Happy Halloween 2017

I’m reblogging this post I did in 2014 and 2015, modified after taking a year off in 2016.

Halloween has, for as long as I can remember, been the only holiday I’ve ever been able to take seriously or wholeheartedly to celebrate. As a nominal Muslim, I fast during Ramadan, but Ramadan isn’t really a holiday, and unfortunately, none of the Muslim holidays (the Eids) are seasonal, seasonality being an essential property of a real holiday. In fact, generally speaking, Muslims have trouble figuring out when exactly their holidays are supposed to take place–another liability of being a member of that faith.

Having spent a decade in a Jewish household, I have some affection for some of the Jewish holidays–Yom Kippur and Passover, though not Hannukah or Purim–but always with the mild alienation that accompanies the knowledge that a holiday is not one’s own: it’s hard to be inducted into a holiday tradition in your late 20s, as I was.

I like the general ambience of Christmastime, at least in the NY/NJ Metro Area, but unfortunately, once you take the Christ out of Christmas, you take much of the meaning out of it as well, Christmas without Midnight Mass being an anemic affair, and Midnight Mass without Christ being close to a contradiction in terms. Not being a Christian, I find it hard to put Christ back into Christmas, mostly because he’s not mine to put anywhere in the first place. (Same with Easter.)

Diwali I just don’t get.

The secular holidays are, I’m afraid, an altogether ridiculous lot. I’ve trashed Columbus Day on this blog (more than once), Independence Day on another, and I endorse Christopher Hitchens’s description of New Year’s Eve as the “worst night of the year” (and U2’s description of the Day as essentially unremarkable). Thanksgiving is complicated, given its connection to family, as well as to the hapless turkeys pointlessly sacrificed on the altar of familial concord. The political holidays (Presidents’ Day, MLK Day, Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day) are either too political, too contrived, and/or too somber (at least in their original intention) to count as real holidays. Labor Day is a day off, not a holiday. I regard my birthday as a day of mourning, sometimes for how old I now am, sometimes for how little I’ve accomplished in the time allotted to me in this world, and when I’m in Parkway traffic, for having been born at all.

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So what’s left? The purest, most innocent, most seasonally appropriate, most nostalgic, and most celebratory of all holidays, Halloween.

I’ll concede this much: El dia de los muertos, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day are perfectly respectable cousin-holidays to Halloween and fit for post-Halloween celebrations, but their value supervenes on that of Halloween; in and of themselves, they don’t quite cut it, at least for me. What all four holidays have in common is a properly autumnal and properly macabre preoccupation with mortality, which is the only point of having a holiday in the first place. The point of a holiday is to celebrate life in the shadow of death, in the full knowledge that it’s there, lurking in the shadows and crevices of life–and in the full knowledge that though it’s there, it doesn’t matter.

It’s a near-tragic fact that Halloween itself almost went extinct. I have nostalgic memories of Halloween from childhood, but sometime in the mid-80s, Halloween’s luster was dimmed by a series of candy poisonings, razor-bladed apples, and other scares (or so we were led to believe); I distinctly remember when Halloween was cancelled–abolished, outlawed–in my town in the mid-80s. It took a long time for the holiday to recover from its de jure and de facto abolition, and  just as it seemed to have been doing so, it was cancelled two years in a row in the Metro Area for climatological reasons–first for the freak snowstorm of 2011, and then for Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It’s made a comeback these past few years, and I’m hoping it makes a bigger one this year, but alas, there are comebacks and there are comebacks.

It’s made a comeback to be sure, but Halloween today is not what it used to be. In the suburbs, at least, one still gets fairly large throngs of trick-or-treaters, but at least where I live, they’re now concentrated in very specific parts of town designated by executive order as Official Halloween Celebration Zones. There is lots more adult involvement in Halloween than when I was a kid; lots more adult supervision and regulation; more police involvement; strictly circumscribed hours; and the somewhat problematic addition of “adult activities” in a milieu from which adults had hitherto been properly banished.

There’s a bit of anti-climax here, you might say: Halloween has now become six weeks of build-up, much of it involving lingerie and French maid’s costumes, toward a holiday (supposedly for The Children) that’s mandated to take place between the hours of 5 and 8 pm on a single evening. I suppose that makes some sense, inasmuch as parents and the police are the closest approximations we have to the Satanic or demonic in our society (not counting the President, I guess), but I for one prefer a real dose of horror to the curfews and condescension served up by such cardboard monsters.  I’m sorry, but if it’s not scary, it’s not Halloween. The festivities at Dracula’s Castle were not presided over by the Mayor of Transylvania, its Police Chief, and its Department of Recreation. I mean, fucking come on.

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Despite the anodyne painting depicted just above, I’m not done with my rant.

