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As October marches onward, many Americans are prepping their costumes, yards and homes in anticipation for the secular celebration of Halloween. What are you going to be for Halloween this year? Did you buy your candy? Are you going to a party?To be very clear, this festival is not the same as the spiritual vigil of Samhain or any other harvest or religious celebration. For the purposes of this discussion, Halloween is an American and Canadian secular holiday, complete with candy, costumes and PVC pumpkins. It often begins with door bells ringing and ends with a sugar-high unlike anything you’ve ever known.
Halloween has a somewhat uneasy place in the family of North American holidays. On the one hand, some Pagans and Heathens fully embrace the festivities. It is a tradition that many have enjoyed since childhood. Halloween is the one calendar event that tangentially adheres to modern Pagan religious practices. And, for better or worse, the Halloween season openly unleashes the Witch-archetype into stores, homes and entertainment media. When else can you buy a pentacle and black candles at Michaels?
Halloween also attracts the local media to coven practice, real Witches and metaphysical stores. In most cases, these press encounters provide public teaching opportunities. For weeks, articles interviewing “real witches” grace the digital pages of mostly local newspapers, while the national media tend to focus on broader topics, such as the origins of the Witch, the story of Salem and even the cultural meaning within the witch-archetype.
But, on the other hand, the secular celebration also mocks any spiritual components, modern or otherwise, that exist within Halloween. For many real Witches, the playful and wholly-commercialized, secular side of the holiday undermines attempts to build cultural acceptance of both the Craft and the sabbat as a serious holiday. For example, requesting Halloween off for religious reasons might be met with ridicule. The secular festival feeds both negative witch stereotypes as well as the false truth that Witchcraft only exists in a fictional universe.
One of the main contributors to this problem is, not surprisingly, Hollywood. The industry typically provides at least one new film and several television specials “exploring” witchcraft. This year is no different. On Oct 23, The Last Witch Hunter, starring Vin Diesel, will make its debut. While such films are purely fiction, they exist within our cultural space as the flip side to the positive press interviews and similar work.
Pagans and Heathens aren’t alone in their unsettled attempts to navigate through the Halloween season. Many American religious and community leaders have repeatedly attempted to ban the holiday. Why? The list is endless including concerns over the overindulgence in candy, the potential dangers of trick-or-treating, the holidays Pagan origins, the increased popularity of over-sexualized or violently graphic costumes and heightened displays of horror.
As recently reported, one New Jersey man found himself at the center of controversy after setting up his seasonal yard display. Bill D’Catt, as he is reportedly named, told a local journalist, “We choose to be on the spookier side of Halloween. You know what’s scarier than this thing? The real ISIS.” The display, which was deemed too violent for the media to show in full, depicts hanged figures including one wearing a Pres. Obama mask, terrorists, caged criminals and bloody body parts. After numerous threats and complaints, D’Catt removed the display, but he has said it will likely return for Halloween itself.
But yard displays are not the only source of contention. Over the years, store-bought costumes have attracted debate as they have have become increasingly sexualized. Sexy Pikachu, anyone? Maxim magazine recently interviewed Yandy CEO Chad Horstman about these “ridiculously sexy costumes.” Yandy is the main distributor of these products and, in the interview, Horstman expressed his lack of concern, saying “this is just the way this generation dresses.”
As an aside, Horstman also specifically stated that his company “[tries] to stay away from religious things.” Yet, at the same time, Vandy does sell a number of sexy “Voodoo Priestess” costumes and, of course, witches. This demonstrates the continuing disconnect between modern secular lore and Voodoo or Witchcraft as genuine religious practices.
Regardless, complaints against the Halloween costume industry go beyond the sexy and into the realm of offensive and excessively violent. Vandy and other similar merchants offer, for example, a Salem Witch costume complete with blood stains and a noose. Others note the deeply offensive nature of many ethnic or culturally -inspired costumes, such as “the Indian Sweetheart” or “Chief Wansum Tail.” The list goes on and on.
The costume industry is a major business. Last year, the National Retail Federation reported that the Halloween business reached all time high of $7.4 billion. And Halloween is ranked the number one fastest growing American commercial holiday. As Horstman said, “What sells is what sells.” That is the business of Halloween.For the majority of Americans, Halloween is simply an excuse to party. Halloween provides a unique canvas that can only be topped by the decadent bacchanalia that is Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve. It is an excuse to dress up, eat, drink and make merry.
Over the past decade, the Halloween debate has become quite larger. The secular holiday has spread across the globe, seizing the imaginations of youth cultures on every continent. Originally, it hitched a ride with missionaries, English language teachers and ex-pats. Now, it’s being promoted by imported American cultural commodities like internationally-based theme parks, McDonald’s stores, Coca Cola products and Hollywood movies. And, of course, the ever-increasing accessibility to the internet only fuels the fire.
In some regions, Halloween has been readily incorporated into long-established fall cultural traditions. In the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, Halloween finds itself at its ancestral birthplace. It has returned, in some respects. Today, the newly-imported version has mixed with surviving local customs associated with, among others, Guy Fawkes Day. As noted by English writer Chris Britcher:
Trick or treat has now actually become a bona fide tradition in the UK ….Fireworks were our autumnal treat of choice and for a good little while we fought off any competitor to it. But then we gave that up and decided to embrace both.
Across the globe in China, Hong Kong and Japan, people have been enthusiastically adopting the American holiday. Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween, attributes this acceptance to the presence of two Disney Theme Parks (Tokyo and Hong Kong), Hollywood horror movies and a fascination with American pop-culture.
