Halloween: what are we really afraid of?

This Sunday the streets of my suburb will be filled with gangs of children and teenagers splashed with fake blood. Rocky Horror vampires will reel in fishnets and high heels. Maybe there will be a Donald Trump mask or two. Ghosts, ghouls and goblins will trot with bags of candy, holding a parental hand. Paper pumpkins, plastic bats, and fake spider webs will cover the porches of all other homes.

It’s the one night of the year that it’s cool to be a serial killer – or at least to dress like one.

It’s Halloween.

But why has the celebration of this festival of the creepy and the bizarre taken hold in Australia over the past two decades? It feels like a transplanted tradition, which comes from elsewhere (the United States) and does not yet have a place in the local soil.

But there is something weird about Halloween in Australia. We don’t have a cultural memory of it – so what do we do when we celebrate it?

Annual customs, like Anzac Day or Christmas or even Australia’s always controversial day, tend to point to the deep past. They are a way of remembering and transmitting particular values ​​that our culture cherishes. Lay people have tended to find a way to adapt religious holidays like Christmas and Easter, just as Christians have sometimes used the pre-existing holidays and celebrations they found and imbued them with Christian meanings.

But there is something weird about Halloween in Australia. We don’t have a cultural memory of it – so what do we do when we celebrate it?

Like the eve of All Saints’ Day, it is a feast with deeply religious roots. Originally, it was (and still is) a time to remember the departed saints and martyrs of the church – and also your loved ones. It is a celebration of life beyond death – not in fear of ghosts but in the hope of resurrection. Christians remember to hope in God and not to fear death.

This is where the meaning of fun comes from – there is a reason to laugh at the horrible and the scary because because of Jesus Christ they no longer have any power.

Dressing up, door-to-door and pranks are all probably from Scotland and Ireland. These practices then took shape in North America in the 19th century, where they were both marketed (like Christmas!) And accepted by people of various ethnicities and faiths.

Halloween invites us to face our fears and teach our children not to be afraid. As a community, we are known to both overprotect our children and make them deeply anxious. We are no longer afraid of ghosts and goblins, but we have a lot of fears. We fear insignificance; we fear poverty; we fear cancer; we fear loneliness; we fear an environmental catastrophe; we fear political division.

Above all, we always fear death. The great anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote:

“The idea of ​​death, its fear, haunts the human animal like nothing else.”

But do plastic and sugar really help us cope with what we, and our children, fear? Halloween, in its marketed form, can be avoidance rather than recognition. Children don’t disguise themselves as melting ice caps, extinct species, or cancerous tumors.

As Halloween laughs, his laughter is nervous. It’s bravado: a manageable version of our fears (though maybe it’s better than not seeing them at all).

Is this all we have to offer young people? As a community, we really need to talk about our fears better than we are.

But we could also go back to the origins of Halloween and find something to look forward to. Maybe Halloween, after all, still needs All Saints’ Day.

Reverend Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point. On November 11, he will give the Smith Lecture on “The art of gentleness”.


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