Sunday, November 5, 2017

Reclaiming Halloween

Somewhere in my parents’ photo archives there is a picture from when I was about 7 years old and my brother was 5. We are dressed up in costumes. I had a large box over my shoulders, with hand drawn buttons and stuff. I’m pretty sure I was a robot, but maybe a computer. It is hard to tell - my artistic ability wasn’t top notch at that age. My brother has a mask made from a paper bag and a printed frog face. I believe it was a promotional thing at the grocery store in our neighborhood. To go with it, he had aluminum foil on his arms, legs, and body, and a cardboard sword my mom made. I remember that he was a “Famous, Fierce, Fighting Frog.” (My mom was and is skilled at wordplay, including alliteration.)

We were dressed up for Halloween, for trick-or-treating. I remember this specifically because it was a year I really worked on my costume. (We never did commercial costumes - that wasn’t in the budget. I still love the idea of using creativity rather than lucre.) I also remember it because soon afterward, my family stopped trick-or-treating all together. For a couple of years, we did “harvest festivals” at a church. Then we stopped that, and my mom just bought candy for us to enjoy. Eventually, as we got older, that went away too, and we just spent Halloween with the lights off and the curtains closed, ignoring any kids that came to our door.

There were a couple of reasons why we did this. The first was the 1980s panic about tainted candy. (Good lord, the 1980s were full of panics, moral and otherwise…I think I have spent a lot of my adult years deprogramming from all the crap I was taught that stemmed from these panics.) Unsurprisingly, the panic was based nearly entirely on a myth. (And the one documented poison was the murder of a child by his father looking to collect life insurance - not a stranger.) Yep, “alternative facts” are nothing new.

But the other reason was based on a panic of a different sort. A moral panic. Despite the previous generation’s enjoyment of the whole trick-or-treating experience, the 1980s brought with them the beginning of the Culture Wars™, and that meant a new focus on cultural separation from the unwashed masses, and the discovery of a demon lurking behind every door. And that meant that Halloween (which actually has a Christian origin) now became “the devil’s holiday,” and thus verboten. Crucial to the acceptance of this myth in my own family were the tracts by Jack Chick (who among other things, was virulently anti-Catholic). His tracts condemned all kinds of things, from rock music, to belief in an old earth, to Dungeons and Dragons. (The last I realized was false the first time a fellow law student explained the game to me, when it became clear it was mostly nerdy in the extreme.)

My memory fails me, but the latest we would have actually gone trick-or-treating in our neighborhood would have been when I was 9, and it may have ended a year earlier. After that, no more. (My wife grew up even more Fundie than I did, and is younger by a few years, so she too missed out on a lot.)

Now, nothing against “harvest festivals.” They can be fun. I remember a few with cool games and bounce houses and stuff, and going with friends or cousins was a blast. However, I think something is missing compared with the trick-or-treat tradition.

That something is engagement with the community. Even in comparison with my childhood, neighbors do not know each other as well. Some of this is due to the ever-expanding extra-curricular activities that prevent kids from playing in the street like we did. Some is the very way our homes are constructed these days, with everyone’s car in a huge garage and nobody out in the front yard. With those changes, it is already harder to meet the neighbors and their kids. The shift from going door to door to a “safe” environment with a more exclusive group is significant, in my view. This isn’t the only cause, but it is a factor in the shift from finding a social group from those one lives next to, to finding it in those with similar theological and political beliefs, from one’s own socioeconomic strata, and often mostly with one’s own race.

The other thing that I think has been lost in the transition is the embrace of the spooky and macabre. One near-universal rule of “harvest festivals,” at least in my experience, is no “scary” costumes. Or, perhaps, no traditional death or terror related costumes. While I do not necessarily chose macabre costumes for myself, and my kids have been all over the map on this, I do think that part of the point of a holiday like halloween is to enjoy some good clean fun at the expense of our fears. I mean, death sucks enough as it is: might as well learn to laugh at it once in a while. Likewise, we defuse our monsters when we make them part of a silly ritual. Humans have done this since the dawn of civilization. If we could not laugh at terror and death, we would be paralyzed by our mortality. On the flip side, it is good to look death in the face seriously too. I am reminded of the many old portraits where the subject has his hand on a skull - a reminder that we all die. So both of these are represented in human culture, in our rituals and observances. We soberly remember our mortality, and make light of it in turn. 

For what it is worth, my kids seem naturally a bit macabre, as evidenced by their love for Neil Gaiman

During our kids’ youngest years, we didn’t observe Halloween. Mostly, when we had infants, we were too tired to want to add yet another thing to the list. We also lived on a busy street, so we didn’t have kids come to our door much at all. Also, I often had a rehearsal that night, so it just didn’t happen. Once life got less crazy, though, we decided to go back to trick-or-treating. Often, with friends. The kids, naturally, loved getting dressed up - and planning their costumes well in advance. My wife is a fantastic seamstress and fabricator, and can make pretty much anything.