What makes Halloween an attractive holiday, at least in the suburbs, is the contrast it offers to the usual pathetic patterns of suburban life. Sad but true: Halloween is virtually the only night of the year when people leave the electronified comfort of their oversized homes to go out on the streets and interact with their neighbors for a few hours.

Watching the scene here in north Jersey over the last few years, I couldn’t help thinking about the stark contrast with Abu Dis in Palestine, where I’ve spent the last few summers. In suburban New Jersey, nightfall typically induces kids to retreat to the fortress-like compounds of their homes; in Palestinian towns and cities, by contrast, kids are up at all hours, playing in the streets. Both sets of kids are up, mind you; it’s just that suburban American kids are inside, in front of TV sets and video games, whereas the Palestinian kids are out and about, doing normal, healthy, outdoorsy things like screaming senselessly at the top of their lungs, throwing rocks at wayward Israeli military patrols, or else combining the two activities.

The funny thing is that  suburban American parents treat their antiseptic neighborhoods as though they were chronically populated by witches, goblins, and werewolves. At the other extreme, Palestinian parents seem unfazed by permitting their children to play in streets riven by tear gas, stun grenades, and gunfire. Honestly,  though, I prefer the Palestinian approach. Better to get blown up than die of boredom.

Another unspoken but attractive secret of Halloween: In many neighborhoods, Halloween is one of the few nights on which  the de facto (and implicitly de jure) racial segregation that rules suburban life is temporarily allowed to lapse. Where I live, black kids from surrounding urban areas migrate en masse to the safety and affluence of the white suburbs, in search of better candy prospects than might be had back home. For one night, then, crowds of black people converge on white neighborhoods without anyone’s regarding it as a threat, whether as a prelude to rioting or looting. In other words, #BlackLivesMatter temporarily becomes #CandyMatters. Since the two messages are in principle compatible, everyone agrees for a night to focus on whichever of the two they prefer, and a great time is had by all.

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Every holiday has an aesthetic, and needs artwork to match. In recent times, I’d nominate Tim Burton as the Master Artist of Halloween, exceeded in some ways by Showtime’s Penny Dreadful series, an unbeatable integration of the best of every classical horror novel and creepshow ever shown. Going further back in time, I might award that title to Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, or Washington Irving. In the visual arts, I suppose we have a tie between George Inness (see above) and Caspar David Friedrich. I’m tempted to add Dali, Francis Bacon, or Jeff Koons, but some things are too creepy even for Halloween.

As for music, there’s no end of riches. Over the years I’ve been surprised to discover how many people–or at least, how many Americans between the ages of 20 and 50–have childhood  memories of listening to some version of Camille Saint-Saens’s little piece, “Danse Macabre” around Halloween-time. I remember listening to a version of it playing over an animated “filmstrip” (remember those?) of dancing skeletons, care of my grade-school music teacher, Mrs. Davidson of St. Cloud Elementary School–to whom I’m eternally grateful. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a video version of the filmstrip anywhere (though I have found my childhood favorite Halloween classic, Robert Bright’s Georgie’s Halloween, the first book I managed to read on my own, and one which I still highly recommend).

That said, there are lots of versions of “Danse Macabre” online; I can never find the perfect one, so I just end up picking a different one every year on the premise that if you somehow add them all up, you get something like perfection as a result.

This year’s Halloween metal soundtrack is Kreator’s “Satan Is Real” from their phenomenal new album, Gods of Violence, which I just happened to get in today’s mail.

I don’t know what’s scarier–the music, or that I’m linking to it on what’s supposed to be a semi-serious, occasionally quasi-academic blog. Probably the former.

Speaking of art, there’s a big “debate” out there about political correctness in costumes, and the (supposed) dangers of “cultural appropriation” in costume-wearing. On the whole, I find this an enormously pointless debate, carried on with one-eyed zeal by one camp that correctly makes the following reasonable points, but cannot seem to rest content with them:

  • Intellectual property rights ought generally not to be violated. And it’s worth noting that some acts of intellectual larceny are not strictly violations of legal property rights.
  • A certain defeasible degree of respect ought to be retained for people’s conceptions of the sacred; even if the sacred ought sometimes to be violated, the violations should have a definable and defensible purpose above and beyond the malicious desire to cause gratuitous offense.
  • Some respect, albeit a lesser degree, ought (defeasibly) to be accorded to people’s often inchoate and well-meaning (but just as often ignorant and bigoted) belief that a certain significant cultural practice originates with “them,” is in some sense “theirs,” and cannot just be plucked from its original context and thrown about like a plaything.
  • Finally, some practices, like the use of blackface, belong to a general category of activities that, given their historical significance, should simply not be done–another way of saying that some things really aren’t funny or worth joking about, no matter how loud the protestations to the contrary.

What this really proves about the average Halloween costume is anybody’s guess.

