Arts & Culture » Culture

Unmasking Halloween

Is America's second holiday a commercialized travesty, or still a chance to subvert the status quo?



Among American holidays, Halloween is really the outlier. Holidays from Yom Kippur to Christmas to Ramadan grow from the traditions of major religions; Halloween is a pagan holiday in the loosest disguise. Even secular holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are anchored by home and family; Halloween sends children out to knock on strangers' doors. Other holidays in the United States mark blessings and bounties, promises ranging from the coming of spring to the arrival of the new year; Halloween celebrates something darker, more anarchic, as the natural world dies, with the sweet rot of leaves in the air. 

Other holidays promise gifts or feasts; on Halloween you ask for them — with a hint of actual menace behind the demand. After all, if you don't give a treat, you can expect some tricks. And let's not forget Devil's Night, which, for the relatively innocent children of suburban Detroit, was an opportunity to garland trees with toilet paper and egg the homes of perceived foes. (That was true, too, once upon a time, in the city itself, before arson became part of the trickster's arsenal and insurance fraud entered the picture.)

It's a strange holiday, one that turns children into roving gangs of monsters, out to do tricks or worse, and yet the whole community joins in to endorse it all. (For a look at just how anarchic it was a century ago, see the Halloween scene in Meet Me in St. Louis.)

There was always this subversive, somewhat threatening undercurrent to the holiday. But as Halloween has changed, perhaps some of it has gotten lost. Certainly, for people of a certain age, it's strange to look back on the evolution it has undergone over the last 30 years: going from marauding mobs of kids chasing a sugar high through the night to a rigidly chaperoned multibillion-dollar industry. 

Halloween as big business

Halloween really started to change in the 1980s. Although childhood trick-or-treating continued throughout the decade, with an estimated 93 percent of U.S. households with children under age 12 still participating in 1988, Halloween was becoming a more adult-oriented holiday. And spending grew accordingly. By the early 1990s, Americans had made Halloween the second biggest adult party night after New Year's Eve. About a decade ago, Halloween surpassed Thanksgiving as the event Americans spent most on next to Christmas.

The spending on Halloween has been nothing short of fantastic. Even as times get tough, the spending only gets higher. In 2005, before the 2007 crash set in, Americans spent almost $5 billion on Halloween. After a slight drop in spending for 2009, by 2010, holiday spending bounced back and climbed higher still to $5.8 billion. This year, Americans will spend an estimated $7 billion to $8 billion on the holiday. 

And that's more than candy and costumes. It includes parties, events and attractions. For instance, the Haunted House Association estimates there are more than 2,000 Halloween attractions charging admission fees, including not just haunted houses but corn mazes, pumpkin patches and hayrides, all "haunted," of course. Haunted attractions in the United States bring in an estimated $300 million to $500 million each year, drawing almost a half-million customers.

With numbers this high, even the more frivolous items on the budget still add up to mind-boggling figures. For instance, this year, Americans will spend an estimated $370 million on costumes — for their pets. And that's up about $60 million from last year.

When numbers get this big this fast, you can be sure there are deep-seated trends at work driving them. Among the most powerful, arguably, is that Halloween represents a chance to escape from reality. In a tough economic climate, with high unemployment, stagnant pay and a rising cost of living, the chance to blow off some steam and forget about it all gains a powerful allure. 

And research shows that young people, aged 18-24, are more likely than any other age group to party on Halloween. Is it a coincidence that, for this age group, only 56 percent have a job? Or that many face high college tuition costs and crushing student loans? It would seem that, given the fearful climate for young adults, Halloween is a chance to trade in real fears for imagined ones.

Diluting Halloween

Perhaps the way Halloween has become so embedded in U.S. culture has to do with how it can be tweaked to alter its appeal. Certainly, in places where fundamentalist Christians hold sway, we've seen an effort to subsume it into "harvest celebrations," in which the paganistic undertones are dialed down and Halloween becomes less about jack-o-lanterns and haunted houses and more about pumpkins and hayrides. And plenty of families have steered away from dressing their kids as monsters, ghosts and vampires.

What's more, parents fearful of "stranger danger" have done their best to turn Halloween into a daytime activity performed in the company of adults. Driven by fears of stranger kidnapping (even when FBI statistics say your child is more likely to die of drowning in a pool, bathtub or toilet) and tales of apples spiked with razors (none of which could be confirmed by researchers), too many overzealous, overly fearful parents have taken the adventure, spontaneity and fun out of Halloween entirely.

