Halloween and Humanism
The following is a blog post written by Dina Khapaeva, Professor at the School of Modern Languages, Georgia Tech, and author of The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in spring 2017.
Halloween is upon us, a time when the suburbs of any American city can be found covered with images of death, most of them about as realistically revolting as they can be; rotting corpses, mutilated body parts, skulls and crossbones, and skeletons—skeletons of all sizes, standing, hanging, carrying coffins. Already by late September, some of the most exclusive neighborhoods, where funeral corteges are never seen and dirges are never heard, begin to resemble ersatz cemeteries. What motivates our neighbors to fill their homes with horrifying images of death? And more importantly, what has brought this holiday, which anthropologists thought was all but obsolete even as recently as the 1960s, to rival Christmas in terms of decorations purchased and displayed?
Although we are now quite used to being greeted by the Grim Reaper in a pharmacy around this time of year, buying skull-shaped candies, or seeing toddlers dressed in skeleton rompers, this is actually a recent trend in popular culture. Back in the 1980s, it was far less commonplace to find symbols of death at big-box retailers.
Halloween’s increase in popularity has been attributed to psychological, religious, and economic, factors, such as Halloween’s relative affordability when compared to Christmas, another consumer-driven holiday, and the claim that Halloween invokes fear and fantasy, the strongest and most primal human emotions. However, neither of these reasons explains the gap of interest between the Druidic Celts to the 1980s, and even the rise of neo-paganism and Wicca as a reason for Halloween’s success is offset by the fact that its appeal is not restricted to adepts of witchcraft and pagan practices. Though the answer to why we have seen an increased interest in Halloween is still debated, anthropologists generally agree that the recent resurgence coincided with the emergence of macabre urban folklore. We have all heard the stories about razor-spiked candy apples, poisoned treats handed out to trick-or-treaters, and the abductions and murders of young children as part of a sinister ritual. Although these stories have no basis in fact, by the late 1980s, they had become mythologized, reaching a broad enough audience to spark a nationwide panic. From these urban legends, a new trend was sprung: seasonal horror films released around the same time every year, among the most well-known being John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Some scholars, including Russell Belk, interpret these trends as an expression of political anxiety, but what is it about Halloween that makes it a more viable outlet for mitigating such fears than any other holiday? Bill Ellis suggests the rise of Halloween’s popularity in tandem with the notoriously cautionary urban myths was a way of warning children of the horrors of the adult world. But perhaps these macabre legends were invented not to tame fears or to bring about an age-role reversal, but as a way for both children and adults to express new attitudes.
Since the 1990s, thanks in part to those urban legends, Halloween has been refocused to accommodate its latent association with violent death and human sacrifice as an expression of a new and compelling commodity: anti-humanism. The Celts are reputed by some to have marked summer’s end as a holiday, celebrated by honoring the dead or the god of death with human sacrifices, acts which were thought to ensure fertility and a good harvest.
This macabre history of the holiday makes for a supreme selling point: “Everything a boy needs to make his Halloween the scariest ever is compiled right here. Blood, torn flesh, masks, slime, and more! Readers will unleash their inner mad scientist as they master their comprehension of procedural language,” The Halloween Gross-Out Guide tells us. The atmosphere of abject horror and death and its marketing to children and adults alike is only compounded by the plethora of hyper-violent horror movies that expose Halloween’s anti-humanist implications.
Halloween is not, however, an isolated phenomenon. All year round we see manifestations of popular culture’s fascination with violent death in the form of slasher flicks, torture porn, celebrity serial killers, dark tourism, and skull style—manufactured offerings in response to a mounting public demand for images of brutalization and death. Other holidays are even co-opting Halloween as a means of boosting their own popularity; one can now find Christmas and even Valentine’s Day themed haunted houses. And Halloween is not just for October anymore, many haunted attractions nationwide are staying open all year due to demand.
Yet it is not Halloween or death-centered entertainment per se that has nurtured this demand, but the new attitude toward human beings they express. I call this trend, which transforms violent death into a popular commodity and an acceptable form of entertainment, “the cult of death.” The success of Halloween is rooted in the dehumanization of humanity and the radical denial of human exceptionalism that has become fashionable in contemporary popular culture. However sanitized, safe, and respectable, the nature of the cultural dynamic that drives the way in which Halloween is observed originates from this fundamental denial of the value of human life.