I suppose there are reasons to dislike Halloween. Aspects of it are disturbing; children dressed as beheaded ghosts, blood galore, fangs, etc. There are the “problematic” aspects: The assholes who continue to wear racist costumes year after year no matter how many times people ask them to stop, the idea that the correct women’s costume is a “slutty” version of some everyday occupation. These sometimes threaten to spoil the holiday. And yet: On the whole, I think it’s just absolutely wonderful.
Halloween has the same quality that I love about Mardi Gras: that perfect balance of individualism and collectivism, where every person gets to express themselves uniquely but we are all part of the same endeavor. You feel closer to other people even though you’re more different from each other than on any other day. When else do you get to see what people are truly capable of creatively? When else would anyone ever do something like this:
Then there are the children. If you are a parent, you have an excuse to make your child look absolutely ridiculous for a day, and you won’t be humiliating them in front of their peers! The results are just delightful:
My mother always took Halloween very seriously, and whether my costumes were relatively simply (mummy) or absurdly elaborate (boy scout helping an elderly grandmother cross the street), she never did anything slapdash:
The “Person riding on another person” theme was continued the next year when I was “Dr. Frankenstein being carried by his monster.” I have no idea why so many of my costumes seemed to involve me having a false head halfway down my person:
There are far too few everyday opportunities for officially-sanctioned silliness as an adult. You are not supposed to simply dress up as Shakespeare or R2-D2 for a day, even if you would really like to. Now, I think that’s a serious social injustice: In my ideal world, anyone could wear a costume at any time without being thought odd. Dress-up should be a part of life, because it’s fun to pretend to be other stuff, and I am strongly in favor of allowing adults to behave more like children in certain ways (e.g., wearing crazy outfits, playing with toys, questioning authority) even if we should behave less like children in certain other ways (e.g., nearly everything the president does).
As my colleague Pete Davis pointed out on our recent Halloween podcast episode, it’s also one of the only times when we allow kids to be “dark.” American culture is in many ways very “clean”; we don’t like to talk about ugliness, grime, and misery. Americans are a cheerful people. Halloween is a time when death comes to the surface, and we all get reminded that we are skeletons under our skin. I like having a holiday like that, that contrasts nicely with Christmas and Valentine’s Day and Easter and Thanksgiving and all the rest. Pete says that if Halloween didn’t exist, and you proposed it today, people would reject it out of hand. It would sound insane. Bad for kids, creepy for adults. You’d seem morbid, a freak. Fortunately, we’ve all inherited a morbid, freakish holiday.
Here in New Orleans, Halloween is taken very seriously. The French Quarter has been filling up with skeletons and zombies. There’s haunted houses all over the place, a Halloween parade, etc. You get to see what a holiday is like when everyone gets into the spirit, and it really is like nothing else.
I like the concept of the trick or treat: legitimized extortion. Give me candy or I will inflict some horrible prank on you. Hardly anyone ever gets the prank. But what a concept!
And of course, there’s the candy-giving ritual itself: You get to go up to strangers, and they give you things. Your neighborhood often becomes a very different place for one night. I know mine did. As a child, I lived in a suburban development where people didn’t really talk to each other much. It wasn’t the most “neighborly” place. On Halloween, it changed completely: People whose houses had always been dark put up webs and orange lights, and sat out on their porches dressed as witches. A housing tract was transformed temporarily into an actual community.
What must people think of us, who do not understand Halloween? What must an immigrant family that gets off the plane on the evening October 31st conclude about the sanity of their neighbors? A day of madness, candy, costuming. Could anything be better?
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