It’s my favorite holiday. Maybe it has something to do with the introduction Peter S. Beagle wrote to The Fantasy Worlds of Peter Beagle. He talks about his appreciation for shape-shifters and actors and how that informs his writing. (Go easy on me, I’m paraphrasing here.) There’s something about the weather – chilly enough for layers – and the food (mulled cider!) and the leaves falling and the earlier evenings… it is the first real celebration of being cozy. Plus adults can get away with playing with their identities in a way that are typically out of reach. At least if you aren’t heavily into cosplay.
But the holiday is also one of the glossed-over connections to the connections between western culture and its pre-Christian roots.
It is also a Christian construct.
I see a connection between the macabre celebration of the crucifixion of Christ (all that eating of his body and drinking of his blood) and Halloween. We celebrate our fears on Halloween, trying them on and turning them inside out to make them safe.
To the Celtic progenitors of Western Culture, Halloween ended the old year. So in that way, it was a celebration of the cycle of life, the past year dying on one night, only to be reborn the next morning. Throw in some Roman conquers and the Catholic mission to turn the known world Christian, and the new year became the celebration of the dead saints (All Hallows Day) and the night before like Christmas Eve is to Christmas.*
Mix together the Christian weirdness about celebrating death; the human fear of death; regional traditions surrounding the day, each connected backwards in their own way to primitive cultural roots; generalized anxiety about change and social structure; rising and falling interest in mysticism; horror movies; dissatisfaction; longing for the opportunity to play… and you get Halloween in its current incarnation. A mess of traditions blended together and appropriated in service of playing out our anxieties and bridging the gap between modern life and dirt.
Halloween is a dirty holiday. It smells of decay and dirt; it smells of candy-laden loam. Yum.
Ratwell and I were talking about costumes I could pull off in short order for some last-minute invitations to Halloween parties. I threw out the option of dressing up as an ebola-stricken nurse. He was horrified. Lest anyone else also be horrified, let me add the disclaimer that it was an idea I wasn’t wedded to. It popped into my head along with The Black Widow (because who doesn’t love black boots and a badass) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
This led us to a discussion about how the general population might see Halloween, what appropriations are acceptable and why, and why we dress up like we do. I think Halloween serves a social function, allowing us to play with those things we fear the most.
Take the sexy <insert identity here> trope that so many women fall into. If, as a society, we’re still nervous about women’s sexuality and insulting a woman’s sexual choices is still enough to discredit a woman entirely, it makes sense that women dress up as the thing they fear the most: a woman who puts her body on display deliberately, with confidence, with a sense of play, and simply because they can.
In this context, the Ebola Nurse costume is a legitimate choice: here is a common fear that the news is cramming down our throats. Taking on that fear, owning it, playing with it is a way to disarm the fear. Nothing deflates fear faster than play and humor.
Ratwell objected because, for a family with direct experience with ebola, drunken people carousing with a clumsy pastiche of a horrible illness, the whole thing might be painful. “You wouldn’t dress up like a cancer patient, or an AIDS patient,” he says to me.
But why not? Is it in bad taste? I can see why it would be, and things like taste don’t need to submit to logic.
We uniformly agree that black-face and appropriations of racial minorities and stereotypes is (at the very least) in bad taste. I saw somewhere in the news that a mock lynching scene was taken down by the authorities in Kentucky. (You can google it, but don’t be surprised if it makes you sick to your stomach.) I wouldn’t argue for the legitimacy for either of these activities fitting under the umbrella of re-appropriating our fears. First, lynching is a blanket threat. While it would be universally condemned, it is unfortunately still plausible that a lynching would take place in the US. There is a direct link between Emmitt Till and Trayvon Martin. There just is. It isn’t funny, and it isn’t taking the fangs out of a cultural fear by mocking it. Those fangs are still out and if that is a surprise to you, then you haven’t been paying attention.
(Digression: Mel Brooks managed to send up racism in Blazing Saddles in a way that feels like an authentic use of humor to turn a miserable aspect of culture inside out. It’s been done elsewhere, but I can’t think of an acceptable scene satirizing lynching anywhere. Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.)
In the end, we were left with the conclusion that most people aren’t thinking about the philosophical or psychological underpinnings of their costume choices. The boundaries of good taste are inconsistently applied: it is acceptable to appropriate the identity of a witch, even given the long history of witchcraft accusations being a weapon against women and burning at the stake. It is acceptable to dress up as a drag queen, but it isn’t acceptable to dress up in the stereotype of a different race. You can get away with pandemics and illnesses that are long-distant: a victim of the Plague would be acceptable, but a modern AIDS patient would not.
Halloween is a mess.
I don’t want to be misunderstood as arguing for equal opportunity offensiveness. I do, however, find the shifting ground of taste fascinating. Intellectually, I think it is dangerous to identify a subject as one that just can’t be discussed. But socially, I’m okay with the idea that there are some things that just aren’t done, nor should they be. Not even for Halloween. Not even as a send up of our fears.
Personally, I’m wearing my devil’s horns and a Friday-appropriate outfit: I’m the devils’ dutiful daughter. Unless you’re a die-hard Christian and uncomfortable with the whole concept of Halloween, I’m pretty sure I’m about as unoffensive as it gets. Until I open my mouth that is.