During at 2012 interview with The Wild Hunt, Morton said,“In Japan, there is a love of festivals and affection for costuming or ‘cosplay,’ which is associated with anime and manga.” In mainland China, Halloween is slowly replacing Yue Laan or “Hungry Ghost Festivals” during which people appease and entertain ancestral ghosts. To fuel and solidify this cultural shift, China will be getting a new “Haunted Mansion” at the new Shanghai Disneyland in 2016.
On the contrary, in continental Europe, Halloween has not entirely received a welcome reception. In some countries, like the Netherlands, the secular holiday has been embraced, along side similar local traditions.
In other countries, it is being openly rejected. For example, in Oct 2012, the Polish Archbishop Andzej Dzięga, was quoted on Polskie Radio, as saying, “This kind of fun, tempting children [with] candy, poses the real possibility of great spiritual damage, even destroying spiritual life.” He warned against the “promotion of paganism” and a “culture of death.”
More recently, in Russia, the war over Halloween rages on. In 2012, ABC Online reported that one Russian Education Ministry official called the holiday “a destructive influence on young people’s morals and mental health.” Moscow city schools have banned Halloween celebrations claiming that they were concerned about “rituals of Satanically-oriented religious sects and… the promotion of the cult of death.” In the same article, an unamed Russian psychologist warned:
Halloween poses a great danger to children and their mental health, suggesting it could make young people more likely to commit suicide.
Despite this heavily Christian rhetoric, the resistance is not entirely about religion. Morton explained that, “While it is difficult to fully separate the expression of nationalism from religious tradition, many European countries, like France and Slovenia, have strong anti-American undercurrents.” Religious fervor may, in fact, be serving nationalist interests. Morton said, in the end, she “believes the protests are far more about nationalism than religion.”
This is expressed in an article by Paul Wood, an Englishman living in Bucharest:
Just as the North American grey squirrel has made the red squirrel almost extinct so has the North American Hallowe’en taken over with extraordinary swiftness, extinguishing older, weaker traditions. This too is life, I suppose, but it is part of the process by which the whole world is becoming plastic.
Despite the rejection, Halloween is still growing, albeit very slowly within these European youth cultures. According to Morton, in some regions of Italy, Halloween is called La Notte delle Streghe or “Night of the Witches.” In Romania, home of the Carpathian Mountains, the local economy is profiting from world’s fascination with Count Dracula. What a better way to spend Halloween than in Transylvania on a “real Dracula Halloween tour” complete with a four-course dinner and prizes.
Moving into the Southern Hemisphere, Halloween faces a new obstacle. The harvest-based tradition simply does not apply. In this part of the world, Oct. 31 marks the middle of Spring, not Fall. Pagans are readying the Maypole and not jack-o-lanterns.Despite the seasonal difference, youth cultures in some of these countries are showing a small amount of interest in the October-based Halloween celebration. This is mostly true in the English-speaking countries of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. If for no other reason, the Northern holiday offers a chance to party and dabble in the macabre – even if it’s completely devoid of its seasonal aspects.
What about the Americas? As noted above, the countries in the Southern Hemisphere do not recognize Halloween chiefly due to the geographical complications. However, the closer you get to the U.S., the more the secular Halloween has influenced local October traditions. In Costa Rica, for example, some people “have taken this “foreign” holiday and used it to revive an ancient Costa Rican custom: Dia de la Mascarada Tradicional Costarricense or Masquerade Day,” as reported by the Costa Rican News.
Closer to home, in Mexico, the celebration of Dia de los Muertos is sometimes now called Dia de las Brujas or “Day of the Witches.” Halloween practices have been woven into this largely religious holiday. While there has been some backlash from Mexican nationalists and religious leaders, resistance may ultimately be futile. Mexico is just too close to the U.S. to prevent the blending of two very similar October holidays. And, for better or worse, that sharing is happening in both directions.
Just as Halloween has infiltrated Mexican culture, elements of Dia de los Muertos are now increasingly showing up embedded in U.S. Halloween celebrations. In an interview, Morton explained:
Last year I saw my first piece of major Dias de los Muertos American retailing – the Russell Stover candy company released several themed candy bars… That’s probably a sign that Dias de los Muertos is starting to be accepted into the American mainstream. It’s certainly very popular in those areas of the U.S. with large Latino populations. More people seem to be joining in large-scale Dias de los Muertos celebrations in America every year.
Since Morton’s book was published, this trend has only increased. Is it this a good thing? Some view the trend as culturally appropriative and symptomatic of the all-consuming capitalist engine. Most Dia de los Muertos products are, in fact, purely commercial in nature and devoid of their religious roots. It becomes part of the business of Halloween. As quoted earlier, “what sells is what sells.”
However, there are also those that view this sharing as an example of cultural exchange providing a teachable moment that can serve to increase respect for Mexican culture within the U.S. Certainly awareness of religious tradition has increased within the general American public. Regardless, the debate over Dia de los Muertos, whether appropriation or cultural exchange, wages on.There are some areas of the world in which Halloween has yet to find a home for reasons already listed. These areas include the Islamic Middle East, the heavily Christian areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Israel, India and parts of South East Asia.
Generally speaking, modern Pagans and Heathens collectively may continue to find their relationship with the secular Halloween difficult. How it is handled is a personal choice. Some will embrace it, seeing this secular holiday space as an opportunity to educate the public or simply a time to host a Witches Ball and have some fun. Others will renounce it, along with all of the derogatory effigies and movie representations. They might join similar protests saying, “We’re a culture. Not a costume.”
Regardless of personal feelings about the secular celebration, Halloween does continue to gain popularity worldwide year after year. As a result, each October as the veil thins and the media comes knocking, Witches can say that both the Ancestors and the world are listening.
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[This article was adapted and updated from its original form published here in 2012]