As a fan of the dark side of life, I’ve always found Halloween an opportunity to reveal our hidden psyche. Not only Halloween, but all forms of celebration related to Death. These include All Hallow’s Eve, Day of the Dead, and even the wide variety of funeral and internment rites from around the world. All of them bring us face to face with the fact that our personal reality, everything we know and love, will someday become meaningless.
Our religions do their best to restore that meaning, telling us that death is a door leading to another chapter. Perhaps. That’s a discussion for another day. For today, it’s our visit with Death that reveals the most about our behavior, and not only you and me as individuals, but as a society.
Halloween has gone global, and people from all cultures have embraced the role-playing party-going festivities Halloween provides. In the US, we culture children to beg for candy. There was a time when mischief was expected, in the form of toilet paper in trees, soap on windows, and perhaps an errant egg or two. But the fun-loving Death-themed festivities have caught our imagination.
For you and me, Halloween mean different things. There’s a good chance you will use it as a chance to have fun, dressing up as something silly, scary, sexy, or a combination of these. You’ll have fun, act out in some way, preferably with friends watching, and eventually call it a night.
But what does Halloween tell us about behavior? What can the great picture of how our world deals with Dia de los Muertos reveal about our inner soul? A great deal, as we shall soon reveal.
A few decades ago, Halloween was a way to have fun by confronting Death. Blood, corpses, and ghosts were the norm, and a tinge of fear creating thrilling chills was enough to keep young children at bay, and teenagers occupied. The smallest children were kept away as the night’s events were considered too horrific. And the adult population – starting at 18 back then – found the entire episode too childish to care.
Childish? Halloween? To adults back in the 1930s and 40s, Death was real enough. There was a good chance your family knew of someone who had died in war, or of poverty, or in an accident. Our world didn’t have the same safety regulations, medicines, or even the same amount of world peace we enjoy today. To those adults, death was already a neighbor, they didn’t need any reminders.
Skip ahead to today. Death is no longer a neighbor, but seems to be a distant cousin who will visit someday. Someday, but not for a very long time. Not only that, but we will see him coming. Hardly anyone today, relatively speaking, dies unexpectedly any more. When it does happen, we’re surprised, and lament their passing all the more.
With Death so far away, what does an adult do? Forget the Grim Reaper exists. Find another excuse to party. Include the baby, dressed up like a pumpkin. The teenager can be a vampire, and the wife and I will go to a party as superheros, animals, or whatever suits our fancy.
And that, Gentle Reader, is our revelation. We as adults, and as a society, have forgotten that Death still lives nearby. We may treat him as a distant cousin, but he always sits at our elbow. Pretending he’s not there doesn’t make him go away. And the best evidence for this is our changing attitudes towards Halloween.
“Is this so bad?” you say. “So what?” you wonder. Why does it matter how we consider Death? It means little to how we live, doesn’t it?
Our attitude towards Death lies at the very root of our culture, and is exactly the center of how we live each day. Our American ancestors came from established countries to a New World, not knowing what to expect. The first frontiersmen pushed West without knowing what lay beyond. Their means were meager, their only incentives were a better life for their family, and they had Death at their heels the whole time. They weren’t afraid to take risks.
Today it’s exactly the opposite. We’ll get arrested for not using seat belts or smoking the wrong kind of leaf. we have to carry identifications almost all the time and tacitly accept surveillance of almost everything we do. Finally, and perhaps most personally, we can’t eat something unless it’s in a cold package with a valid expiration date. And we certainly can’t touch anything without continuously dousing our hands in alcohol.
Halloween was a time when we had a little fun acknowledging and confronting our true fear of Death. We’ve lost that. Death is something we ignore, using this precious day as an excuse to dress up and drink.
We have become a culture, a country, a world of frightened children. Taking risks is what building a better world is all about, and who among us does not want a better world? All those things we do to reduce fear, from seat belts to smoking, are not bad in themselves. This essay should not be seen as arguing against their use in any way. That’s not the point.
What I’m arguing for is that our society has become risk-averse. though we appear to embrace Halloween, we are in fact, more afraid of Death than ever before. That fear translates into less innovation and more resources diverted to our peace of mind. And less innovation and fewer resources for risk means that there’s less to spend on our future.
What do you think?
Happy Halloween! Boo!