But customs vary wi’ the times
— John Mayne
If there’s something to glean from our relentless cycles of epiphany in society, it’s to be wary of anybody too quick to say we should be very glad indeed to be done with All That Kind Of Thing. From the primordial soup we arose, and the pagans told us all was magical; the saints, strictly religious; the Enlightenment, within reason; the scientists so sure of their cause they named themselves after it. Yet despite so much concerted effort—to be done with the old ways of doing things—there remains the aftertaste of the soup on our tongues. You do not have to believe in ghosts to be afraid of them.
The way Halloween persists is fascinating, although it is clear to anyone that it has never been impervious to change. Yet what does remain of it, what was not thrown away, perhaps only helps better emphasise the reasons—even the necessity—for its survival. Over time, we have peeled back the flesh and muscle and beneath are the unbreakable bones, that essential thing we are never quite done with. And I’m not (necessarily) talking about a fascination with ghosts, carved pumpkins and the devil.
The insistence that Halloween has something to do with what is scary (regardless of the reality of that scariness) is tribute to its origins as an amalgamation of festivals all concerned with ways of approaching the unknown—the foundation of all fear. And invariably the destination reached upon: death.
On the Celtic Samhain, the end of harvest coincided with the opening of a threshold to the Otherworld, where the dead could return for one night as wraiths or fetches. Later, while Catholic syncretism as devised prior by Pope Gregory I was in full swing—the Pantheon in Rome already decked with Virgin Marys and martyrs—another Pope (also Gregory) was at pains over a new jamboree for the religious calendar. It was unfortunate, yet wholly unavoidable, that this new celebration—All Saints’ (Hallows) Day—should clash with the already existent pagan festivities; not to mention being also, incidentally, about the dead. By 1000 AD and paganism still going strong, yet another day—All Souls’ Day—was given over to thinking about the dead, and so giving the Celts more damn festivals on the dead than they could ever possibly need.
All the while Paganism and Christianity wrangled for supremacy over a harvest festival, it was ultimately folklore what won out with the e’en before both: Halloween. Folklore—that form of storytelling not so divine as mythology, yet not so formal as canonical literature—could spread from place to place without the added pressure of needing to supplant one dogma for another, or indeed to be mapped the correct way everywhere at once. Folklore made stories of the unknown personable and adjustable to particular place. The unknown could take inspiration from, but need not be of, the higher heavens or the Otherworld; it became much more immediate and, in a sense, more real than that. While two world orders squabbled, folklore plucked what was most pervasive from each and spun something anew.
If telling folk stories of unknown horrors became what Halloween was for, Halloween itself was not just the storyteller but also the fire, the campers, the darkness, and the woods themselves. It was the day made possible, the stage set for occurrences not only to be heard but experienced. The unknown could stand at the doorstep like a spectre and be confronted—in ways more tangible than both Samhain or All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.
Another added benefit was that parochialism could address those unknowns much more pressing than the already-dead. In his oft-overlooked (but incredibly extensive) poem of 1785, Halloween, Robert Burns lists the various rites of augury country folk would enact at the end of the October harvest to confirm, among other things, the shape and nature of their future spouse.
Most of these rites were directly linked to the act of harvesting. Vegetables, freshly reaped, were dynamite as far as prophecy was concerned. Specific roots even possessed their own specific stake on the future, depending on their size, shape and taste:
Then, first an’ foremost, thro’ the kail,
Their stocks maun a’ be sought ance;
They steek their een, and grape an’ wale
For muckle anes, an’ straught anes.
One rite, as outlined in Burns’ poem, involves young women pulling corn (or oats) from a field. If the third stalk pulled should lack grains, so the rite goes, the unfortunate woman will not make it as a virgin on the day of her marriage. This is very much the case for one such girl in the poem, Nelly, who soon after is given little reason to doubt her cereal oracle as she loses her ‘tap-pickle’ (sic) to a local boy (also called Rab) on that same ill-fated night.
In other written accounts these harvesting rites must be done blindfolded in order for the fortunes to be truthfully told; there is something pervasive about choosing your own fate in that way. It is at once a fate chosen by you, by your hands, but not necessarily by your choice. The unknown is faced with another, even closer unknown than folklore can tell us, more impossible to embody within images of the devil or witches or wraiths: our inner selves.
You Must Become Kitsch
Over time two crucial things happened that shifted the focus and cause of Halloween for good.
The first thing that happened is still happening, as part of a constant process. As we come closer to understanding more and more about the earthly world, the unknown is pushed further and further away from everyday life, into the cosmos and beyond. The apparent efficacy of Halloween rites waned as a consequence, while the legitimacy of horror had to follow more closely behind the path of the unknown in order to remain horrific. Halloween lost its ability to scare, but with it also the superstitious necessity of the rites to abate that fear.
The second thing that happened was the folklore of Halloween—or more specifically, the vocabulary of its folklore, the bobbing of apples, the imagery of witches, skeletons and ghosts—moved with the people from the agrarian to the urban. The meaning of the rites (never mind their efficacy) was obscured, the end of harvest no longer such a notable event in the monotony of city life. The purpose of a bonfire or a carved vegetable was divorced of sense, of origins; they simply came to exist.
Yet, exist they still did. Despite all reasons for its existence made either obsolete or unnecessary, Halloween remained a tradition of sorts. Rites of a once overly prescriptive nature became performance; they no longer sought to push back against something that, far from being unknown, was never there at all. The aesthetic of a horror no longer horrible ended up as melodrama, adding to this new kind of garish theatre. Meanwhile, the appetite of religion to usurp the newly secularised festival was no longer there.
In this way Halloween became, as it remains, kitsch.
