Each October 31st I like to spend a few hundred words pontificating on the holiday. I’ve generally dedicated these posts to expressing my love for Halloween, reflecting on how it exceeds the other holidays on the calendar and on its subversive qualities. To that last point I’ve often emphasized the sexual aspects of Halloween and the way it has become an adult carnival. But this year I’ve got something else in mind. Halloween isn’t just celebrated by adults in provocative costumes engaging in debauchery. It’s also celebrated by families and children and in that context it takes on other dimensions, ones that I’ve generally ignored but are worth reflecting upon.
The origins of Halloween and especially the “Trick or Treat” tradition are supposedly rooted in ancient beliefs that on one night of the year the dead return from the grave to visit their loved ones. Extra places would be set at the table and food would be left out to placate the returned spirits. In this sense, Halloween has a strong element of family bonds, one that is continually relevant today.
In modern times the “Trick or Treat” ritual is one of children dressing in costumes and going from house to house, soliciting candy from the neighbors. As silly as this tradition may be, there is a value to it, especially in these fearful and paranoid times. The act of getting out of the house and going from neighbor to neighbor allows for socialization and community building that seems to be increasingly rare. Although we live in the age of Facebook and Twitter, in which we are privy to minute-by-minute details of each other’s lives, there is also a curious isolation to contemporary life. Trick or Treat cannot be done over the web (although I’m sure Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are working on it) and the fact that it requires children and their parents to get out of the house and meet the neighbors can potentially strengthen community bonds. No other holiday requires interaction with strangers (even if the strangers live next door) like this, making Halloween unique in American life.
Aside from Trick or Treat, the other major activity of Halloween is watching movies, and especially horror films. Movie viewing is a part of Halloween in a way that is unique from other holidays. There are certainly motion pictures that can be linked to other holidays, especially Christmas, but the extent to which the act of watching scary movies is linked to Halloween, the sheer number of titles available, and the way in which cinematic characters and images show up in costumes and decorations makes Halloween a distinctly cinematic holiday.
Viewed from a distance, watching horror films does not make sense. For that matter, neither does riding a roller coaster. Both horror films and amusement park rides are experiences in controlled trauma and both serve similar functions. One is simple diversion; the rush of adrenaline and the thrill of stimulation couched in a context in which our wellbeing is never really at stake. But horror films have other functions too. When we watch these pictures with others, it is a shared traumatic experience. Watched with a romantic partner or even a platonic friend, there is a subtle bonding that happens between viewers that creates an unspoken solidarity. The same effect can be had among family members as well but with some added impact. Viewed among older siblings and parents, a very satisfying horror films can strengthen family bonds.
There is a particular impact of horror pictures and of Halloween in general that can be special for parents and young children. One aspect involves the ritualistic aspect of storytelling. Many horror films are like the tales told around a campfire and the television set and the Blu-ray player have taken the place of oral traditions. Although presented in more comfortable settings and with advanced technology, the messages these tales impart are often timeless and assist in an important parental role.
Parents (and for that matter older siblings) have things to tell their children. Among them, life is of a limited quantity and the world is a dangerous place. Parents have to warn their children and prepare them for the difficult world that awaits. Scary stories are a way for people to begin to cope with this and many children will first encounter the concepts of hardship, violence, and mortality in the context of a narrative. In the documentary The American Nightmare, Wes Craven, the filmmaker of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, refers to horror pictures as “boot camp for the soul,” which is to say that when young people submit to a horror film they harden themselves in a healthy way. These stories are a beginning to coming to grips with life’s difficulties and disappointments.
There is also a—for lack of a better word—spiritual aspect to Halloween. I don’t mean “spiritual” in a necessarily religious sense. But as the world becomes increasingly secular and the community transitions into a post-religious period, we do lose the possibility of viewing the world with a specific kind of awe and risk severing ties with traditions and rites that are psychologically satisfying. Scientists sometimes discuss the boon they get from discoveries and epiphanies but that is a categorically different experience from the kind of mystical experience people once got from religious traditions. (The wonder conveyed by art is probably much closer.) Halloween provides the possibility of magic, the kind that children believe in when they play pretend, and a way to act out deeply embedded traditions and rituals, even if they are done in a self-aware manner.
Because of its mature themes, Halloween celebrations tip toward adults, especially those who are free spirited and unbound by the responsibilities of parenthood. But the holiday also functions for a much broader constituency. Halloween has become a valuable holiday—perhaps the most valuable on the calendar—because it takes the fear and anxiety that underlies so much of life, physicalizes it, and allows us to face it. This potent combination of ancient and modern traditions provides something that we need and crave. It has become the family and community unifying sacrament of a post-religious age.