To what do we owe the success of Halloween?

October 30, 2020

When the darkness descends on Oct. 31, one can imagine that the electric spirit of Halloween will alight with no less intensity than in years past. As an occasion that is among the most immersive of American cultural traditions, it would be foolhardy to expect the pumpkins to remain unlit. The underground parties will go on, the flying witches will dangle from their flower baskets and candy will be scattered to all within lucky reach, no matter what ghoulish virus may lurk in the shadows. The spirit of Halloween is, therefore, one that is as impossible to banish as autumn itself. Its festive mystique, the root of which delves to a profound depth, is such that the whole of the world has proven unable to resist it.

And yet to Vincenzo De Luca, the president of Campania, Halloween may be dismissed as little more than a “stupid Americanism.” The regional Italian politician has expressed this sentiment as part of his insistence for Italians to remain confined to their quarters in the coming weeks, at a time when daily infections in Italy are crescendoing at a rate of tens of thousands per day. While it must be noted that De Luca displays a consistent propensity for brash and imprudent language, there is little doubt as to his belief in his own words.

His disregard for Halloween is, alas, shared among many Italians of his generation. For many among the older generations of Europe, particularly those like De Luca who were born before 1950, the emergence of Halloween throughout Italy constitutes a more sinister and inexplicable development. Its autumnal rites and alien rituals are of an alarming variety, born of an American seed that had been administered like an invasive species into the cultural soil of Italy. It is not merely in Italy, of course, but throughout all the continents that this “Americanism,” this nonsensical whim of the New World, has firmly taken root. 

Regardless of the personal reservations of De Luca, there remains a great determination by many in Europe, particularly in Britain where the presence of Halloween is strongest, to proceed with whatever elements of the holiday are feasible in these days of the coronavirus. This, beyond anything else, testifies to the powerful appeal of the holiday, which those like De Luca cannot understand. Any international success of Halloween is, of course, surpassed utterly by the degree of its universality and cultural ubiquity in the United States. What can we make of Halloween, and the means by which it acquired its present strength?

Naturally, as with many of the traditions that were transplanted to the New World, what has since become a secular festivity was born of a religious parentage. Halloween, deriving its origin from All Hallows’ Day (or All Saints’ Day) in Western Europe, was gradually subjected to the same enhancive treatment as all other foreign traditions that arrive upon the shores of America. In many respects, the greatest talent of this country is its operation as a factory for dreams—to forge something novel and magnificent out of the humblest of customs. 

Halloween had acquired its familiar form by the early twentieth century, fusing with the hallmarks of the northern American autumn to produce something atmospherically tantalizing. It had become a quintessentially American festival, a folklore jubilee to recognize the lengthening of the nights, the chilling of the air and the natural eeriness that accompanies the swift transition from long, hot midsummer nights to November’s darkened barrenness. What further embodies the mythology of Halloween is the thrill of surrendering oneself to the atmosphere—to conceal oneself within a costume, to depart the physical world and plunge into the bewitching realm of ghosts, phantoms and all the beasts of the wilderness. A plethora of sights and sounds familiar to autumn, many of which recall the old pastoral habits of New England, are additionally interwoven into the Halloween script; whether it be expressed through the hay rides, the trundling tractors, the corn mazes or the harvests of pumpkin and squash, Halloween has conjured an entrancing ode which combines both the cultural traditions and innate sensations of autumn.

As the twentieth century progressed in America, a new force began to embrace and expand the celebration of Halloween to every corner of the country. The rise of the middle-class, having swelled with decades of economic prosperity, made good use of its position as the engine of America to drive the practice of trick-or-treating to its present ubiquity. Halloween, in many respects, ascended alongside the dreams and promises of the middle-class. Its most closely associated image is the sight of children in costumes knocking on doors, asking for candy as the dusk transforms to dark. For this image to have been possible required a new standard of living, one which observed a general consumer prosperity as well as the trust of a safe neighborhood of families. Halloween, with its popularization in this manner, rapidly became a symbol of the prosperity of the American middle-class, and with the strength of this image it was inevitable that growing middle-classes around the world would be drawn to Halloween as well.

For a man of De Luca’s generation, in a country such as Italy wherein the prosperous middle-class is a postwar novelty, this love affair is difficult to understand, particularly so because these inexplicable festivities originated in America. Much of this distrust of the New World and its exports is linked to the fading memory of a time in the early twentieth century when the United States was a far less populous and influential force, and when American economic and cultural influence could be relegated by Europe to a more marginal transatlantic periphery. The reference to a “stupid Americanism” thereby relates to this earlier age, one in which a cultural distinction was supposedly maintained between the unsophisticated American and the enlightened European.

Yet America should be proud of what Halloween has become. Its present-day success is demonstrated in the hearts and hopes of the world, having been cultivated within America as the product of a compelling seasonal theme and the popular traditions of the middle-class. And so, the folklore of Halloween will march on to outlive the pandemic. Whether one whisks off to the holiday doors with Jack Skellington, traverses the haunted trails of Sleepy Hollow or witnesses the awakening of Chernabog upon Bald Mountain, Halloween will remain there for us to partake in an all-embracing celebration—one to mark a final warm night before November appears with its frigid onslaught.

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