Then there’s the other camp, epitomized by the redoubtable Jason Brennan, ready with its clever arguments and its witty reductios ad absurdum, all of them pretty reasonable, too, if conspicuously silent on the blackface issue:

  • Intellectual property rights are hard enough to justify in the easiest cases, and extremely hard to justify in the cases where “cultural appropriation” is often insisted on.
  • A defeasible degree of respect for the sacred can (and should) sometimes be defeated. The sacred cannot claim absolute immunity from rational criticism or even non-rational ridicule.
  • There are lots of times when people make handwaving claims about the distinctive accomplishments of “their culture,” many of them unprovable, and most of them irrelevant, since everybody borrows from everybody’s culture: think how dumb it would be (and it would be dumb) to try to do otherwise.
  • [….]

So does that prove that you should dress up in blackface, dress up as a Nazi, or dress your kid up to look like an IDF soldier patrolling the Occupied Territories? I don’t know, but I’m sure that there’s a large, rigorous, triple-blind econometric literature on the subject, that Jason Brennan knows it like the back of his hand, and that he’ll be publishing a peer-reviewed article on it sometime soon.

Better than either of the preceding, however, is a passage I encountered with some surprise in Edward Said’s (quite brilliant) 1993 book, Culture and Imperialism. I don’t think the relevant point could have been put better than this:

A confused and limiting notion of priority allows that only the original proponents of an idea can understand and use it. But the history of all cultures is the history of cultural borrowings. Cultures are not impermeable; just as Western science borrowed from Arabs, they had borrowed from India and Greece. Culture is never just a matter of ownership, of borrowing and lending with absolute debtors and creditors, but rather of appropriations, common experiences, and interdependencies of all kinds among different cultures. This is a universal norm (p. 217).

Granted, Said is talking about “ideas” rather than costumes or practices, and doing so in the context of a highly contestable point  about (actually, in defense of) a certain kind of nationalism. But though I can’t imagine Edward Said discussing Halloween costumes, I’d argue that the preceding passage has obvious application to the present case.

On a related topic, however, I couldn’t help being amused at how Islam is slowly but surely finding its way into Halloween culture. I tagged behind a group of kids a few years ago dressed as terrorists: instead of “trick or treat,” they went door to door shouting “Allahu akbar!”  (Guilty confession: I found that pretty fucking funny.) I also find it interesting that the newer film versions of Dracula–Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Dracula Untold (2014)–now go out of their way to depict Dracula’s turn to vampirism as a response to Ottoman Islamism, an interesting inversion of the usual grievance-based explanations for Islamic terrorism. (It doesn’t get any more explicit than this.)

The Dracula-as-anti-Islamist theme is a deliberate departure from, almost an inversion of, the depiction of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel. Though Dracula’s historical precursor Vlad the Impaler fought the Ottomans, anti-Islamism plays almost no role whatsoever in Stoker’s Dracula: Stoker’s Dracula assimilates the “Turk” to the various white invaders of his, Dracula’s, native soil (Wallachian, Saxon, Austro-Hungarian); meanwhile Stoker “Orientalizes” Dracula himself despite his (Dracula’s) past life (lives?) as an anti-Ottoman freedom fighter.

Transylvania, Dracula tells Jonathan Harper, “was the ground fought over for centuries by the Wallachian, the Saxon, and the Turk.”

Why, there is hardly a foot of soil in all this region that has not been enriched by the blood of men, patriots or invaders. In old days there were stirring times, when the Austrian and the Hungarian came up in hordes–men and women, the aged and children too–and waited their coming on the rocks above the passes, that they might sweep destruction on them with their artificial avalanches. When the invader was triumphant he found but little, for whatever there was had been sheltered in the friendly soil. (Bram Stoker, Dracula, p. 22).

In other words, Dracula was a rock-throwing Transylvanian nationalist ready to fight a vampire-and-peasant intifada against any invader who dared set foot in his lands.

Which is why Stoker gives him the physiognomic treatment reserved for Oriental nationalists:

The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years (p. 18).

Interestingly, Stoker gives a much longer description of Dracula’s physical appearance but pointedly (so to speak) omits a description of the Evil One’s eyes.

All in all, Stoker’s Dracula sounds like the spitting image of PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat. Look for yourself. Stare closely into those eyes…A little closer….a little deeper…enter of your own free will into a single binational state in historic Palestine granting equal rights to all….

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Photo credits: Wikipedia

Right. Obviously, they’re not going to give the game away by opening their mouths.

Clearly, there are dissertations waiting to be written here: Dracula and the Ottoman OtherStok(er)ing Orientalism, (Jonathan) Ha(n)k(er)ing After British Imperialism, and so on. My only regret is that I can’t write any of them. But obviously, some have, and more power to them. Read them, the tenure-seekers of the night. What music they make!

Happy Halloween.

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