Because of what we didn’t get to do, my wife and I have also dressed up for fun. The candy is just for the kids, but there is a lot of fun to be had in going out in costume. I have noticed a lot of parents are doing it these days, which is a positive development. Fun doesn’t end with adulthood, and kids should see their parents let their hair down once in a while.

Along with our decision to have fun trick-or-treating, we also have decided to let the kids have significant discretion in choosing - and creating - costumes. So, one daughter and one son have gone with vampires over the years. My eldest the last couple of years has gone as a Dia de los Muertos skeleton. My wife made me a Victorian outfit - originally used for a party in which we went as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Fun for my wife to create stuff, fun for all of us to wear them.

Basically, we decided to reclaim Halloween. Reclaim it from the falsehoods propagated by Fundamentalism and the Evangelical-Industrial Complex. Reclaim the fun. Reclaim the thrill of safe fear and horror. Reclaim the reminder of our mortality. Reclaim the truth that fiction helps us understand that the real dragons and monsters in our world can be defeated.


This year, we also did something rather different. Our local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce puts on a Dia de los Muertos festival at the Kern County Museum. My eldest daughter has adored the Muertos aesthetic for years, and talked my wife into making her a dress for it last year. (See pictures below.) The date worked for us this year, so I took the kids.

Let me start with a caveat: my parents both grew up overseas (in Mexico and the Philippines), and, depending on where you are, both the Hallows Eve and Day of the Dead celebrations can be somewhere on the creepy/disturbing/superstitious continuum. (My dad and his siblings used to dress up in sheets and flashlights and scare the crap out of people coming back from mass. It runs in the family. His dad used to pull real pranks on Halloween, and he and his buddies would tip outhouses over. He really caught it, however, when he tipped his own over - with his mother in it. Considering my genes, it is a marvel that I am such a square…) How one experiences Day of the Dead does vary, depending on how devout (or superstitious - depending on your worldview…) the celebrants are.

Here in Bakersfield, at least, I don’t find much to object to. One of the ways the festival is financed is through family memorials (“altares”) displayed in a designated area. These were surprisingly (to me) touching memorials with poignant snapshots of what was important to the families honoring their departed. Family and community were central to many of the displays, and I felt a human connection through them, even though all of them were for perfect strangers.

The kids got to paint sugar skulls, and we listened to a local mariachi group, Mariachi San Marcos. (The Bakersfield Symphony did a concert with them last year. They are fine musicians - one of the members used to play in an orchestral group I played in 20+ years ago - and a microcosm of Mexican-American immigration and assimilation, from the elder generation who mostly speak Spanish to the grandchildren who are totally Californian.) My kids didn’t grow up with mariachi like I did. The neighborhoods in which I was raised were predominantly minority, with lots of Latino immigrants. On big occasions - weddings, quinceaneras, etc. - live mariachi bands would be hired. And the whole neighborhood could hear them. It was a beautiful thing. Even though I never did learn Spanish - I know some words, and that is about it - I know music, and mariachi is music.

Although it wasn’t the only reason, one reason I did want to experience Muertos this year was that, in our nation these days, immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, have been in the crosshairs of a reinvigorated white nationalism. Bakersfield is a weird town. On the one hand, we have a large Latino population. (Agriculture is big here, so migrant farm labor, but also, we have many who have been here since California was part of Mexico…) On the other, we had an active KKK well into the 1980s, and we still have certain parts of town infested with white supremacist gangs. We also skew very Republican - the whites at least - compared to the rest of California. Unfortunately, this has meant that many shockingly racist things have been said before and since the election. A number of my Latino friends’ kids have been subjected to racial slurs and threatened with deportation (including kids at school), never mind that their families have been Californians longer than many of the creeps threatening them.

So I wanted to show a little solidarity with the local Hispanic community. My kids mentioned that we were the only white people there. That wasn’t really true, but we were in the, ahem, minority. I think it was good for my kids to experience that. (Hey, I grew up that way…) Experience of other cultures is good for everyone. Also, street tacos. Need I say more? Okay, tamarind sodas. Which my kids love almost as much as street tacos with all the goodies. Dang, they were good! I pity the poor folk elsewhere in our country who do not have access to street tacos.

Anyway, also Aztec dancers, traditional Mexican dances, plenty of people in imaginative costumes, and a fun afternoon.  