And the spooks fed to kids seem to grow tamer by the year. Maybe we can blame Tim Burton for that, starting with Beetlejuice and continuing with The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, among others. Films riding the trend have included Monsters Inc., Monster House, Coraline, ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania. Add to this the mainstreaming of Día de los Muertos as the Day of the Dead, on which kitsch-addled American consumers buy and display cute little skulls and domesticated skeletons in all their finery.

These factors — the overweening profit motive, the stultifying effects of fundamentalism, overprotective parents, and the rise of consumer cuteness over youthful chaos — all have diluted the joy of what Halloween really is: a national carnival.

Our American carnival

What makes a carnival? It was the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin who first coined the term "carnivalesque." To Bakhtin, carnivals were events that subverted and liberated the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. (Sound familiar?) Though usually associated with Mardi Gras in the United States, Halloween is arguably a time when everybody participates in a ritual, with little or no line between participant and spectator. For a brief moment, social hierarchies are overturned or ignored, as when children boss adults, creating a world upside-down, in which ideas and truths are endlessly contested or made fun of.

Getting away from the theory, this is a reason why Halloween has traditionally been a great day of celebration for the U.S. LGBT community. From 1974 until 1985, one of the biggest gay and lesbian celebrations in New York was the Village Halloween Parade that snaked through the streets of the largely gay West Village, ending in an all-night party in Washington Square. Talk about carnivalesque: In the early years, some observers who didn't know what was happening simply joined the procession. It's no doubt that New York officials must have been uncomfortable with the subversive component of the parade. In 1985, the procession was moved to Sixth Avenue and, by the 1990s, police closed down city parks at midnight and ended the all-night revelries. 

For another example of Halloween's carnivalesque spirit, look no further than a few years into the past at Detroit's Theatre Bizarre. The space behind a row of Detroit homes near the State Fairgrounds had been transformed into a dilapidated amusement park, to celebrate Halloween for one night only in very adult fashion. The artists and designers behind the big show created a convincing dramatic space, taking their battered midway to the limits of technical feasibility while staying true to the do-it-yourself spirit. Live bands heightened the insurrectionary spirit, while the main bar hemorrhaged 10 kegs of beer an hour. 

Though it continues today in city-approved venues, the old space was a sort of autonomous zone where, for years, the city turned a blind eye. Perhaps it worked because the organizers weren't in it for the money, but were trying to create something other than profits. You'd see the carnival spirit in the attendees, who'd often act out their parts in mocking, satirical ways. We remember in particular a participant dressed as a policeman with a pig snout strapped over his nose. Or two hockey players who'd suddenly lock into brawls only to be pulled apart by a man in referee gear tweeting on his whistle. In fact, you wondered if they even came together or just found each other and made it work.

Does that sound too far-fetched? One year, we went as a Christian soldier, carrying a giant shield with a giant gold cross on it and carrying a long sword. Throughout the evening, various Jesuses approached us, often asking, "How many have you killed in my name?"

"Many a heathen's blood has bathed this sword," we'd answer, to their approval and blessing, all in character.

No doubt that subversive spirit of play and fun, in which popular wisdom is tested and contested, made parties at the Theatre Bizarre space not only fun as hell but carnivalesque as well. And as the country becomes more and more authority-based, that spirit is more important than ever.

A safety valve

Or is Halloween a big subversive festival after all? Maybe it's more like what the original carnivals Bakhtin studied were: Chances to let off steam. On Halloween, do we put on disguises to join the masquerade, or do we really unmask ourselves? And if we can do that — remove our masks and show our true selves — why do we only do it once a year in such a formal way?

It's a good question, one that goes to the heart of Halloween. 

As Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys asked in his 1982 song, "Halloween," the real fear permeates the other 364 days: the fear that enforces conformity.

You go to work today,

You'll go to work tomorrow.

Shitfaced tonight,

You'll brag about it for months:

Remember what I did,

Remember what I was,

Back on Halloween?

But what's in between?

Where are your ideas?

You sit around and dream,

For next Halloween.

Why not every day?

Are you so afraid?

What will people say?

Michael Jackman is senior editor of Metro Times. Send comments to