The local Target is jam-packed with outsized spiders, witches, scary masks, and gobs of gobstoppers and other inedible bits and bites. I keep buying Hershey’s chocolates that I have no business eating. And on the days I get all self-righteous about nutrition and the oversized marketing of junk food, I glare at the bits and bites and hypocritically grumble about the ongoing American obesity epidemic. If it weren’t for Halloween, I wouldn’t eat so much junk food. Junk food is evil; then again, isn’t evil the whole point of Halloween?
Seriously. What’s the point of celebrating vampires and zombies and ghosts and the dead, not to mention the undead? Yeah, I know what I sound like. But the funny thing is that I’m anything but a religious zealot or even a right wing conservative, for that matter. Nor am I a grammar Nazi. Or maybe I am, but That’s another issue.
The origins of Halloween are murky. Some say that it started as a pagan celebration of the harvest. Others claim it began as the ancient Celtic festival of “Samhain,” when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. In the Middle Ages, Halloween was taken over, sort of, by the Catholic church; Pope Gregory III designated the first of November as a time to honour all saints and martyrs. The holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before it was known as “All Hallows’ Eve,” and later, Halloween.
On “All Hallows’ Eve,” it was said, dead people wandered the earth looking to settle scores with the living before they passed to the next and hopefully final frontier. Frightened people would dress in costumes and masks, hoping to fool these angry dead spirits. In other words, the worst of human superstition and religious fear-mongering intersected to produce Halloween. Into that salad, toss a bit of pepper and a whole lot of crass commercialization, and what you get is a modern, very secularized version of the holiday. In fact, Halloween has lost almost all of its religious flavour. And what is left, then, but the evil?
That’s right. Evil. After all, isn’t that what Halloween is really all about?
Oh no, you say; Halloween is candy and cute costumes. Well, even that bothers me. don’t get me wrong: I love candy (in spite of myself). And I have nothing against playing dress-up, specifically. But think about what kids do once they get dressed up: They gather in a disorganized mob, dress up as frightening creatures, and knock on doors demanding treats. The very concept of “trick or treating” incorporates the threat of inflicting injury, even if harmless, on a neighbour’s person or property. A child threatens to commit a trick and in turn, the homeowner gives this child a treat. What the heck? How does this make sense? How does it help our children to become good citizens? Sigh. I know. Lighten up, El.
I can’t lighten up. That’s the problem. Words matter. What we do for fun—it matters. And just because everyone else does it (whatever it is) does not make the behaviour less harmful on a macro or micro level. What’s being celebrated here?
Because make no mistake: evil really exists. I’ve seen it, and so have all of us. Whether It’s a mass murder at a movie theatre or an act of terrorism in a crowded market, evil is out there. Perhaps this is why Halloween upsets me so much. It reminds me of what evil deeds humans are capable of committing, and it seems to celebrate the dark instead of the light.
I try to bargain and negotiate my way through the detritus of the black and orange-themed holiday every year by creating a few guidelines. I don’t decorate the house with webs or gravestones or anything scary. When my kids select costumes, I steer them toward cheerful superheroes, famous historical figures, and cute animals and away from blood, gore, and evil.
And every year, I wonder: When you strip away the chocolate bars, the black and orange colours, and the shimmering lights of the jack-o’-lantern, what really is the point of it all?
Writer E.L. Farris blogs at Running from Hell with El.