Halloween, that celebration of the frightening, weird, and wild, recently came under scrutiny by the Los Altos school board, which unsuccessfully tried to ban Halloween costumes in elementary schools under the guise that Halloween is a religious holiday. Other school boards and civic groups across the country have also attempted to eliminate Halloween costumes as inappropriate and offensive.
This effort to ban costumes for whatever reason misses the whole point of this special day. Halloween is the one and only day of the year across the United States where it should be appropriate to turn the world on its head and do the outrageous, ridiculous, and insulting things that are not acceptable the rest of the year. We not only enjoy such days, we actually need them. It is during such rituals of role reversal and simulated lawlessness that we see just what will tear our world apart and how we can safely put it back together again.
On Halloween, the boundaries between good taste and bad, living and dead, fantasy and reality, and humans and non-humans come tumbling down. In the Halloween world nothing is as it seems and everything is called into question. The most basic categories by which we usually order our world collapse on Halloween and for one night the dead walk, beasts talk, inanimate objects come to life, and men and women are interchangeable.
When you join the Halloween masquerade, you contribute your own particular vision to creating a topsy-turvy world. Men can be Superman or Marilyn Monroe. A feminist can become a cheerleader, a scientist can consult a Gypsy fortune teller, and a pacifist can lust after General Patton. The gruesome or disgusting or ghoulish become objects of fun. The sacred is ridiculed. The rogue becomes admirable.
At Halloween, children, like adults, get to try out and therefore control unruly characters or attitudes that may frighten or intrigue them, and they seem to relish and understand the value of this. At any other time, such bizarre reversals or experiences might be terrifying and unbearable. At Halloween they are embraced.
Throughout history and around the world, cultures have created ritual events during which people face those things that can make their society come apart at the seams. The most famous examples are Carnival in Brazil and Mardi Gras in the United States. By highlighting the taboo and antisocial in an acceptable setting, they reaffirm the values of a society's "normal" life.
While Halloween originated in part as a harvest festival and pagan religious activity, we now emphasize the fantastical side, tailoring it to the fears we have about living in our present-day world. Yet Halloween also helps us see that our society is goofy, crazy, fascinating, imaginative, contradictory and ever changing, and that it has the potential to be renewed.