Leonard Cohen on his poetic voice:

“As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice. What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.”

This is apparently exactly the opposite of how most people in the American world feel at this time of year. The great inevitable defeat should be expressed with electronically jeering plastic skeletons, humorous fake corpses, faux-threatening gravestones, and—let’s not forget the violence and disease responsible for so many deaths—generous fake blood, vomit, and slime. The celebration should be not only frivolous and ugly to the max, but really go hard on minimizing dignity! Don’t just dress as a fun ugly corpse, make it a sexually depraved fun ugly corpse!

Isn’t this just a bit weird? For instance, how is this good? 

I’ve heard a couple of times something like: “Halloween is nice because it is rebellious, and a relief from all that seriousness. People usually treat these things with sacredness and somberness, and it’s a lot to deal with.”

If that’s what it is, would it also be cool if we incorporated more second-rate stand up comedy routines and pranks into funerals? Or had more fun smallpox themed parties?

I don’t think people do actually contend with death or horror in a more comfortable way via Halloween, for the most part. My guess is that they basically don’t think about the content of what they are doing, and just get used to hunting for bargain plastic corpse babies to put on their lawns, and laughing with each other about how realistic and gruesome they are. Which seems more like desensitization than coming to terms with a thing. Which I doubt is a good kind of relief from seriousness. 

Also, if we are going to have a change of mood break around the potential horrors of life, the alternate feelings and purposes Halloween suggests just don’t seem very good. ‘Trick or treat?’ Cheap malice or cheap hedonism? Quick, find a huge mound of junk food, I forgot because I’m very competitive about drunkenly parading my buttocks in a way that makes me seem clever..

I’m obviously missing something, and I don’t actually blame anyone much within reason for getting into the holidays of their culture, but come on culture, what is this?

7 responses to “Halloween

  1. knowledgeofabsolute

    Awesome , I read a quote once that said , being considered crazy by those who are still victims of cultural conditioning is considered a compliment. Unknown

  2. Interesting point, but I object to your two parallels:

    > would it also be cool if we incorporated more second-rate stand up comedy routines and pranks into funerals?

    No, since that’s a case where people are genuinely hurting and it’s important to be somber and serious. You can let off tension only when it’s death in the abstract, not in a particular case.

    > Or had more fun smallpox themed parties?

    I could totally see people from our tribe doing this to celebrate its eradication, or to mock anti-vaxxers.

  3. I chalk it up as one of those holidays which are elaborate tricks we play on children. It starts with: Hey look at death, its funny. But later they learn death is not funny. Jokes on them. Its like Santa Claus and the rest.

    When to mourn and come to grips with these ideas is on the universe’s schedule, but for most it is inevitable, assuming they live long enough. I know for me it was the death of a pet that caused me to extend the idea to those around me and myself. There was a lot of crying for those still living and eventually terror for my own fate.

    Given the chaotic timing of something we all dread it doesn’t surprise me that we create a mockery of it and make sure to celebrate it on a fixed schedule. The illusion of control is soothing.

    No doubt there are other benefits depending on age, how aesthetically inspiring/pleasing you find the celebration, propensity to use any excuse to party and just cutting loose during an approved time of relaxed norms. In general, I don’t think its the time to come to terms with ours and everyone we will ever know, mortality, At least not in the sense of Leonard Cohen’s statement. Save that for those actual days of reckoning.

  4. Well _I_ think Halloween is good. Death isn’t the central focus: fear, safety and community are central, while death is one of many fearful things on display. And then you imagine your way into an identity with which to face the fear! And then all of these harvest-mates and neighbors join in to ward off the fear and share their abundance with you! A good holiday.

    • Interesting. I agree fear is more of the central focus, and that what you describe could be a good holiday, but I don’t think I’ve seen that much coherence of the different pieces in Halloween. It seems more like: fearful things on display, ok moving on.. pumpkins! No wait, more fear..but now I’m a telephone box! Fear.. candy…fear..

      • I agree that the cultural narrative doesn’t fully support my version of the story; I originally wrote that comment as a blog post, with disclaimers about how I was pretending that everyone has the exact same experience of it as I did as a kid. I think it did coherently put those elements together for me around age 8, though. e.g. my school gave out UNICEF collection boxes to take trick-or-treating with us.

        I do think the community aspect is a solidly good property, even in the standard version. All the other real holidays have you traveling to visit and annoy your family members; Halloween instead reminds you that there are good people around you all the time.

  5. The Day of the Dead is an interesting variation, where there are both a lot of humorous skeletons and specific remembrance of specific dead people you knew (making altars for them with their favorite foods, visiting the graveyard to decorate their graves). This seems better than American Halloween.


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