I’ll be honest, I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Halloween. I roll my eyes when the Halloween stock floods the high street, refuse to touch toffee apples and loathe – yes, loathe – the entire idea of trick or treating: a rookie’s guide to high cholesterol. Sadly, Halloween and I never quite clicked.
It seems to be a dislike which wasn’t just shared by me, however. Halloween has been branded many a bad name, accused of being Satanic or – at the opposite end of the scale – Americanised trash. Certainly, in many respects, it has suffered the same commercialised curse as numerous public holidays, plastered with tacky costumes, sprinkled with low budget slasher movies and swathed in a shimmering coat of sugar and cheap sweets.
However, stripped down to its bare essentials, it seems Halloween is one of the only festivals in our calendar to really tackle our darkest demons in their most primitive forms. Regardless of religion, nationality or gender, Halloween is, in many ways, one of the most personal festivals we’ll ever experience. There is a complete lack of identity attached to Halloween, a facelessness which can be assigned to a crooked pumpkin or an anonymous witch. The entire focus of Halloween is not on an institution or a rotund, bearded OAP – it is on human fragility. It does not, like other festivities, encourage extravagance and strength, it celebrates the frightened, mortal individual in all its grotesque, pitiful glory.
Indeed, for the earliest Pagan celebrants, Halloween’s focus was not so much on ghouls or monsters but the human dead themselves. Samhain, as it was then known, was the most important festival in the Celtic calendar, being the time of year when the dead were able to mingle with the living. This idea certainly manifested itself in Christian interpretations of the festival, such as in France where Christians would leave bowls of milk beside the graves of their loved ones and in Italy where some families would leave a large meal for their deceased relatives.
For numerous cultures today, the emphasis is still on the human dead rather than commercialised horror. This is particularly the case in Spanish-speaking countries, in which Halloween signals the start of a three day festival, principally to commemorate deceased friends and relatives. In China, also, Buddhist monks will create ‘boats of the law’ from paper which simultaneously serve as a remembrance of the dead whilst aiding lost souls on their ascension to heaven.
Yet, our fascination with Halloween stems from more than a desire to celebrate the dead. Mutations of the festival in many parts of the world seek to confront all elements of the supernatural world rather than solely ghosts. There is no essential difference between the zombies and vampires we see roaming Halloween parties in America and the United Kingdom and the ‘Aos Si’ which so terrified Medieval Gaelic celebrants.
These supernatural monsters are no more than a grotesque manifestation of the human lust for control. Even the afterlife – the strangest of other worlds – can’t be left to the realm of the unknown. It must be contorted, twisted and glorified since only in sensationalist exhibitionism can we humans ever hope to confront or even begin to understand it. It’s the same mentality we see again and again through history; why else would the seemingly barbaric gladiators earn such prestige in Ancient Rome? Why else did executions remain such popular public events through the Medieval, Tudor and Victorian eras?
We impose our own human interpretation upon emotional issues
Even in popular culture, the obscene drama of horror movies is of the same psychological origin, allowing – in its vivid extravagance – an utterly convoluted perspective on violence and death. Sensationalism offers a sense of artistic power, permitting us to spectate our darkest fears in whatever lurid manner we see fit. We impose our own human interpretation, however crude that may seem, upon emotional issues would could otherwise prove destructive.
So, if, to modern audiences today, donning your gladdest zombie rags is the most effective mechanism we have, let’s embrace that tackiness! It could just prove to be our saving grace.