By Shea Stevenson
Halloween season arrives like an overhead eclipse; sudden coldness, implacable growing darkness, and night becoming inseparable from day. Some time ago, Halloween and autumnal festivals like it were explicitly an act of honoring the year’s dead and ushering in that harshest of seasons. In many parts of the world, they still are. Certainly the thread of death hasn’t been lost in contemporary American Halloween, but its meaning is mutated to be of unique use to us today. For an occasion so innocuous, Halloween is doing more than any other holiday to keep our society afloat.
Paradoxes are inseparable from Halloween, chief among them being its secularism. On the one hand, Halloween is among the many secular national holidays (Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Memorial Day, etc.) that are expected to be celebrated not by any particular religious orientation but by “Americans,” whatever that means. On the other hand, Halloween is intensely religious, just not of a religion that aligns with anything widely practiced today. It’s not “secular” because it has no spiritual belief sets, no rituals to practices, and no in-group. It’s “secular” because those things are so powerful with it that for the month of October, Halloween becomes everyone’s religion. It does this in the same way that Independence Day is theoretically supposed to make everyone’s religion “American” for a day.
It doesn’t matter what you normally believe, on Halloween night you believe in ghosts and ghouls and vampires, or at the very least you act like it.
Where other secular holidays are known to leave a sour taste on the tongue (be it because of forced family gatherings, colonialist roots, or a reminder of one’s own non-existent national pride), Halloween stands as a monument to good clean fun. This is both despite and because of its image as the ‘dangerous’ or ‘evil’ holiday. Because it’s allowed to be sinister, there’s no need for an erasure of honest history. Because it’s made to seem dangerous (‘what if they put drugs in your kid’s candy?’) and yet time and time again there is shown to be no danger, it feels fittingly like a haunted house attraction. Yes, we know we’re supposed to be scared, but also that we’re allowed to be scared because no one’s going to hurt us. When you have a bad Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving sucks. When you have a bad Halloween, you did it wrong.
Halloween’s other prime paradox is also its most useful to American society: we are meant to be frightened of monsters, and we are also meant to be monsters. More generally, Halloween is the time of horror, and the most common form of horror by far is the visage of the “other.” Be it a vampire that lies across the boundary between life and death, or literally anything we don’t immediately come to understand. There is an in-group we are meant to identify with and when it comes under attack by some other thing, we are upset. Yet on Halloween we are tasked with not just being scared of the “other,” but identifying ourselves for a night with something that society deems as “other.” To literally step into its shoes and walk around in public like that.
We are “the frightened” and “the frightener” simultaneously.
The release that this provides for millions of people every year cannot be overstated. A free pass to be socially unacceptable, yet incredibly visible, and to be so without judgment because we’re all doing the same damn thing. No wonder then that Halloween is so clearly the domain of historic outcasts. Goths, gays, trans, and disabled people, usually all at once, are the target demographic for such an occasion. Not to mention it comes with an expectation to spend the night with friends instead of family.
Halloween season comes like an exhalation. Release of energy, cold wind, necessary if you ever need to inhale again. On the face of it, the fact that Halloween exists in America the way it does is shocking to me. Like public libraries, it’s one of those amazing ideas that if not already ingrained as fundamental elements of the culture, it would be shot down by those in power without a second thought. It’s like a holiday from a happier world airdropped into our own. Cherish it!