30 October, 2006

The War on Halloween

Every Christmas, hotheaded demagogues of the American right wing howl their outrage over a purported War on Christmas. Try as we might, those of us in the reality-based community haven't yet managed to laugh them off the public stage.

Meanwhile, many of these same theocrats have declared war on one of the two truly American holidays. While they still tolerate Thanksgiving (perhaps because they think they can turn it into a Christian allegory, Landover Baptist notwithstanding), they have lost their patience for Halloween. At the school where my partner works, teachers sent home permission slips to find out whether parents would let their students take part in Halloween activities, including demon-worshipping activities such as costume-making. Many of the parents refused to give permission. Another associate of mine plays music at a farm where kids go to pick pumpkins and take hayrides. One school that sent a group in the past week instructed him not to play any Halloween music.

Of course it's not just the hard right that has decided that Halloween has gone too far. The city of San Francisco just posted this gloomy buzzkill of a website to discourage revelers from ravaging the charming Castro neighborhood. Or, for that matter, from coming and having a jolly good time. Ostensibly, we can expect that on Tuesday night, the only people who will show up in the Castro will be those prone to disobeying instructions or without Internet access -- just the demographic they were looking for, I'm sure.

What all of this ignores is that Halloween is the closest we have in the U.S. to a glimpse of our collective repressions, our collective id. It is arguable the most important holiday of the year, up there with Thanksgiving as a secular celebration and more important than Thanksgiving in that it provides an annual outlet for whatever urges have built up and gone unexpressed. It is a leading indicator of the culture.

For years, gay and transgender culture was most visible on Halloween. Today, with homosexuality barely raising eyebrows and trans-men and trans-women showing up in broader and broader parts of the culture, we see Halloween becoming a celebration of hypersexualization, especially of women and girls but also of men and boys. I would be interested to hear from others what you think this reveals -- I think it might relate to the ever-widening reach of pornography clashing with our continually prudish sexual norms.

It is also one of the few times people feel comfortable showing how they really feel about, their political leaders -- there are plenty of bloody George Bushes to go around this year, and former New York City mayor Ed Koch used to march in his city's Halloween parade asking attendees his signature line, "How am I doin?" But he was concealed in a costume that allowed people to say what they really felt. The costume: An Ed Koch mask.
This sort of periodic airing of the id goes back to Hawthorne, who traced it back to Puritan times.

The War on Halloween, of course, like the War on Christmas, is mostly in the heads of those of us worrywarts who wish our favorite holiday could pass unmolested, which might in turn imply that the holiday had lost its power -- Christmas had become secularized, losing its power as a religious ceremony, or Halloween had lost its power to shock.

And like the War on Christmas, every word written complaining of the War on Halloween is a more valuable word left unwritten to express dismay at much less figurative, more awful wars over which I might have more control. (Gee, a military assault on a 5-month insurrection in a city that is as close to me as Columbus, Ohio, an assault justified by the death of an Indymedia documentarian of all people. Please tell me why this isn't foremost in my mind. Please tell me why I care about Halloween more than about a hot war close to home, fought with weapons that I paid for with my taxes. Perhaps I am idiot.


Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. I have oft wondered at the big deal made over Halloween in the US. It is not really celebrated here at all, despite the best efforts of Clinton Cards et al. The idea that it functions in a very similar way to medieval festivals of misrule is so interesting - a collective valve for our id, our repressed desires and our fears. We have many more secular and pagan holidays in our calendar - solstice, May Day, Guy Fawkes night to name a few, and many regions up and down the nation have their own festivals that hark back to the tradition of 'misrule' (such as the 'Obby Oss in Helston).

Arguably, we live in a time when self-expression is at its freest, and when the avenues for exploring our identity are manifold (the net being a prime example), so it is intersting to consider why we still find a need to express the darker side of ourselves, en masse, at such occasions as Halloween. Perhaps it has something to do with being social animals at heart, or maybe it is something to do with our collective unconscious, but either way, that forces of conservative authority seek to limit this activity should come as no surprise.

Unlike the lords of the medieval manor, those in authority today seem unable to realise that a controlled expression of such feeling actually strengthens their authority by providing a 'safety vavle' whereby we 'get it out of our system'. It is testimony to their stupidity that they view such activities as threatening, and their nonsense should be treated with the derision it deserves. People seek to repress that which they fear. As I type, I find this saddens me more than enrages me. Sigh.

