The Power of Halloween

A Night for Confronting Power

By Phil Gillen

 

That night on which the boundary between this world, where we live our meager lives, and the other-world in which the unseen spirits of the dead roam, becomes transparent for a short time, making possible all sorts of odd things, is the night of Halloween. It has come and gone by the time these words are printed, but has hopefully left, as always, its special mark on my readers. Halloween is one of the most special times of the year to our society, and goes back a very, very long time. Of course, its cultural meaning has changed. Not many revelers at the parties you attend, or see in the street, and certainly not the children dressed as comic-book characters, would tell you that they are dressed as loved ones who have passed away as a form of protection against vengeful spirits. Although I would highly recommend bringing that particular mode of expression back.

The meaning of Halloween as it emerged from that time of spirits, the meaning of violence and destruction of property, criminal mischief, is also sadly gone (although again we could bring it back.) Our Halloween is undoubtedly a tamed one. We don’t as often dress in gore or as monsters, but rather as celebrities, fictional characters, “sexy” versions of things, or most annoyingly, as abstract concepts like puns. For the past two years I’ve dressed as the Pope. Not because it’s a frightening thing, but because I find the idea of the Pope so interesting, and I like exploring that idea in personification. The year before that I had two costumes, an Angel, and the actress Tilda Swinton, for similar reasons. Do I feel guilty for not wearing a traditional monstrous, magical, or gory costume? Yes, I do, very much.

Socialist writer China Miéville defends Halloween on Marxist grounds first as a disruption of work, and with the joy of social network opposed to the drudgery of capitalist exploitation, and secondly as a celebration of the monstrous; of figures driven to the margins by the ruling class. There’s no better example than witches, the persecution of which there are numerous, horrific, historical examples. By dressing as witches, in a way we honor their memory and redeem, renew their struggle. By embodying the monstrosity, we reject the ideology that would prejudice us against them. Miéville goes on to lecture us on how to “do Halloween right,” which to him does not include “sexy” versions of things, or anything other than frightful fantasy. But I do have to disagree with him here.

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I don’t think the power of Halloween, and the cultural value of it, are limited to the monstrous and the spooky, although that is something we should continue to celebrate. The way it is celebrated now, while different than the past, contains its own merits. The parodic element of it, of dressing as celebrities or well-known cultural figures and characters, in addition to dressing as “sexy” versions of other existing archetypes, calls power to question in much the same way as embodying a monster. For example, by embodying the Pope, I become a symbol of the Catholic church for an evening. This allows me to parody such a powerful institution myself, and also give others that opportunity, such as the stranger who aggressively confronted me about child sex abuse at a Halloween party last year.

In the same way as in the olden days, Halloween is a night in which the walls between our mundane world and the world of power were thinned, and strange things became possible. We can take the opportunity of Halloween to embody either a monstrous, magical persona, celebrating and redeeming the history of such figures, or to characterize a popular figure, thereby parodying it. In both respects, beyond the social benefits of becoming another person for a night, we take part in a long-standing tradition of casting off authorities and powers, even if only for one special, spooky, uncanny night.

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