Why We Need Halloween

Even outside the church, there are concerns that it promotes unhealthy food choices. It scares the little ones. And to top it all off, it’s dangerous, with its glorification of violence, poisoned and razor-bladed treats, and the way it encourages children to take candy from strangers (not to mention encouraging encouraging scantily-clad sorority chicks to take free drinks from strangers). All of these concerns have been around for years, and yet Halloween is not going away, not dying out while children sit home and partake of a healthy harvest meal and listen to “Winnie the Pooh and the Heffalump”. Why? Because deep down, we know we need Halloween.

Humans come from ancestors who encountered danger in a very real form on a daily basis. Predators used to stalk us when we left the security of our enclave, and sometimes even ventured within to take down the hapless child who wandered outside at night. Our environment was likewise dangerous and unpredictable, and exposure to a winter storm could easily mean death. Childbirth and childhood illness had high mortality rates and frequent food shortages meant that a successful harvest was truly a matter for celebration. Much of our environment was beyond our ability to comprehend or control, and therefore often seemed darkly magical.

In the 21st century we like to believe we have “tamed” nature. To some extent we can predict the weather, and make arrangements for coming storms or droughts. We have eradicated nearly all animals who prey on humans, and relegated most surviving members behind the protective walls of zoos. As we have grown in our understanding of our world and the universe, we have tended toward a mechanized explanation of our surroundings, where one predictable action has a perfectly predictable reaction. Our greatest fear, now, is of ourselves, and it is huge and shapeless and mundane.

Most humans in western society spend much of their time wandering in a vague, uncertain unease. We are surrounded by conflicting signals which tell us to eat our spinach, and then tell us that spinach will cause cancer, and then tell us to beware of the genetically-modified spinach because it will eat us. We put our health and safety in the hands of authorities about whom all we ever seem to hear is that they are not acting in accordance with our best interests. It’s all a little frightening, but at the same time it is so terribly vague, and there seems to be so little we can do about it.

At the same time, we attempt to shelter our children by wrapping them in a cotton candy world of Disney plastic sparkles, and assure them that nothing is wrong. We assure them that nothing is wrong while we clench our teeth, listening to the morning news. We assure them nothing is wrong though our shoulders are hiked up around our ears as we sort through conflicting prescription drug plans and try to choose the lesser evil in our elections. They hear our whispers as we discuss the latest genocide, but when they ask we tell them it’s “nothing”. Our children are not idiots, for all they may be inexperienced. They know when we are lying to them, and the great, shapeless monster also lives in their minds.

Halloween offers many lovely opportunities. For once, we can put down all the conflicting information about what to eat and how much and when. We know that candy is not good for us, and for one night we are going to eat it, anyway. It gives us all a chance to play dress-up, to take off the clothes through which we usually identify ourselves and explore what it is to be someone (or something) different. It is a cessation of all the usual rules, and for those trying to find the best, safest, and purest path through life it is a massive relief to get to just put all that down for one evening.

More importantly than any of these things, though, Halloween gives us a chance to experience a fear and “danger” we can comprehend in a safe context. We are all of us born with the ability to react mentally and physically to fear, but when the fear is sourceless and general there is nothing to face, nothing to overcome. Halloween changes that, and for a single evening we can put a name to our fears and deal with them head-on. Even children need this experience, the chance to be frightened but with the assurance that they can win against this fear. It strengthens us, builds our confidence, and enables us to face the coming year with a little more assurance that we are up for the challenges; on an instinctual, animal level, we feel we have triumphed over the odds.

So this year please don’t water down your Halloween presentations. Drop the rules, make yourself sick with the vice of your choice, but most importantly go see or do the scariest thing you can think of. The animal within will thank you, and we are all going to need that strength to get through the coming holiday season.