Perhaps psychology has the answer. I've talked myself in a circle and so will stop!


Posted by Glamourpuss

to me the sex thing has these weird aspects. girlpower in terms of sex seems strongly object-power. desirability, receptivity, opening things. and female power in high society has been measured by the ability to mitigate scandal. so now that people have way more power in general than they know what to do with, girls exploring that power in public might head each other toward bragging that their reputations are invulnerable. i guess i could run with this a little but, eh.

i don't have much to say about pornography as fashion. i didn't think much of fashion before. wake me when the empress's new clothes  climaxes and designer outlets are nothing but tattoo parlors. temporary, of course, darling.

ugly that self-expression goes to fake sex instead of art and doing nice things for people.

on the other hand, it's so true. the devil is everywhere, except the gunship, the bank, and the stock market. we have to fight him or he will make our motives for doing what we want seem impure. we really must not tolerate questioning of our propriety. 

Posted by hibiscus

omg, somebody sent me this link  in the mail like right after i posted that 

Posted by hibiscus

I've been caught offguard by the association of Halloween with the devil. I thought Halloween was a Christian holiday; it's All Hallow's Eve, the day before a prime Catholic feast day, All Saints' Day. I thought Halloween was an affirmation of Christ.

As for the SF approach to the Castro's festivities, I think you are forgetting that we've got an election around the corner. In response to neighborhood concerns, Bevan Dufty made a PROMISE to his constituents that Halloween would not get out of control this year, with reveler's getting knifed on the street. That's why the Po-lice have vowed to shut down this year's party by 10:30. Some of friends who boycott the 'Stro on Halloween are waging bets on whether or not the riot cops will be out. Knives, masks, throngs, and alcohol make for a bad mix (it's one step up from Detroit's Halloween Eve tradition of torching houses). Not a welcome civic event to me, when not controlled.

Finally, on the whole "International Dress as a Slut Day" aspect of Halloween, I do not approve at all. I don't see any empowerment aspect here. I think that there are a lot of girls who are peer pressured into conforming in expectations that they have be sexy in that porn star way for a day. One of my friend's sisters, a size 0, actually steped up her appointments with her personal trainer so that she could look better for Halloween). That they have an option of literally dressing up as a witch or a sexy [insert one of the following: devil, the obiquitous French maid, or most disturbingly care bear ] bugs the shiiiit out of me. Halloween is one of those days that makes me wish that I never have daughters. 

Posted by judevac

Do you know what else I really dislike about Halloween? Those Spirit and other temporary Halloween stores that occupy recently vacant properties, usually older establishments (grocery and book stores) that have lost the Darwinistic commercial race against the Big Box Stores. Ms. Datta  pointed out that the Cody's on Telegraph was now a Spirit halloween store. Ooooh, let's forsake learning, for the cheap disporable entertainment of dressing up like slutty care bears. 

Posted by judevac

Aaaaah, Judevac, my eyes. That carebears outfit is nine kinds of wrong. I guess it could have been so much worse though. /shudder

I don't think I excessively tart it up on Halloween, but I do think there is something to the notion that it's a nice chance to step out of character a bit---whichever way you want. That said, I was actually pretty pleased with the non-bikini-ness of my made up superhero costume, and might try to do more with it as a concept later.

Tonight, though I'm just tired, and it occurs to me that Halloween as a leading cultural indicator gets muddied up by the fact that as an adults holiday, it's only really fun when it falls on some night better approximating a weekend.

As an east bay girl I've always been a bit annoyed that everyone has to tramp out to SF for Halloween--wasting so much effort and energy on being crowded onto BART like sardines. Too bad each town doesn't have its own carnival space for night revelry. In general our cities and towns don't give enough recognition to the fact that we are often nocturnally social creatures---hence much of this bloggery.

As to your last lament, Hedgehog, I don't know. I guess we know that right now there's not much we can do about it, so we think about ourselves. It's understandable if not ideal.  

Posted by Saheli

In general our cities and towns don't give enough recognition to the fact that we are often nocturnally social creatures---hence much of this bloggery. 

Move to New York, the city that never slept until recently.


Posted by saurav

Dude, I miss that about NYC more than anything. It needs to spread. 

Posted by Saheli

Sigh. Just saw the news of last night's Castro shooting. Leading Cultural Indicator indeed.  

