Monday, October 12, 2009

The Irrational and the Undead (or, Halloween Hermeneutics)

Halloween will be here in about 3 weeks. I love Halloween. October is when I have outdoor fires, bake lots of goods with cinnamon, apples, nutmeg, cloves--all of the Fall spices, drink lots of Irish coffee and hot chocolate, and read ghost stories. I used to watch a lot of television around Halloween time; there used to be lots of specials about ghost stories, "true" hauntings (presented in such a way as to make you question their veracity, but fun nonetheless), and other programs about the supernatural and such. Over the last ten years or so, I've given up that tradition, and restricted myself to specials I'd bought or recorded years earlier.

You may wonder why. There is no shortage of Halloween programs on certain channels at this time of year--SciFi (now SyFy--can you hear my eyes rolling?), USA, Fox Family, all of the major network channels, all of the movie channels--they are all Halloween geared during October. So why don't I watch them?

The main reason I shy away from mainstream television at this time of year is that the subject matter of Halloween-ish films has changed. I can't say for sure if this change came about because of movies like "Halloween" (all iterations), "Friday the 13th" (all iterations), "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and/or "Dawn of the Dead". But it seems to me that all Halloween-related movies are now about serial killers and zombies. The more blood and gore, the better. Scary stuff, I suppose. But is Halloween really all about being "scared" in such ways?

You could argue about the origins of Halloween, but I would suggest that Halloween as we know it comes from the Celtic New Year celebration of Samhain. Samhain was the end of the harvest season, the beginning of winter--and the time when the veil between the worlds was thin. One could contact their ancestors at this time of year. Indeed, many traditions like dressing up (usually gender-reversals in the ancient Celtic tradition) and bobbing for apples came from the old ceremonies celebrating the opening of the gates of the spirit world. Boundaries were thin, so the apparent roles and routines of the community were up-ended as well. It was part of the regular cycle of things, and the ancient Celts celebrated accordingly, and tried to reap the greatest benefit from the holiday by appealing to their ancestors.

You may or may not believe the bit about contacting one's ancestors and the "veil between the worlds" being thin. But that was the point of Halloween (a Christian naming of Samhain, meaning All Hallows Eve, as it's the day before All Saints Day), whether you do or not. It seems appropriate that one would contemplate life after death, would listen to ghost stories, and prepare for the coming winter. What I'm wondering is where the heck zombies and serial killers fit in to all of this. Okay, so they have to do with death, or states of un-death. Certainly vampires have become part of this "Halloweenish" lore as well. But mass media images tend to be a reflection on the culture, and so I say: Why these images?

Zombies are hugely fascinating to modern culture. Note the proliferation of zombie movies, the best-selling status of the Jane Austen knockoff called "Pride and Prejudice With Zombies"--even had a post on "Why you secretly hope for a zombie apocalypse." Out of all types of ghoul, why this kind?

One could never say for sure, but I think the zombies and serial killers have something in common--they represent solid flesh and blood (as opposed to a ghost one can't see), and at least one (the serial killers) could realistically be a threat. The odds are probably against it, but deranged, psychopathic people certainly do exist. It's less impossible than some of the alternatives.

In our culture that values science and scoffs at religion, that values reason and what can be seen and touched over what is pure speculation or perhaps fantasy--or with the paranoid religious that believe anything that smacks of the otherworld is "satanic" and should be avoided--I think we are gravitating towards the ghouls that can still scare us, and are a reflection of the current collective psyche. No one is unaffected by secular culture, even those who rebel against it. It seems to me that such frightening creatures are symbolic terrors of a secular society. One represents the deranged person that cannot be controlled by reason. The other represents a state of animation, but with no life--a frightening commentary on humans who are either controlled by their myths or have none at all. Movie zombies aside, how many people walk through life and never really are alive, never "live"? I would suggest that there are more people like this rather than less.

I am not suggesting that secularism is bad. But it's an indication that having nothing but reason in the face of uncertainty and death is not sufficient. Everyone has a question about the bigger picture. Neither religion nor science is providing a good answer for people, at least in Western society. That leaves the vast majority afloat in a sea of uncertainty, when the only things that are supposed to be of value are their bank accounts, their jobs, and their social status. A lot of people suspect there is more than this, but what can they do? What passes for religion these days (i.e., literalism--we're talking mass media here) is so absurd that anyone who thinks can't accept it. Yet the mystery still remains, but without any context, the speculation is scary. So, many people choose not to speculate at all--they live the lives others tell them to live, and shut out anything they don't understand. In short, they are zombies themselves. Hence, the attraction to the undead and the irrational at a time when speculation about uncertainty and death is at its yearly height.

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