Kitsch as a cultural attitude is much more precarious than it sounds. In the Halloween context, it relates to the conflict between something so clearly imbued by a unique legacy, yet lacking any kind of internalised power (such as, say, a didactic purpose or moral story) to stop that legacy from being made increasingly irrelevant to its own posterity. New objects wishing to join the aesthetic canon of Halloween can do so by paying tribute to its history without needing to understand it. Like nostalgia, kitsch is a means of throwing back to the past as it is made apparent by the present; a past, now more often than not, without any history at all.
Conversely kitschification is not always a bad thing—it was by becoming kitsch that Halloween really prospered. Throughout the twentieth century, Halloween in the United States—undeniably the world’s largest producer and exporter of kitsch—became a holiday ingrained within the social consciousness as much as Christmas or Easter, holidays backed by established religion, and Thanksgiving, a holiday backed by the state.
Were Halloween nothing much beyond a feeble entertainment, a bawdy piece of poor man’s opera, the transformation into kitsch would have killed it off the moment it was no longer a novelty. But if anything, Kitsch has thinned the real surface layer—of efficacy—to reveal something much deeper going on below.
If Catholicism wanted to rid the world of Paganism by duplicating their rites and festivals, it followed that the Lutherans and Calvinists wanted nothing at all to do with them. In a strange twist of irony, this absolutist ire had its descendent in Enlightenment thought—but for more attuned reasons than being merely anti-Catholic.
During the Enlightenment, the notion of there being such a thing as ‘collective experience,’ such as those gained from public festivities like Halloween, lost enormous credence. Intertwined with theories on evolution, public rituals were considered the mark of more primitive, culturally inferior societies which lacked the sufficient maturity to be done with them in favour of rational thinking and individual autonomy. For experience to be truly authentic and autonomous, it had to come from the inner self; it could not be gleaned by the body in performance—which impeded clear thought—nor imposed by cyclical celebrations.
The Enlightenment is far behind us, perhaps—nothing else need be added to such theories for what is unpalatable about them to shine through—but you do not need to look far to see its mind-body dualism pervade even our current epoch. Talk such as that the human mind—divorced from the body—could one day be made digital, as a kind of ‘uploaded self’, carries with it the implication that the body is not necessary to maintain the essential thing of what makes us human. We do not have to be here, in order to be authentic.
This focus on individual minds over the ‘body public’, being done with mass rites and public festivity, began to change the dynamic of how secular life would be built in the proceeding centuries. As Alexis de Tocqueville—the Frenchman who shaped our modern definition of individualisme—described nineteenth century America as thus:
Each person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of all others. His children and his good friends constitute for him the whole of the human species. As for his transactions with his fellow citizens, he may mix among them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone.
Many sociocultural studies of the recent past are about what has been lost by this dismissal of pre-modern forms of public engagement. As the best means of projecting our unencumbered individualism onto others, the public festival was replaced by spectacle: non-participatory, prescribed and normally as a means to assert authority. It is often overlooked that, when Guy Debord spoke of a society of the spectacle, he qualified this by saying it meant “an epoch without festivals”.
Of those few extant traditional holidays it is, in another twist of irony, the religious ones like Christmas that fall in best with the individualistic, family-over-society worldview that pervades the modern West; but Halloween, as kitsch, secular and non-familial, does not. Halloween is one of the few pre-modern festivals in modern life that encourages public, active participation in larger society; literally an excuse to knock on the doors of our neighbours, to bring families together to bite treacle scones hung up on string.
But modern Halloween is not simply yet another renunciation of All That Kind Of Thing. Having shed all indicative, didactic or monological bent, Halloween can be celebrated without needing to forsake the autonomy or self expression of the individual, while that individual need not be the sole actor on stage. The unpretentiousness of kitsch allows individuals to reinvent the Halloween concept, either macro (in whatever kind of themed events) or micro (through the selection of costume). People do not merely consume on Halloween, they produce it as part of an evolving performance, as an occasion of being at a particular time and place. Individuals as part of a group is not so oxymoronic as it may sound.
In the past twenty years, festivals are returning as we realise their place and value in society. It should be unsurprising that many of these ‘newly hallowed’ traditions should resemble Halloween in some way or other: the selection of a hallowed day or event, the putting on of costume, the establishment of rites and rituals. Even non-festive occasions, like protest, are increasingly moments for Halloween-esque performance and participation: a symptom of the appetite for a public sphere conducive to sociability like the one that, at some point, conjured the modern Halloween.
In the mid-twentieth century, the screen was the most sophisticated form of spectacle. But today, with the screens of television replaced with the screens of computers, spectacles can, to an extent, be participatory.
Yet participation in the digital and the online is always, by definition, participation with a spectacle just been. Even a live video stream is witnessing an event unfold in the past; we can never reach the event quickly enough for truly active public engagement.
Thus the double-edged sword of kitsch is apparent. Kitsch is only really acceptable and durable when we participate in it; when that participation dissipates, Halloween becomes a drab, tacky holiday, used to pedal themed goods; we expect to produce something immaterial but only consume what is material. For all the things Halloween has survived against, it may well be the illusion of participation that is its real death knell: for then its vocabulary will not have changed, but the definition itself that has shifted.
As we have all come closer to together with time—from the countryside, to the city, to the world over—faced with unknowns that only grow further and further beyond what can be understood on the individual and local level, it is important more than ever that society is not fractured, but is convivial and empathetic. There does not need to be an implicit moral lesson in order to learn from something; participation does not have to come at the expense of our individual selves; having fun can be as essential as being serious.
But let’s not get too worried about ghosts of the not-dead just yet. Halloween is still fun, and it can still be rewarding; but, most of all, it requires you to be there.