…for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now,
was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image,
and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
—Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2
Not unlike a wailing ghost, Halloween will not be ignored—it is the garish centerpiece of the American autumnal cycle. Yet there are elements of modern-day Halloween that Americans seem by one consent to ignore as fun and games, as just scary silliness. Only this and nothing more. Halloween is scary, however, because it is not simply silly. It is an event to take seriously because of how it is silly—a silliness which plays with serious things in scary ways. There is a peculiar lack of alarm over the predominant Halloween themes depicting freakish sexuality, dubious heroes, and psychotic violence. Customs reflect culture, and so do Halloween costumes. Though Halloween is a masquerade, it offers an unmasking of society. Between the mincing harlots, the homicidal maniacs, and the morally-muddy superheroes, what the masks of Halloween reveal is disquieting.
One of the things that best defines a society is the manner in which it uses its recreation. What is done during “time off,” when unconstrained by the necessities of life, is sometimes the strongest signal of mental attitude and condition of soul. Leisure is the basis of culture, to borrow Josef Pieper’s famous title, for, when it comes to labor, rest is what Aristotle called that-for-the-sake-of-which. What a people do in their leisure is central to self-identity and sub-consciousness. Popular icons and activities of amusement depict what is prominent in both imagination and ideals. This is why the pervasiveness of Internet pornography and casual sex is a tremendous concern. This is why the trend of grotesque tattoos and gruesome television programs depicting slaughter, psychosis, and death is a terrible touchstone of the times. This why blockbuster movies showcasing comic-book superheroes who are dark, perverse, and questioning of the traditional moral compass are damaging. This is why the focus of Halloween, like the focus of any nationally celebrated holiday, presents worthy material for cultural analysis, for it is ultimately a mass expression of mass experience and mass expectation.
A visit to one of those Halloween outlets that crop up a month before October 31st provides a striking illustration of a social undercurrent that has been polluted with filthy “fun,” edgy “heroes,” and the consequent intuitive dread of death. These shops are actually suggestive of what Dante might have conceived for our times in his Inferno, portraying horrors and misconceptions that are housed in the heart of society. The paradoxical parody of unbridled sex, jaded heroism, and tortured death is poignant. When it comes to Halloween, buried is the 1950s innocence of bed-sheet ghosts, colorful cowboys, and papier-mâché witches. The heart of America has grown darker—even demented. Now meat-cleaver murderers, fairy-tale strumpets, eviscerated corpses, and existentially-embittered superheroes go trick-or-treating door to door. Though shrugged off as “harmless fun,” the most fearful thing about the masks of Halloween is that they are more like mirrors. When the erotic, the cynical, and the rotting are the prevalent concepts of fun, there is reason to recoil. They reveal what lurks in the psyche. We are the sex slaves. We are the confused superheroes. We are the walking dead. We are dressing up as ourselves. At Halloween, the sins of the day are put on parade with an “anything goes” attitude that exposes a culture of excess, relativism, and death.
These are the modern fascinations because they are the modern afflictions, trapped as most are by the urge and status of sex, the embrasure of insanity, the exaltation of the perverse, the sensitivity to psychosis, the addiction to pornography, the prevalence of violent video games and films, the obsession with online personas, and the ultimate horror of death. Halloween is a time when the occult becomes overt and accepted, when secret sins or taboo desires can be worn on the sleeve, and the typically unspeakable fear of death is given full voice and vent in juxtaposition with the shamelessness of illicit sex and the current incongruity of virtue. There are few times as revealing as Halloween, even though it is a festival of disguise. These are disguises of identity, pantomimes of who people are or what they believe beneath the surface—or at least what they are preoccupied with as a people. Halloween is a startling caricature of the soul of America: the cultural disease of lust and power and the resulting character of death that hurls Donne’s sonnet to the dust. It is the mark of a society where pessimism is stronger than optimism, where cynicism outweighs idealism. The consequence is a culture of edginess rather than enrichment and an unconscious movement to make the foul as fun as possible.
The crisis seems too far gone to correct on a wide scale in a nation that is increasingly hostile to Christian culture. Of course, Halloween should be elevated in the spiritual instead of rooted in the corporal—and be more lighthearted, proclaiming that death is stripped of his sting since the dominion of hell has been overthrown. Linked to All Saints and All Souls, Halloween’s ghostly imagery could present a liturgical illustration of the human passage and the significance of Christ. Without death, there would be no saints in heaven or souls in purgatory. Without Christ, man would have no right to ridicule the devil. Halloween offers a comic truthfulness of the solemn truth that comprises man’s participation in the Cross. The victory of the Resurrection and the glory of the saints arise from death freed from sin. Halloween could and should celebrate Christ’s triumph through parody, through exultant mockery, subjecting the symbols of the grave to satire. Followers of Christ are conquerors, and no longer conquered. There is no fear in the powers of darkness, and this is precisely in what Halloween might well rejoice.
But this is precisely the artery has been clogged with the sludge of style. American Halloween celebrates lust, force, and fear, just as Americans celebrate so many obscenities, trying to normalize the abnormal in a sex-and-violence-steeped orgy where the ugly is glorified. Halloween is far from a playful derision of forces that prey upon us—such as demons, passions, and death—but rather shows a pandering to them, a succumbing, a servitude. But man is not enslaved to sex or death. They are his servants. These have taken on a tyrannical role in the fantasies that Americans give themselves over to, especially on Halloween—and they are not wholesome fantasies. Until something radical changes in America, the outpouring of sleazy wenches, psychologically-divided superheroes, and screaming zombies will continue every October, holding up the mirror to nature and nation. Halloween is horrific with a hedonism that acknowledges death as a harbinger of the final horror, for death is horrible indeed after a life of license. And thus, with the lament of Edgar Allan Poe, the dirge of the age echoes on:
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
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