Saturday, October 31, 2015

Why Halloween is Still about the Dead

Hello, all! Halloween is upon us once again, and I just realized that I've never really done a Halloween post. So why not do it right now?

Halloween is the time of year when we think most about the abnormal. From haunted houses to costumes to skeletons on the lawn, October 31st calls on us to abandon our traditional ideas of what's proper and explore different ways of being. The concept of "death" is also a big part of Halloween, but this preoccupation with death is really just another version of the abnormal focus Halloween does best. In so many words, Halloween is what shows us the "underside" of human reality, the side of it opposite to the one we normally see.

Knowing this, what gets me about our culture's idea of Halloween in contrast to, say, Mexico's Day of the Dead is that our idea of death is almost unanimously associated with horror and the macabre. Just watch any zombie or ghost movie and you'll see what I mean. Why is this the case? I'd wager that it's because we as a culture are terrified of death. Or perhaps more clearly, we're so terrified that we put it out of our mind and give it no thought, like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

But in addition to the way we ignore death, we also ignore the dead. Most people outside the LDS church (and many within it, I'm sure) have no idea who their ancestors are past their first set of grandparents. This means that there are legions of the dead who aren't remembered at all, something I'm sure doesn't lack consequences. If there's one idea that occurs in cultures the world over, it's that the dead demand our memory of them, and we have come up drastically short in that department.

The dead aren't just buried in the ground, and they aren't just invisible wisps of air floating here and there. No, the dead are within us and between us. Swedenborg says this, as does psychologist Carl Jung when he writes in his Red Book about...:
"...the dead, not just your dead, that is, all the images of the shapes you took in the past, which your ongoing life has left behind, but also the thronging dead of human history, the ghostly procession of the past, which is an ocean compared to the drops of your own life span. I see behind you, behind the mirror of your eyes, the crush of dangerous shadows, the dead, who look greedily through the empty sockets of your eyes, who moan and hope to gather up through you all the loose ends of the ages which sigh in them. Your cluelessness does not prove anything. Put your ear to that wall and you will hear the rustling of their procession.
As with Halloween, the dead dwell on the side of life we don't see: the underside, even the under-world. And to avoid literalizing the whole thing, the dead aren't just actual departed human beings, but anything and everything which exists but to which we haven't given heed. Among these dead, I think, is the "soul" belonging to animals, to the world, to fiction, and even to things. Yes, you heard me right. Psychologist James Hillman even talks about how "inanimate" objects resent the way we treat them as soul-less in his work Alchemical Psychology:
"Technology is cursed by our mechanical idea of it. It is the great repressed, the unconscious, the realm of the dead, forced to carry the egocentric unimaginative demands we put on it: labor-saving, cost-efficiency, productivity, uniformity, speed. It may break down--only wear out and be thrown away....These things have taken their revenge. The repressed alsways does, by insinuating our notion of them into our notion of ourselves: ourselves as mechanical functions, assemblies of parts, enduring stress and friction, attempting objectivity, until we, too, oxidize in 'burn-out.'"
The dead today rest uneasily. We have given them no thought and no heed, and, as a result, they "stand behind [us], panting from rage and despair at the fact that [our] stupor does not attend to them" (again from the Red Book). Ideally the dead and the living should stand side by side, each helping one another and each interpenetrating with the other's world. But people today don't even think about death, let alone offer the dead propitiation.

I believe that the dead have resorted to forcefully interposing their will on us. This has happened time and time again throughout history--whenever something is forgotten, the corresponding dead rise up and force us to remember them. Think of World War I and how it almost mockingly replaced the propriety of Victorian Europe with an influx of new culture and ideas. In the years surrounding the war, everything changed: this is when Jung wrote his Red Book, when Joyce wrote Ulysses, when Picasso started painting, and when all those stodgy Victorian values evaporated in a flash of shorter skirts and jazz music. I wouldn't be the first person to say that that surge in culture came about by means of the dead from ages past, breaking in through the hole in our consciousness that was the Great War.

They're doing this again today. What our cultural images of a "zombie apocalypse" represent is our unconscious recognition that our way of life is unsustainable, that the dead want acknowledgment from our hearts and mind. But what would this involve? Could it be that--like zombies--they want us to participate in the dead's secret life, to "become-dead?" If true, their subtlest trick would be to come and influence us on that day of the year that was always theirs: Halloween. Originally a day to honor the dead, they--as the repressed, the unconscious--have snuck into our celebration by getting us to honor them more than on any other day. When else do we give up our identity to act out an identity that is neither proper, ours, or even possible? When else do so many people give up their sense of propriety to explore, to dance, to party? Halloween is still the day it has always been--it's when the dead join the living as equals.

But can we extend this principle by, to paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge, keeping the spirit of Halloween with us all the year? Maybe instead of dressing up as a cat, a potato, or Captain America we can try always remember the soul of the cat, the object, and the fiction, acknowledging their life, their soul, their spirit. Maybe we can always be willing to "try on" new identities, never regarding ours as fixed but only as a costume itself. For beneath all of our masks lay the dead, with us always, and always having a share in our life. Let's remember them on this day of the dead.

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