Here it is, Halloween, the holiday whooping up the joys of the harvest and playing at fears of the dark winter ahead. The ancient Celts dressed as animals, stoked bonfires, sacrificed and feasted, worked on their fortune-telling, sucked up to the gods, and stocked up for winter. As the Romans reported, the Celts practiced human sacrifice, so preparations for winter may have included feeding the gods to insure they wouldn’t starve you by the end of winter like concentration camp guards.
With central heating and supermarkets today, the ambivalence of Halloween is kinder and gentler—at least if you’re not foreclosed and unemployed. Today’s costumes and rituals mute the old wintry death-anxiety. Skeletons and witches have become brands for Halloween the way Christmas trees and Santa advertise Christmas, the birth of the new year. The markers for sterile old age and decay have become sanitized—it’s easy to forget that the Jack O’Lantern is a symbolic skull showing out of a harvest vegetable, just as the Christmas tree and its lights show you a tree loaded with symbolic fruit and generous Santa brings goodies in the terrifying gloom of midwinter.
The idea is to massage morale: build up courage and generosity in the face of death-anxiety and survival greed.
The rituals are arguably a bit worn out now. Dracula and the fairy princess are slaves to industrial entertainment. In the suburbs the ritual has been tamed. Mum now is supposed to buy or make an impressive costume for the kids, and trick or treat is a performance of the decorated self rather like the presentation of self in social media, where you select idealized material about your life to broadcast to “friends” and Facebook’s snooping ad apparatus.
For the kids the rewards are praise and candy: in fact as much as a quarter of all candy sold during the year. Every so often there’s a paranoid thrill to enliven this beauty contest, as when urban legend has psycho neighbors slipping razor blades into apples. Apart from recreating the mentality of renaissance witch hunts and fairy tales, the tales rationalize parents’ vigilant policing of the young at a time when the economy is declining amid a clamor about “achievement.” As the bumper sticker shouts, MY CHILD IS AN HONORS STUDENT. You can see where a kid trapped in a slogan might prefer to be a vampire.
Even the trickster associations of the old Halloween are nearly extinct. Apparently the Jack O’Lantern originated as a prop in a story about an Irishman who successfully tricked the devil and, for a time anyway, outwitted wintry death. There’s not much menace to trick or treat in a massively militarized nation with history’s most expensive corporate security apparatus looking at you through surveillance cameras with more lenses than a fly’s eye.
Death-anxiety has gone corporate. You can see it in the stupefying survival greed of the bank binge that’s busted the economy. Money—the spinning zeroes on Wall Street computers—stands for harvest food.
But of course that’s one reason why this Halloween is so uncanny. The protesters “occupying Wall Street” across the nation are often dressed up in festival costumes. The play could remind you of Mardi Gras, but in the dread dark of winter and police squads, Halloween seems more apt.
The truth is the nation is reaching the end of the postwar season of bumper crops and low-hanging fruit. On all sides the emphasis has shifted to finance and outsourcing of seed money to cope with competition and declining crop yields. The hired hands have been let go in spooky numbers.
So far the trick or treat has been remarkably peaceful and sensible. After all, even acting out the ritual is a heroic role, with heroic purpose, and that helps to fortify the shivering self against the winter ahead. But those who’ve turned two decades of trick or treating into unprecedented wealth are shrieking threats against the protesters, and the winter could be cruel. It remains to be seen if the nation can rekindle the flame in Jack the lantern to light the way to a healthier society.