For many revelers today, Halloween is just an excuse for children – and increasingly for many adults – to dress in costume and extort candy from their neighbors (and even from perfect strangers). That adults also « trick or treat » seems to me to be bizarre at best, although in a society in which adults have now for decades imitated their kids in how they dress on a daily basis, perhaps it is not so bizarre that they should imitate kids in costume on Halloween as well.
Halloween (as we now know it, in its reinvented 20th-century form) is a somewhat silly, kids’ holiday. It is all about festivity and fun – with a residual recollection of traditionally transgressive behavior, its haunting spirit safely tamed.
In the fairy tales with which we in my generation grew up, while the ending was usually a happily-ever-after one, the route to that happy ending was strewn with wicked witches and other formidably frightening forces. I remember as a child thinking how lucky we were to live in the present rather than once-upon-a-time when all those wicked witches and dragons and monsters were a regular threat. Of course, as I eventually learned, the witches and monsters were not literally real. But what they represented, the real evils lurking in the world for so much of human history, tormenting human beings and frustrating human hopes, were very real.
Christianity claimed to have overcome the demonic powers through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and so started the process of disenchanting our experience of nature, which we increasingly aspired to control and tame to meet our increasing needs. Paradoxically now, nature has been transformed by our efforts to tame it, into an even more threatening apocalyptic monster in the form of humanly caused climate change.
Meanwhile, the Christian concept of Halloween as the celebration of God’s triumph over evil has been increasingly replaced by a resurgent paganism, in which the demonic is celebrated as benevolent and even fun. Most of us no longer fear literal ghosts. Yet everywhere we are haunted by evil spirits of our own creation, which like nature in the form of climate change, are coming back to haunt us.
We are haunted by zombie ideologies that continue to block us from understanding (let alone responding to) contemporary problems. Way worse, however, we are haunted by our mutual hatreds and a kind of cultural civil war, which the worst among us have for decades now been encouraging us to fight. We are haunted by our divisions, which have weakened us, have separated us from one another, and have paralyzed the collective action called for to slay the dragons of our day.