The modern purpose of Halloween
In my family there is one holiday you don’t miss. One holiday when you bring the boyfriend home. One holiday for which countless hours are spared. It’s not Christmas. It’s Halloween. But what’s the point anyway?
Styrofoam started it all.
Around 2008, my stepfather used huge sheets of the stuff to make concrete walls that looked like old stone. He covered the porch wall to wall, and it transformed into an old dungeon.
I was 14 or 15 when my parents threw their first Halloween party in a quiet suburb in California.
It seemed to serve as a creative outlet for them. They’d recently left a Renaissance faire guild.
Every year it grew. The second year, they installed a gate that came down from the porch roof. Even short people — me — had to duck to reach the front door.
Each time I came home it felt like a drawbridge would come down on top me.
Little things changed every year. Once there was a skeleton getting electrocuted in a chair waiting to surprise people as they made the turn into the hidden porch alcove.
This year there was a giant winged zombie emerging from a handmade fire pit (more Styrofoam) like a stripper from a cake.
Skeletons swarm the house. One sits like a king in a coffin floated along by six smaller skeletons. The alpha skeleton knows how to have fun — one hand straight up, the other grasping a beer. He prefers Bud Light.
In front of him stands a white picket fence that would never pass the HOA regulations for this neighborhood. They complained once. One year, I hid behind it on Halloween night, covered in fake blood and donning my black leather jack.
I crouched down on all fours, stuck my hand through the fence and brushed the shins of random passersby. Screams bellowed, I’d jump up and yell “Happy Halloween!” Those memories are priceless.
But in all seriousness, the function of my family’s Halloween obsession always eluded me.
Three months spent decorating and weeks spent tearing it all down, if it gets torn down (last year we had Christmas with remnants of Halloween still on full display) are too much for me to handle.
The most help I ever contributed was during a brutal 40 day and 40 night grounding when I was 16.
My stepdad handed me a gallon size bag of moss and ordered me to glue it to the Sytrofoam. I sat there for hours, feeling like a chained zombie myself.
The porous nature of the moss and heat of the glue gun meant I’d never burnt my fingers so badly in my life.
And I have been electrocuted.
Though I regret criticizing their passion and wellspring for creativity, I usually tell my parents every year, “I don’t know why you do this.” In other words, you’re wasting your time.
However, I think there are some key functions — aside from the fun and silliness — that Halloween serves in the modern world.
And you don’t have to obsess over it to benefit.
1. Remember, identity is fluid
Alan Watts once said:
I was told and you were told that you must have a consistent image. “You must be you. You have to find your identity in terms of image.” And this is an awful red herring.
Halloween is a common time for people to drop who others think they are and step into another personality, via the costume.
However, the adopted personality also comes from within them, because in reality each of us is a fluid organism. Being fluid organisms, we naturally change over time, even daily.
The pressure to adhere to a personal image or brand in today’s world can be stifling.
Remember that you will evolve over time. You ultimately are, according to Watts, “a cloud in the flesh”— a combination of billions of different particles mixed up in one.
Thus you will never really feel exactly like the image the world has of you. Nor will you be able to completely predict yourself. But…
Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave? No. They always do the right thing.
If we could predict everything, including how our thoughts, feelings, plans and inclinations will change over time, our lives would be boring.
2. Think of death often: keep a memento mori
We like skeletons because they remind us of dead versions or ourselves.
That might sound weird, but it’s actually a tradition in some circles to keep a skull on ones desk as a memento mori.
Literal translation: death reminder.
A natural question:
Why would I want to have a daily reminder of the fact that I and everyone I ever meet will very soon be dead?
According to Sam Harris, most people regret the things they worry about throughout their lives. Thinking seriously about death is a very lucid reminder that we won’t be here forever. If something won’t matter in 10 years, don’t worry about it.
In other words, stop watching the same bad movie three times.
3. Be creative, no matter what your day job is
In college, I got stuck in the mindset that I’m not creative because I studied science instead of art.
But I loved art as a child, and I was obsessed with fashion design prior to science.
Halloween is essentially a big call to action for creativity.
It’s all of society saying to you, “Show me what you came up with, and I’ll show you.”
The rise of premade Halloween costumes seems to have blocked this creative pathway somewhat. But the best costumes I’ve seen in my near decade at Mayem Manor, including a stint as best costume judge, taught me that the best costumes were always DIY and creative.
4. It takes time to be great
It’s normal for people to see my parents’ house on Halloween and want it for themselves.
This year one woman exclaimed, “I want this! All my husband got me was a pumpkin!”
But what many don’t realize is what they see is nearly a decade of accumulation, thousands and thousands of dollars, and three months of decoration each year.
All the while, the prize is shortlived — two nights — a party the Saturday before Halloween and Halloween night.
If you push yourself to put the time, money and consistency into something, it will be just as great. You just have to be crazy enough to do it.
I think this is especially relevant to the Millennial generation, with which I identify.
To paraphrase Simon Sinek, a common parenting method used while Millennials were children — think participation trophies, honors classes with low barriers for entry, the constant affirmation that “you are special” and “you can do anything” — left many of us impatient to succeed and naively thinking we could change the world or have anything we want without making immense sacrifices to get it.
This is the grit deficiency.
I’ve felt it. You’ve probably felt it, too. But by building positive habits, step by step, like taking a vitamin each day, grit can be built up. With it — and some luck — greatness can be accomplished.
5. Always feed your demons
Otherwise, they get hangry, go on twitter, and Tweet us into the end of the world.