists kidnapped them and put him in the back of a van. They tied the girl to a podium, slit her wrists and feet, and drank her blood. She died and I forget how he said he got away, but I just saw more bad than good in the celebration of the holiday.
I think for some people, Halloween is about laughing in the face of death. But for others it is not. Some religious people argue that it is an evil day and evil spirits come out and evil things happen. Others argue that its a day that people can go out and be anyone they want to be and just have fun. Not very many people know the origin of Halloween and they act out what they see other people doing.

i don`t know much about Halloween, because I come from a different culture. However, through what I have learned about, I think we should be more opened and realistic toward the death thing. Halloween may be a way to make it funny... but I`m not sure that all those who celebrate it guess the real impact of this idea . I think the idea of death should be more naturally though, like the notion of family or love or whatever other concept.

I like halloween because I like to dress for the hoilday and dress my kids up in they costumes. For as laughing at death I think it that is crazy. Everybody got they on feeling about halloween.

I like Halloween because it gives a you day to be whoever you would like to be. Every culture celebrate Halloween different, but it is the Day of Dead. I don't think we are laughing at the face of death when we celebrated Halloween, everyone has their way of dealing with death.

I never read how Halloween came to be or what is ia all about until I read this articile I really do not see howit is laughing at the face of death. I think it is something for people to dress and have a lot of candy.

Halloween can be fun for little kids until they get older and start understanding the meaning and start gettin curious. It is just a fun day to not be afraid of death and to enjoy. Yes to some it is not something to celebrate but many ppl enjoy having a day to choose what you want to be and hide behind the mask and it brings familys together.

Well i feel that Holloween is a tradition and kids just LOVE this paticular Holiday. Growing up Holloween was my favorite Holiday after Chritmas. I don't believe that Holloween is laughing death in the face it's just a once a year event that people find entertaining.

Halloween has come a long way since it first started. It is celebrated by almost everyone in one way or another which makes it an aspect of American culture. I do think to some people it is a way at laughing at death, we dress up as ghosts and goblins without realizing what we are really dressed up as and we are mocking it in a way.

Part of the reason Halloween continues to be so celebrated and widely recognized is the fact that it is SO commercialized. As early as August, you see Halloween merchandise being displayed in department stores.

I don't believe Americans laugh at death, when it comes to Halloween. I just think it's an exciting night for young kids to dress themselves in things that represent the imaginative ideas they have for themselves to fulfill. It's just that simple.

I think for some, Halloween is about mocking death. However, for the vast majority, it is nothing more than a tradition. People are always looking for an excuse to have fun, and this is just another example.

Many peopl view things in a different way. Haloween to me is a harmless kids holiday. It is about having fun and eating candy. We habe observed it so long that I believe that is why it is still around today. Halloween is not about laughing in the face of death. I do not even associate death with Halloween. Halloween has been so commercialized that it no longer deals with deaths and murders aside from the horro movies that are produced every year. No one purposely sets out to harm themselves or others on Halloween.

I think Halloween is just a time for kids to have fun, but I don't like the idea of begging for treats. That is how it appears now. I don't believe it to be about fighting death. If this was so why do children wear little Tinkerbell, and Tommy the Train costumes?

I think that this holiday is no worse than the others. All holidays are based on the same biased principal. I think that holidays are fun and good to have something to look forward to, however, why pick only one day out of the year to have a reason to dress up in costumes, and party? Halloween is no different than Christmas. They are both one day a year and for religious purposes. The only difference is that no one goes to church on halloween. Holidays are only for the retailers to make more money for that occasion than for no occasion. Every holiday, especially Christmas is only about the money. True Christians should celebrate the death, burial, and resurection every day of the year, not just Christmas and Easter. If a holiday is going to be clebrated it should be stricktly for traditional purposes. That's just my opinion.

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, even though I did not get to go trick-or-treating as a child. I enjoy taking my daughter trik-or-treating on Halloween because it is a time where she can look cute in her costume and also eat candy and not get in trouble for it. I don't personally think it is laughing in the face of death. When I think of Halloween I do not even think about death.

Halloween in my family has never been nothing to laugh at. Death will come but to celebrate an evil idea ......I think halloween has a different cultural accepts in that compare the Celts view of that of the Mexican...

I believe that many people should read this article first of all because I have met so many people that say they don't celebrate halloween because it's the devil's holiday and we're encouraging sin. Halloween has stayed in America because of the media and the mass market. Its a money maker just as Valentine's Day and Christmas. There is no law that says you must celebrate Valentine's Day on February 14 but we do it because it's the norm. I feel that although Halloween is meant to be seen as people laughing in the face of death many do not see it that way. If people celebrated holidays for their true meaning than that would be fine but to just make an assumption that halloween is the devil's holiday is just plain ignorant.

Halloween can be different things to different people. for most its a time for dressing up and getting candy and maybe a little scared.Mostly its all about the fun though. I think its unfair to say that Halloween would be considered a holiday set aside for laughing in the face of death.. Maybe drunk driving on Halloween would be an example of that. but not the holidays purpose.

I have never heard of halloween being a way to deal with death. Its always been just a holiday that we dress up and have fun. It seems as it is a way to break away from the norm of society for one night, rather than deal with death. As with most of these articles,this article is stupid.

I think Halloween is a big part of kids lives, because thats a day for them to enjoy dressing up and doing something with your family. As far as the death thing its a easier way of dealing with it because of the fun your having on that day.

Laughing at Death, i think that this is completely Absurd. Death is nothing funny, yes we all have to die someday but laughing at Death is far outstretched, why would you laugh at something you have no control over. Why laugh at death when people are dying daily from sickness and disease etc. That's mockery, anyone of us could die any minute and i think we should not take for granted the very breath we breathe but that doesnt give us a right to laugh at death. Be thankful and greatful for each day you live, because any day could be your day

I dont quite agree with Halloween being known to poke fun of death. I think its to celebrate an ancient harvest festival and over the years came the dressing up and the candy. Growing up halloween was known more for kids getting candy and having fun. I was never told as a child and never even heard of as a child that it was to laugh at death. That is a little bit beside me. Kids today just think of it as a fun night to dress up and get more candy than their siblings or friends. One good point in this blog was that in most television sitcoms a hopitals, police stations etc. are usually present in the show. That is something i never thought of, but it is true that we have learned to deal with death from a distance on a daily basis.

this article is good

Killing death is exactly what Christ did on the cross.

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