Published: October 24, 2012
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.
You'll brag about it for months:
Remember what I did,
Remember what I was,
> Email Michael Jackman