The anarchic spirit of Halloween
The first post of this series by OED Consultant Editor Henry Hitchings explored the origins of Halloween. In this second instalment, he takes a look at the connection between the supernatural and anarchic spirits of Halloween.
You can read the article in full, here.
For both its lovers and its critics, Halloween is strongly associated with the supernatural. Among the OED’s citations under Halloween is an excerpt from a short story by Julian Hawthorne, son of the much better known Nathaniel Hawthorne. It appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1883, and the quoted passage reads as follows: ‘Halloween is the carnival-time of disembodied spirits.’
If we return to Hawthorne’s story, we see that his narrator is here recalling an episode in which he fell over and, as he picked himself up, heard laughter:
Of course I must have been deceived; … my imagination had played me a trick, or else there was more truth than poetry in the tradition that Halloween is the carnival-time of disembodied spirits.
Taken in context, the passage is more interesting, as it touches not only on the belief that Halloween is a time when ghosts run riot, but also on the popular scepticism about this. Hawthorne’s story, ‘Ken’s Mystery’, is in fact a portrait of a young American beguiled by a gorgeous Irish vampire whose astonishing visitation leaves him permanently scarred. Describing himself as ‘too much amazed to be conscious of amazement’, he provides posterity with a phrase that sums up the potential for Halloween’s dark magic to obliterate one’s judgement.
We find a much less spiritually charged perspective on the occasion in this OED citation for trick or treat from a 1947 issue of The American Home:
The household larder needs to be well stocked on October 31, because, from dusk on, the doorbell rings, bright eyes peer through crazy-looking masks, and childish voices in ghostlike tones squeal, croak, or whisper, “Trick or Treat!”.
Just as festive, though prosaic, is this invitation in a 1994 issue of children’s magazine Fast Forward: ‘Want to make your Halloween party extra spooklicious?’
The contrast between the Hawthorne quotation and the two that follow is instructive: in the twentieth century it became common to relish the ghostly atmosphere that once made Halloween feel so unsettling. For instance, many popular films have exploited the symbolism of the occasion, often focusing on adolescent characters who appreciate the opportunities it affords for testing authority and the boundaries of their identity. The Halloween franchise, which began with John Carpenter’s 1978 film of that name, is an obvious example, but the genre includes a vast number of other releases, including such disparate fare as the Scary Movie franchise, Donnie Darko, The Exorcist, Monsters, Inc., and E.T.
The Halloween movie is an essentially American phenomenon, and in America objections to Halloween are especially likely to be grounded in religious beliefs and an aversion to all things deathly or demonic. To illustrate necrophobia (‘A horror of death or anything associated with death’), the OED cites a piece from Cosmopolitan magazine in 1994: ‘This particular holiday [Halloween] creates anxiety for the thirty-five million Americans with wicaphobia, … necrophobia, and demophobia.’ That abbreviated list is a useful indication of a modern concern highly relevant to the controversy around the celebration of Halloween: a readiness to diagnose and particularise anxieties, to seek and specify the causes of fear, and in doing so to enshrine the objects of fear.
Yet hostility to Halloween often has no spiritual element whatsoever. Sometimes it is just a reaction to antisocial behaviour – and to the capacity for minor forms of delinquency to beget major ones. Consecutive citations under trick or treat, both from the Baltimore Sun, convey the impression of a retreat from regarding the occasion as a licence for juvenile misdemeanour; in 1950 the paper encourages parental indulgence (‘So let the kids go out tonight and have a grand time with their masquerading and trick-or-treating’), but in 1954 its position is the opposite – ‘Now that the “Trick or Treat” season is upon us, let us hope that thoughtful parents will discourage the practice.’ One wonders, inevitably, what happened in Baltimore between 1950 and 1954. Ironically, it seems that the tone of trick-or-treating became milder and more Disneyfied during this period, but the practice grew more widespread.
Today there is a keen concern on college campuses about the limits of such deviance, not least the potentially racist nature of outlandish Halloween costumes and make-up. In 2015, when the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale University sent out an email urging an embargo on ‘culturally unaware and insensitive’ costumes that could offend minority students, it drew a sharp response from one of the university’s psychology lecturers, Erika Christakis, who was also Associate Master of the campus’s Silliman College:
Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? … American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.
A vocal section of Yale’s student population mounted a campaign against Christakis and her husband Nicholas, the Master of Silliman College, arguing that the provocative costumes worn by some of their fellow students were symptomatic of Yale’s ‘history of exclusion’.
Amid such furore, we are acutely aware of what Halloween entails. A Guardian editorial in 2015 asserted that ‘Halloween in Britain is a completely fraudulent festival… No one dresses up on the day for theological reasons, or thinks of the dead as they wait for the doorbell to ring.’ Yet those that denounce it ‘form part of the fun. They have put on the costume of creepy killjoys’. Even if we balk at the language of this piece, it captures the degree to which anti-Halloween rhetoric has become one of the season’s traditions.
Halloween today feels like a conflict zone, dense with political argument and emotive hyperbole, a lethal collision of commerce, irony, dark creativity, moral ostentation, cultural sensitivity, adolescent whoopee, and the genuinely hair-raising.