Sacred&Profane: The Living Dead

Forgive me these labored and lugubrious reflections, but the Halloween season this year has me particularly spooked.

There are ghosts and graves in the yards of my neighborhood, and the number of skeletons—reclining on lawn chairs, sprouting up from the ground, beckoning from the shadows—has transformed the suburban landscape into a set for a George Romero film.

In addition, and beyond bland suburbia, monsters, ghosts, skeletons, vampires, and other playful dead inhabit stores and sell products, entertain across the television dial, and instill a dreadfully pleasurable sense of anticipation for the start of trick-or-treating.

My kids want me to go trick-or-treating Friday night, hoping that I will finally come through on a promise I made a few years ago to dress up as Elvis (not the young one, I’m afraid!) and participate in the ghoulish fun of resurrecting and playing with the dead. While I have a predilection for the macabre generally, and tend to be a little too preoccupied with the dead specifically, I am not opposed to the celebratory, harmless Halloween activities associated with dressing up in outlandish costumes, knocking on strangers’ doors, and consuming lots and lots and lots of candy.

/images/managed/Story+Image_gary_halloween.jpgPerhaps at some subterranean, unconscious societal level, as we get closer to the day of electoral reckoning, this year’s presidential campaign has rattled the bones of the dead and awakened the spirits from the past, haunting the living in present times of war, economic turmoil, and environmental crisis. A stretch, you say? Unnecessarily morose, over-determined, overly-brooding commentary that profanes the sacrality of children’s fun and games, you think?

Historians are not usually the life of the party, but history does shed light in the darkness, and the history of Halloween, as most readers here know, is primarily about collapsing the boundaries between the living and the dead. Most accounts begin with Samhain, a pagan holiday that marked the beginning of winter but also celebrated the migration of the dead to the next world.

The pre-Christian Celtic cultures throughout Europe, Ireland, and England understood the period around November 1 as not just a time to bring in the harvest, slaughter the livestock, and prepare for winter, but also to honor the dead—and most especially to ritually assist the souls who had died over the course of the year to move on to another world. With bonfires and sacrifices, feasting and divination, the Celts mingled with their recent dead but also understood the seasonal transition to open up space for the more ancient dead, as well as other manner of demons and spirits.

From these pagan origins on through the Christian conquest of paganism, what we know as Halloween became associated with certain Christian hallowed days, in particular All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. These institutional formalities brought martyrs and saints, angels, and prayers for the dead into the picture, and generally kept the dead firmly in sight, either as exemplars to be followed, in the case of Christian heroes, or, in the case of Christian laity, as still-vital relations to be shown proper respect, or even, as in the case of popular folk traditions, as malicious forces to be guarded against by the living.

In America, what we know as Halloween grew from an amalgamation of these traditions, carried over to the New World by Irish and English immigrants, and tied to autumnal celebrations and activities that would include ghost stories, harvesting rituals, and dressing up in costumes. By the early decades of the twentieth century, so these accounts claim, the holiday became primarily child’s play, and a secular, fun-filled, consumer-oriented, neighborly celebration where the dead were no longer “really” present and potentially dangerous to the living, but rather part of a “pretend” world imagined for the sake of the children, who are naïve about the reality of death and the powers of the dead.

Given this complicated and grave history, Halloween is exactly the right time of year to bring the dead to mind and consider the porous boundaries separating them from living society. How could we do otherwise, even as our children dress up playfully as Grim Reapers, undead zombies, spooky ghosts, and other hilariously adorable creatures, trick or treating as the rays of sunlight at dusk turn into the dark night under the stars and moon?

So now as we enter the homestretch of this long, drawn out, exasperating presidential election, and make the passage into the winter season via the traditional time to remember, honor, and fear wandering spirits, it seems perfectly natural to dwell on the ghostly dead who haunt us today in this political season—what some have labeled the season of the witch. Surely this reorientation to mortal and immortal matters is not surprising considering this election’s campaign cycle has not only resurrected the memory of Robert Kennedy’s assassination in the democratic primaries, but also identified the accidental death of Joe Biden’s wife and daughter in the vice-presidential debate, and finally, unfolded in the midst of a war that has cost many tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of lives on all sides.

/images/managed/Story+Image_gary_halloween2.jpgYet even beyond these ghosts, relevant to our political moment, there are other dead conjured up in the final days of the presidential campaign, previous presidents who seem to speak from the grave as we get closer to voting day—Lincoln, as usual, but also Depression-era and wartime leader Franklin D. Roosevelt, and another American icon likely to grow in ghostly stature through the ages, Ronald Reagan. John McCain’s experiences as a POW during the Vietnam War surely speak to heroism and adversity under horrible pressures, but they do not erase memories of body bags, fallen comrades, and those martyrs missing in action who may be lost forever or whose remains find their way back to the states for final burial.

The prospect of Barack Obama as the first president of the United States with African American ancestry is a thrilling possibility for so many, yet also cannot be disassociated from America’s shameful slaveholding past and the ghosts of so many Africans who died so that slavery might live, and African Americans brutally killed as a result of prejudice, hatred, and injustice.

In our enlightened, scientific age, we don’t believe in the existence of ghosts or spirits or the dead come back to life to haunt, inspire, or teach the living. Halloween is not a time for serious reflection about the presence of the dead in our lives, or obligations owed to them before they move on in their postmortem journeys. Or is it? The presidential election is about life, today, now and especially in the short term. Or is it? What do silly old superstitions and irrational supernatural forces have to do with our children’s enjoyment and the future of our country?

The father in me, the historian in me, and the politically concerned citizen in me all say the same thing: we have to reckon with the dead, sometimes playfully, mostly with lugubrious seriousness, to better understand ourselves, our responsibilities, and our future. Trick or treat?