Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween 2011

This Halloween I find myself watching the spirit of revolution emanating across the United States (and across the globe) and wondering how my favorite holiday fits into it. At first it would seem not at all; the current obsessions with economic and social justice and demands for civic consciousness seem at odds with a holiday that unapologetically embraces materialism and carnal distractions. But this fall, Halloween comes as a necessary relief and a reminder of what we really strive for.

I like to think of Halloween as America’s counter cultural holiday. Most holidays, by their very nature, celebrate a specific tradition or event. But there isn’t a single meaning to Halloween. In fact, there is no specific meaning to the holiday at all. Halloween is not attached to a national or religious mythology, it has no pure “spirit” to appeal to, and because of that the holiday has been able to survive integration into a capitalist system without losing its integrity. Because Halloween has no pretensions to profundity, it is an opportunity for celebrants to have fun without the guilt associated with other holidays. There is no demand that we think about the less fortunate, reflect on dead soldiers, or give thanks for our luck. This is the holiday that allows people to literally have their candy corn and eat it too. And that isn’t something to bemoan; it is something to celebrate.

Halloween is like New Year’s Eve in that it commemorates both the ending and the beginning. On December 31st we celebrate the conclusion of one calendar year and the start of another; on October 31st we celebrate the dance of Thanatos and Eros—the death force and the life force—and the way their desires and motivations intertwine like the limbs of lovers on a fall evening. While picking their costumes, men (who are the more fearful of the sexes, although they will rarely admit to it) may adopt an identity linked to death, whether it is a ghost, a vampire, a warrior, or a zombie, and proclaim their mastery of it. Women, on the other hand, often select a sexualized version of just about anything and thereby make an unapologetic display of their own sexuality. In both cases a taboo is turned into an outfit and by wearing it we are able to claim it as a part of ourselves and overcome our fear of it, if only for an evening. That mingling of characters symbolizing death and life, whether they gather at a polite party or grind against one another on a dark dance floor, is a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Halloween is important because it celebrates life in ways that no other holiday can, without the distractions that cultural traditions and narratives often create. Life is embedded in flesh and blood and its highest expression is not found in illusory transcendence of the physical but our immersion within it. A full appreciation of life requires an acknowledgement of death and the dramatic interplay between them. Halloween reminds us, whatever our broader political and social agendas, of what we are fighting for. At its best, the holiday reinvigorates our lust for life.