Happy Halloween, everybody!
All Hallows’ Eve, the night of all saints, martyrs and deceased believers, a mishmash of religious and pagan tradition, placed at the end of the harvest season when gods, both old and new, wanted their due. The beginning of winter. No wonder this night is teeming with ghouls and ghosts. It is about endings, about death, and about the dark months to come.
Essays could easily be written about the Celts and their Samhain, harvest themes, beliefs and myths – the origins of Halloween – but Halloween is relatively far removed from its historical roots. Today, it is mostly about sugar and delightful, lightweight scares.
So why does it thrill so much? Why are creepy costumes donned with excited giggles, why does every channel cheerfully put on horror films, why is every store decorated with skulls, slime and spider webs? A possible explanation is that Halloween offers an opportunity to explore disgust and fear in a safe context. Halloween allows us to process the gruesome elements of life, including death itself, without actually having to face it straight on. Dress like a ghoul? That’s exciting, because it is pretend. Actually becoming a ghoul? Not at all amusing. Dress like a monster? Fun with friends. Be a monster? That’s also being a social pariah, an outcast. For social creatures aware of their own demise, these are terrifying prospects but coated in sugar and glitter.
Halloween lets us dance on the edge without having to stare into the abyss. It is a small thrill, exciting because it reminds us of the fears behind and because it is wrapped in the opposite of death: party, community, fun. Coated in layers of safety. There is no real dread and terror in Halloween, just an opportunity to glance at horrors from the corner of your eye, whilst having both feet firmly planted in the joyous now. It’s like watching a horror film: the monster may be scary, but you can be pretty certain it will stay on the silver screen. It gives us the feeling of being alive in the face of threat, but without risking more than a sugar rush.
Halloween also lets us be someone else for a night. Want to be a witch? Cackle away. Want to be a mummy? This is the night to stagger about. Play a role, enjoy the make-believe. It is playacting on a grand scale. Children love it, and so, apparently, do a lot of adults. I enjoy putting on my goblin costume for the day for this simple reason: being a goblin is fun. Goblins know of dark places and swords and old secrets, and they do not concern themselves with long laboratory meetings, statistics problems or annual performance reviews. One night a year, it is nice being the other.