I know our parents, like most, were acting as they thought best. The sad thing is that in so many areas, from the horror of Halloween to the cults we suffered through in our teens, the decisions were not based on sound evidence or an embrace of Christ’s radical message of love. Instead, they were based on fear, which is the opposite of love. It has been sad - and sobering - to realize that pretty much everything negative from my childhood - and even long afterward in dealing with my family - that I look at seems to be rooted in this fearful cultural Fundamentalism. So many avoidable conflicts, lost opportunities, and so many hours spent in needless worry. It makes one wonder what might have been. Fear is a powerful motivator, particularly when it is a fear for one’s children combined with a call to “purity.” It so quickly becomes a fear of contamination by “undesirable” people. (See e.g., the last election…)


I won’t duplicate all of this, but an Orthodox Christian blog has a fantastic set of articles on all things Halloween related. When my wife and I started seriously reexamining our beliefs after the kids were born, this was a crucial resource in understanding just how much modern Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism has engaged in historical revisionism.


Pictures, of course:
Fritz, 2017. Costume by my amazing wife.

 The kids, 2016. Lillian as a penguin (costume off the clearance rack), Ella as a Muertos girl (costume by Amanda, makeup by her friend Marina), Cordelia as a vampire - she is my macabre child (costume by Amanda), Fritz as a mad scientist (costume cobbled together from stuff we had), Ted as Uglydoll "Wedgehead." (Costume by Amanda.)
The kids, 2015. Cordelia as a Dalak ("Exterminate!") (costume by Amanda), Ella as Princess cat ears for reasons I forget (costume by Amanda), Ted as Wedgehead (Costume by Amanda), Fritz as an explorer (a rare commercial costume - it was on clearance...), Lillian as Anna from Frozen (costume by Amanda - her Disney princess costumes are mostly designed freehand by her - did I mention she is amazing?)

Amanda and me, 2016. She made my costume originally for a Valentine's Day party in which we went as Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett (from Pride and Prejudice) - I even shaved the beard down to mutton chops for that occasion.) The hat is from The Village Hat Shop. Amanda is a Tardis (from Doctor Who.) Yes, she made that costume too. And the shawl, which is a fairly accurate representation of the star chart for the northern hemisphere.

Ella in her Muertos costume. I just had to include one of her alone, because the dress and the makeup are so perfect on her.


  1. Our family did some Fundy stuff in the 80s, like joining ATI for a few years, avoiding D&D, and not going to movie theaters.

    But Halloween was always celebrated in our house, and our church even had Halloween parties a number of years. Dad and Mom ran at least one of those, and I can remember in the mid-80s, our church teens made a barn into a haunted house for us little kids. I trick-or-treated at least into 10th grade (when I dressed up in a dress and old lady wig, and went as a teacher, waving a ruler for discipline. I don't remember my parents having any problem with me as a guy wearing a dress for Halloween. Probably that would be frowned upon today).

    And Jack Chick was banned in our house. Dad hated his focus on fear rather than love.

    1. Yeah, I suspect people would totally freak out in most churches if you went in drag these days. My parents still have Chick tracts hanging around their house, which makes me wince, but raising parents is hard...

  2. Halloween isn't as big here as it is in the US, but its popularity is growing and more and more people are getting into it. The churches here don't seem as vocally opposed to Halloween as some churches over in the US. Most opponents dislike it because they see it as yet another American Invasion thing and so very UN-Australian.

    Amazing costumes!

  3. Your wife has made some pretty awesome costumes.

  4. Regarding Día de los Muertos...
    I would encourage you to do some research into the ways that white people have been appropriating the aesthetic. It isn’t wrong that your daughter finds this beautiful, these traditions are beautiful. But I’m surprised that you’re unfamiliar with the outcry over the last few years regarding white people dressing in La Catrina & sugar skull Halloween costumes. No one is saying not to join in the Día de los Muertos celebrations, but Halloween falls on a different day & no one should ever wear another person’s culture as a costume.
    I’m writing you this because I believe you will take it to heart, & I know you do your research ;)

    1. I am aware of the controversy, and of cultural appropriation in general. My conclusion is that it is complicated, and many decisions come down to balancing competing benefits. To a degree, some amount of appropriation is necessary to my secondary job - music. Music is by nature a cross pollination, and one cannot simply avoid playing rock or jazz (as a white person) or various folk traditions (and still be a classical musician.) Likewise, I cook outside the European culinary tradition, which necessarily means appropriating cuisine from elsewhere. So I do believe a certain amount of this is necessary to have a global society. We borrow from each others cultures.

      That said, where I do see a problem is when culture is appropriated in a way that is disrespectful, removed from the original intent, or in a strategically oppressive way. In addition, I have talked to friends who come from Latino (and more specifically those with ties to the pre-European cultures from which Dia de los Muertos originally arose), and those are usually the concerns. We do make an effort to be respectful, learn the original context, and not use other cultures to push the superiority of our own.