Another Halloween has come and gone, and I often experience a sort of post-Halloween depression. I have always had an affinity for the holiday, more than any other, and unlike my disillusionment with Christmas which came as I grew up, Halloween continues to hold significance; probably, it has even gained significance in my mind.
The Romans celebrated a holiday called Saturnalia. Obviously in praise of Saturn, but during the festivities, which lasted about a week, the social order was overturned. Masters served slaves; political factions broke down; normal roles were hidden behind masks. The spirit of Halloween that still strikes me is a spirit akin to Saturnalia. I remain in love with the dissolution of the norm and the wild freedom that follows, which can be both joyous and frightening.
Last week, I wrote about the problems with American culture, and they return to relevance here. Growing up around New York City, one gets the sense of what a city is by way of Manhattan. By the time I was old enough to make my way there, the “mallification” of Manhattan had already begun. Times Square became a glittering courtyard and culture and subculture went elsewhere, swept away. I recently visited Boston for only the second time, and walking around I encountered lots of the old architecture there. Something about a bell tower struck me. It seemed strange. Here we have a structure designed to serve people, to provide a basic function or orientation and then therefore a sort of unifying factor.
My point is to return to the idea of culture and how it is obscured by profit. Yes, corporations of all sorts provide services to human beings. But, service seems secondary to profit. Service is a byproduct of profit. It is incidental. Culture is collective and profit is ultimately singular. Therefore, a kind of distance is embedded in our culture. There is a gap between what we need and what we are given; a gap between our desires and their intentions; a gap between the veneer of marketing, which promotes a kind of consumer utopia in which we are served and satisfied, and the reality of ever increasing wealth disparity. From my view, this distance is built into everything: our economy, our language, our identity. We go through our lives removed from a relationship with reality, meaning more than anything the reality of the Earth as sustainer and provider and deserver of respect and stewardship and care. A second skin lies over the Earth, one of consumer culture, and we live our lives standing on that membrane, never once doubting that we stand on reality.
Something about Halloween makes an effort to assuage this distance. Maybe it’s the roots of the holiday that are planted in the time of harvest and ferment. Maybe it’s the attention paid to the miracle of changing leaves and shifting seasons. But more than anything, I think it’s the kinship it shares with Saturnalia. That strange and dubious concept called “normal” is thrown out for a time being. We lose the certainty that we’ve placed on that second cultural skin. The social order is usurped. Way before the gay marriage debate, Halloween has traditionally mixed up gender roles and identity. During Christmas, we give to the people we know. On Halloween, we distribute our harvest to strangers, to beggars, all of whom are disguised, unrecognizable, and categorically Other. We trust our neighbors again.
Of course, efforts to consumerize Halloween have been at play for a long while. The amount of money spent on costumes is a bit ridiculous, and as profit steps in we find the typical tropes of consumerism’s lowest common denominator. But there is something about Halloween that always escapes that grasp. There is something about Halloween that is intrinsically anti-consumerism. At the heart of it all, Halloween closes the distance that is built into our relationship with Death. And when that gap is closed, our entire sense of identity shifts. Normally, we live as if we are immortal. We treat the Earth as if it does not sustain us. Death is not a prominent factor in the second skin of our reality. It is a compartmentalized aspect of our lives. From the animals that die to sustain us, to the causalities of wars that we proliferate, to the relatives that leave us without them, we are distanced from Death in our culture, and most of all, we are distanced from our own mortality.
Halloween serves as a reminder that this is the only chance we have. This is the first and last time we are alive. It asks us to question our priorities, our values, our relationship to our inner most self and the outer most Other. How would we live if we knew how much time we had left? How would we live if we were not suspended above the Earth on the back of this cultural second skin? Halloween gives us the briefest of windows to consider it all. And every year, I can’t help but be sad when it’s gone and the second skin heals itself into what seems like permanence.