Forget your warm childhood trick-or-treating memories, and don’t think about how adorable your neighbor’s children look in their devil costumes, with their miniature pitchforks and long red tails. Instead, focus on Halloween as an objective, and deeply peculiar, phenomenon. Just think: This week, all over America, happy suburban families are draping their houses with spider webs, which once symbolized age and decay, and hanging plastic ghosts from their trees, making light of what used to be a terrifying harbinger of death. They are carving angry faces in pumpkins and will later light them up with candles, so that their eyes resemble the eyes of predators in the dark. They are using plastic and rubber to evoke, cheerfully, things that used to create fear. I myself have hung a large, fuzzy, black and purple spider on my front door.
All of this is intended to be fun, and it’s impossible to deny that it is really very fun indeed. I can’t tell whether the excitement is mostly about the black and orange M&M’s and the miniature Snickers bars, or about dressing up in costumes, or whether it’s the combination. Last weekend my family went to “Boo at the Zoo,” the National Zoo’s enormously popular Halloween party, and I realized, about halfway through the evening, that the real appeal of the event lay in the fact that an ordinary, familiar and moderately grown-up place had been magically transformed, through the use of colored lights, costumed zookeepers and large amounts of candy, into a completely child-centered world.
Although Halloween derives from much older Christian and pagan traditions, not all of the cultures that share those traditions continue to celebrate it as we do. In Central Europe, and in some Catholic countries elsewhere, people continue to celebrate not Halloween, on Oct. 31, but All Saints’ Day, on Nov. 1. In Poland, where I lived for several years, All Saints’ Day is a major national holiday — but it is about as different from American Halloween as it is possible to be. There are no costumes, no candy. Instead, people travel across the country to visit the graves of their parents and grandparents. They clean the tombstones, light candles and talk about the last time they saw their relatives. The day is usually cold — sometimes snow is falling — and the trip to the cemetery isn’t much fun for children. The real dead, not plastic ghosts, are the center of attention.
To be honest, I don’t know which tradition is better — or, to put it in a more modern manner, which is healthier. There is no question that American Halloween, a holiday that makes frightening witches into house decorations — and that allows children to knock on their neighbors’ doors and demand candy — has some deep appeal: Halloween, as currently practiced, makes the terrifying seem silly. No wonder the holiday has spread rapidly in recent years to France, Britain and even Russia. There is also no question that the Central European version is gloomy and backward-looking. It can’t be an accident that cultures that are obsessed with the details of their own histories are also obsessed with the deaths in their families, or that pessimism is the dominant emotion in that part of the world.
Yet by discarding these older traditions Americans may have lost something, too. Death has been displaced in our culture and pushed out of sight, to hospitals and nursing homes. Death isn’t part of everyday life, and most children don’t encounter it, except in movies — and even then death is unnaturally swift and spectacularly gory, instead of gradual and quiet, as it is more often in real life.
We aren’t afraid of ghosts, in other words — on Halloween or at any other time — because we don’t dwell much on the people the ghosts used to be, and because we don’t think much about becoming ghosts ourselves. Perhaps that’s part of why Americans are so relentlessly optimistic in comparison to other nations, and so keen to plan for the future. Or perhaps it explains our unusually high demand, as a nation, for psychiatrists and therapists. Either way, I’m not taking down my black and purple spider, and my pumpkins, this year, have particularly wicked grins. Happy Halloween.