Boo! My love-hate relationship with Halloween

Halloween is a bit problematic for me. It’s not that I think it’s evil or anything. Please! Do you really think a bunch of teenage girls dressed up as slutty fill-in-the-blanks and kids running around in superhero costumes is a threat to your immortal soul? If there ever were any dark forces associated with Halloween, I’m sure they’re pretty embarrassed about it nowadays.

Coming out of the punk scene, I’ve been connected to two subcultures that dabble in the “dark side”: transgressives and goths. Transgressives go out of their way to mock faith. I never enjoyed that, but I don’t think it is dangerous. Goths, on the other hand, while often muddling religious rituals and mixing in some dark stuff for fun, are actually being reverent in a way. That mixing of dark stuff with overtly Catholic themes probably appealed to the same part of me that was drawn to Catholicism itself — the love of ancient ritual and sacred art.

Here’s the quintessential goth/Catholic/transgressive/punk song, “Stigmata Martyr” by Bauhaus. (I saw them back in the days of this video — earlier than this actually, at their first American show at Tier 3 on September 5, 1980 — and it remains one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen.) If your spiritual sensibilities are easily offended, just don’t watch.

But costumes have been a big stresser for me. I’ve always had a lot of friends who were visually creative — art students, professional performers, costume designers, musical theater majors, hair stylists. My talents are in other areas. So, while they started preparing Halloween costumes weeks in advance with the seriousness and skill of a drag queen before gay pride or a Philadelphia mummer before New Year’s, I would put it off, freak out, and be disappointed with my result.

Many years, I’ve taken advantage of the fact that I actually have fangs. I got the $30 semi-pro caps (serious lifestyle vampires get custom molds that cost a few hundred) and added them to the incisors I already have, which worked pretty well. Dressing in all black was not hard, since most of my wardrobe is black anyway. (Someone who knew I did faith-related work asked me when we met recently if I was a priest. “No,” I said, “I’m just from downtown.”)

But even when I tried, I had no hope of matching many friends’ efforts in either imagination or execution, and whatever nonchalant, I-don’t-need-a-costume posture I struck was a lie I was telling myself and everyone else.

Similarly, I have always felt pressured by the party dynamic of Halloween. Like New Year’s, there’s a sense that if you don’t go to a fabulous party, you’re missing out. For most of my life, even when I didn’t want to go out, I’d feel like a loser if I stayed home. More recently, with some spiritual maturity(?), I’ve become comfortable with the fact that my true self doesn’t enjoy these events, and that the only reasons I go are ego- and fear-driven. This year — if I have power in New York, that is — I plan to watch a Bela Lugosi classic. I have The Raven, White Zombie, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and the wonderfully titled The Devil Bat to choose from.

A little Halloween history

In case you’re interested in such things, Halloween is an ancient Christian holiday. The name itself is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, which is another way of saying All Saints’ Eve. In other words, it’s the evening before All Saints’ Day. The celebration as we know it, with spooky trappings and scary costumes, began in the Middle Ages.

Like many Christian holy days, of course, Halloween has pre-Christian roots. The consensus of experts is that its origins are in the Celtic holiday of Samhain. This festival marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter. This transitional period was seen as a thin time, when those in the underworld — both souls and demons — could cross over. Turnips were hollowed out and filled with candles to act as lanterns for the nighttime celebration. (Pumpkins from the New World obviously work ever better.) A communal bonfire feast was shared at night, and symbolically, each household would take a torch from the bonfire and light their hearth for the beginning of winter heating.

All Saints’ Day merged with Samhain when Pope Gregory moved it from May 13 to November 1 so they would coincide. An All Saints custom was for poor children to go door to door collecting “soul cakes” — small round spice cakes with icing crosses similar to hot cross buns but denser. For each cake baked and given away, it was believed that a soul was released from purgatory.

The source of the custom of wearing costumes is less well understood. One theory is that people wore disguises so that malevolent souls out for revenge couldn’t identify them. Another is that people dressed as demons and spirits to mock them in a kind of cathartic way.

I guess my bottom line about Halloween is this: just have fun. If that means spending weeks working on a costume and going to an exciting party, awesome! If it means carving pumpkins and taking kids trick-or-treating, cute! If it means staying at home and watching a scary movie, to me that sounds like fun fun fun! Happy Halloween!

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