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Hate Halloween? It's Here to Stay...

This ancient festival fulfills two of our deepest needs, Dan Barnett writes

Halloween Lantern by WxMom

 

The deep inner conflicts originating in our primitive drives and our violent emotions are all denied in much of modern children’s literature, and so the child is not helped in coping with them. But the child is subject to desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and he often experiences mortal anxiety… The fairy tale, by contrast, takes these existential anxieties very seriously and addresses itself to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life and the fear of death. Bruno Bettleheim (1985:10)

 

Halloween has just passed fast. Like all holidays which once had a wider spiritual component, our society’s tendency to market everything has helped obscure what was once a solemn occasion for many of our ancestors. Yet if you look more closely, as with so many seemingly innocent aspects of our lives, there is something deeper going on here. Halloween may be far from being one of Bettleheim’s fairy tales but, if one looks beyond its commercial aspects, we find a celebration of humanity’s love for fantasy and escapism from all of the things that makes us fundamentally human. After all, why else would we spend this night pretending to be things that we’re not?

 

The origins of what we now call Halloween seem to be varied and diverse. The aim of this article is not to chronicle the development of this modern holiday but to make a more general point, namely how an event can change its exterior whilst retaining something of its psychological roots.

 

A cursory piece of research tells us that there are at least two ancient predecessors to Halloween. The first of these, was a Celtic holiday known as Samhain, which marked the end of the summer and the beginning of the so called “dark half” of the year. This later became merged with the second, All Hallow’s Eve, a Christian ceremony celebrating martyred saints that dates back to the 7th century.

 

Linking these two events is the implicit fear or acknowledgment of death which can be found within them. A martyr can only be called such if they die for a belief and the “dark half” of the year (or winter) is the season where things wither and die.

 

Indeed, the occult aspect which lives on today through the tradition of dressing up is probably derived from the belief that the barrier between our world and the world of the dead was at its flimsiest during this time of year. That’s a lot of death. Many people who celebrate Halloween can say with honesty that these things are not the reason why they enjoy Halloween. So has this element of death reverence remained, conscious or otherwise? It has to a degree.

 

Fear is at the core of modern Halloween, even if it’s linked with a sense of fun. It’s a similar mentality to a rollercoaster ride – the fun comes from experiencing that primal sense of fear whilst being strongly secured in your safe in the knowledge that there is no real danger. Likewise, we’re not in any real danger from the vampires, ghouls and serial killers who roam the streets in Halloween, even if they represent things which would mean us harm in real life. Though we understand that creatures of myth and legend have little chance of hurting us any way, on the grounds that they don’t exist, our obsession with them goes back to more superstitious times where such fears may have been real.

 

What about the more light-hearted aspects of Halloween costumes, the princesses, the movie characters or even the politically incorrect mental patient costume featured in the news recently? In the case of the latter, this reflects a different type of fear, namely that of the stigma of mental illness (not that I’m condoning it or its sale). But even the small child who dresses up as a princess or a superhero is using fantasy to reflect some more unconscious process. If we pretend to be something supernatural or at least fictional then on some level we pretend not to be human. By doing this, we temporarily escape all that goes with it including, if not especially, weakness and mortality.

 

This is where Bettleheim’s quote about the relevance of fairy tales comes into play. In the same way that the psychological appeal of a fairy tale is that it allows a child to explore the dark side of mortality in a way which is safe, Halloween adds an air of fun to an aspect of life which is still taboo in many respects. Perhaps when we become adults this becomes the case less as we find other ways of expressing ourselves.

 

With growing up comes a loss of innocence and therefore an understanding that life is finite and imperfect. If we can accept this then we can try our best to find a way of reconciling ourselves with it. Emma Jung once wrote:

 

[It is] knowledge, consciousness, in a word – that lifts man above nature. But this achievement brings him into a tragic position between animal and God. Because of it, he is no longer the child of mother nature; he is driven out of paradise, but also, he is no god, because he is still tied inescapably to his body and its natural laws… (Jung, 2004: 8).

 

As adults we attempt to rationalise the mystery of life in a way that children can’t. However, on some level a child senses this mystery as much as we do, the only difference being that they can’t express it verbally. In this respect, the average child has more in common with our ancestors of ancient times – they express all of humanity’s fears through ritual and fantasy, in a way that mere words can’t.

 

As adults, Halloween loses some of its mysticism as we become more ensconced in the world of the rational. There are, however, some things that rational thought can’t comprehend and so we will always need myth. Even if Halloween has become a commercial enterprise as much as anything else, something must meet some sort of need, physical, emotional or psychological in order to sell. Halloween meets our emotional and psychological needs, and as these needs are fundamentally part of the human condition they’re not going anywhere any time soon. Which means Halloween isn’t going to go away either.

 

  • Bettelheim, Bruno (1985), The Uses of Enchantment, Great Britain, Penguin
  • Jung, Emma (2004), Animus and Anima (reprinted), USA, Spring Publications
Dan Barnett

About the Writer

Dan is in his late 20s, lives in Croydon and is training as a counsellor.

 

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