Posted by Saheli

Saheli: regarding the Castro Halloween shooting - Halloween in the Castro can be an negative form of civic participation. Instead of coming out to SF in droves to protest the war, or immigrants rights, or not getting screwed by Bush, most people come out for a public party (which I have nothing aganst. Parades and street parties are good). However, there is another element, from my reading of the Chronicle's coverage of the shooting earlier today (they've updated the story, so I can't find the link anymore), where Halloween is an opportunity for homophobes to come into the city to physically bash gays. 

Posted by judevac

So much to respond to! Thanks Judevac, your points are mostly right on. The Castro party basically sucks and is largely negative civic participation. BUT: It's still something that people can do something about. It's not like the war in Iraq where invisible planes on invisible ships go and rend flesh to pulp. Instead, it's real people in our real city. If we got an additional 5,000 cool, involved people to go out and take part in the event, that would probably be enough to tip the balance back to fun.

Bad situations don't usually start out with people pulling guns. Usually they start with a bit of name-calling or pushing. In this case there was also supposedly a bottle thrown. (Not that I believe much of that Chron story -- based on my knowledge of the situation, I'd say the story was incredibly uninformed.) It used to be that when things started turning sour at Halloween, locals would either get involved themselves and pull people apart and cheer people up, or they'd blow whistles which would attract so many more locals -- it was called the whistle brigade -- that any gaybasher or gangbanger would be quickly surrounded by people who were ready to protect their neighborhood.

For whatever reason, the neighborhood residents have abandoned their party and let the negative element take over. This affects not only the level of violence but also the type of costumes. I went through last night and the costumes I saw were mostly super-boring. The same shit we were discussing here -- sexy nurse, sexy care bear, sexy cop, sexy cat, sexy pirate. Both male and female.

Friends and I instead went to the Extra Action Marching Band  show. Holy smokes. Amazingness upon wow. Real sexy!

About the whole vampiness question: I think it's great that women and men let out their inner vamp on Halloween. I wish they'd do it more often. I also agree that the social pressure to be sexy on Halloween is stupid. I've rarely gone for that crap -- last night, for example, I drizzled (fake) blood through my fur, which made it impossible for me to even hug friends without damaging their costumes. Anti-sexy. Again, this is something people can do something about. Mean Girls or no, I know that in my social world, women who choose to dress as something unsexy on Halloween will still get plenty of props. The main thing is to dress up at all.

I totally agree that the disposable aspect of Halloween has got to go. I hate those Spirit superstores as much as I hate how every drug store has to put up an Xmas display by Nov. 27. Again, something can be done: Demand costume supplies year round at your local stores! Cliffs Variety in the Castro carries wigs and boas year-round. Why doesn't everyone? Because there's no frickin demand. We must have more costume parties at other seasons!

As far as the weekend vs. weekday question: just as some people take the day after Thanksgiving off to travel and see family, some people take the day after Halloween off to allow more extreme debauchery. And the fact that 300,000 people a year show up at the Castro -- and 2 million in NYC -- shows that there must be some adults who don't have to get up early.

Finally I agree with Saheli: Cities should be built with festival spaces. The work that went into the Embarcadero plaza for the millennium celebrations was oriented toward making a festival space, and I think it partly worked. Not enclosed enough for my tastes, but pretty good. Mexican cities all have enclosed squares called zocalos in the center of town with a church, a government building and streets. There are also additional churchyards. Both are great festival spaces.

San Franciscans are good at using streets and occasionally parks as substitutes for proper festival space, but it's not the same. One requires interrupting the city's normal flow and the other is too disengaged from the civitas.  

Posted by hedgehog

Hedgie: I was supposed to go to 12 Galaxies for the EAMB show too, but they sold out of tickets. Thanks for rubbing it in my face.

As for your comment about the party being abandoned by the neighborhood residents, I think that you're right. Finch, who lives above Castro on one of the teen-numbered streets, worked from home that day, as to avoid the mess, and took a sleeping pill at 9 to avoid the revelers. 

Posted by judevac

Dude, I miss that about NYC more than anything. It needs to spread. 

Yeah, me too. Not that I ever experienced it.

When I got off the plane in Bombay two years ago, my cousin said "This is a three shift city." New York's "nightlife" may be up until 4 or 5, but it definitely sleeps. And then goes to the mall. 

So much for entertainment in the post-industrial economy ;)

Posted by saurav

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