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Halloween

posted: 11.8.13 by Jack Solomon

With October 31st being the submission deadline for this, my 78th Bits blog, I thought I’d turn to answer a question a student of mine asked about the significance of the sorts of costumes being marketed to women these days for Halloween wear.  Well, that one’s pretty easy: in a cultural system that includes such phenomena as a young Miley Cyrus seeking to shake off her Hannah Montana image by (to put this as politely as possible) making an erotic spectacle of herself in order to succeed as a grown-up singer, the immodest (let’s stay polite) wear marketed to women at Halloween is just another signifier of what Ariel Levy has quite usefully labeled a “raunch culture.”  Whether or not such explicit displays (and expectations thereof) of female sexuality constitute a setback for women’s progress (which would be a Second-wave feminist assessment of the matter) or an advance (which might be a Third-wave interpretation) is not something I want to get into here.  It’s Halloween as a cultural sign that I’m interested in now.

To see the significance of the contemporary Halloween, we need (as is always the case with a semiotic analysis) to situate it within a system of signs.  We can begin here with the history of Halloween.  Now, whether or not Halloween is a Christianized version of an ancient pagan harvest festival, or, as, All Hallow’s Eve, is simply the liturgical celebration of the saintly and martyred dead that it claims to be at face value, is not something we need be concerned with.  More significant is that neither of these meanings have been operative in modern times, when Halloween became a children’s holiday: a night (with no religious significance whatsoever) to dress up in costume and go trick-or-treating for free candy.

But in these days of an ever more restricted children’s Halloween, with parental escorts or carefully monitored parties taking the place of the free range trick-or-treating of a generation and more ago, along with an ever expanding adult celebration of Halloween, we can note a critical difference, which, as is usually the case in a semiotic analysis, points to a meaning—actually, several meanings.

The first is all too painfully clear: whether or not we actually live in more dangerous times (which is a question that has to be left to criminologists), we certainly feel that America has become a place where it is not safe to let children roam about on their own at night.  The trust that Americans once had for each other has certainly evaporated, and the modern Halloween is a signifier of that.  (One might note in this regard the ever more gruesome displays that people are putting up in their front yards: yes, Halloween began as a celebration of the dead, but this obsession with graphic and violent death hints at an insensitivity to real-life suffering that does not do much to restore that old trust.)

But as Halloween has shrunk in one direction, it has exploded in another, becoming one of the premier party nights of the year for young adults.  Joining such other originally liturgical holidays as Mardi Gras, today’s Halloween is essentially a carnival—an event that has traditionally featured an overturning of all conventional rules and hierarchies: a grand letting off of steam (sexual and otherwise) before returning to the usual restrictions on the day after.  Dressing in costume (whether along the more traditional lines as some sort of ghoul, or as some other more contemporary persona), enables a freedom—a licentiousness even—that ordinary life denies.  At a time when, in reality, the walls are closing in for a lot of Americans, carnivalesque holidays like Halloween are, quite understandably, growing in popularity.

There is more to it than that, of course. A further significance is the way that Halloween, like so many other American holidays (both religious and secular), has become a reason to buy stuff—not only costumes and food and candy, but also decorations, Christmas style, that start going up a month or more before the holiday arrives.  Like Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, and, of course, Christmas, Halloween is now part of a different sort of liturgical calendar: a signifier of the religion of consumption.

And no, I don’t celebrate Halloween.  October 31st has a very private significance for me: on that day in 1980 all of my Harvard dissertation directors signed off on my PhD thesis.  I think of it as the Halloween thesis.  I suppose that my doctoral gown is a costume of sorts, but I haven’t worn it in years.


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