Every year October 31 rolls around and people crack out their best candy, spookiest decorations, and cutest (read: sluttiest) animal costume.
Halloween is a huge event in America but, in recent years, it’s become more and more of an institution in Australia. There’s a street in my suburb that is so packed full of people on Halloween that you can barely move and the decorations are out of this world. Last year, one of the houses set up a grizzly fake car crash in their driveway.
We all love playing dress up and gorging on free candy, but that isn’t actually what Halloween is about. Chances are, you have no idea what Halloween is about. I know I don’t – I Google the same question every October 31: what is Halloween?
Save your Googling, because I’ve done the digging for you.
The Western world has got one main thing right about Halloween: it is about death. But not in the spooky skeleton and ghost kinda way.
Instead, Halloween is about death in a spiritual way. Specifically, in a Christian way. Halloween – officially called All Hallows or All Saints’ Day – originated in the Christian church as a celebration of all those who had died, particularly those who inspired faith.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, ‘saints’ refers to people who devoted their life to their religion. But in the Protestant tradition, ‘saints’ refers more generally to all believers.
So All Saints’ Day – er, Halloween – is technically a Christian festival to remember the dead. Instead of mourning the deceased, the day focuses on celebrating the life they lived and honouring their memory. Over the years, Western secular society has taken this tradition and made it into a much more literal practice – it’s why people dress up as the dead (ghosts and zombies and undead brides) for Halloween.
Honouring the dead has taken different forms throughout history and throughout different cultures.
The Celtic origins of Halloween, known as Samhain, included giving gifts to the dead. In Mexico, there is the Day of The Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) where gifts are similarly left on graves and the living throw parties to honour the lives of those they have lost.
A festival of the dead seems strange and out of place in a world which is obsessed with finding miracle cures to diseases and denying death in various ways. The origins of Halloween stand in stark contrast to our modern obsession with anti-ageing, life extending technology.
It’s also weird to think that about 30 per cent of the Australian population don’t prescribe to a religion, yet they knowingly participate in a religious holiday every year.
So if we’re a society that is obsessed with prolonged life and rejects religion, why are people so fascinated with Halloween?
I think the answer comes back to the same thing we’ve been discussing all this time: death. Humans have an inherent fascination with death, the afterlife and what lies beyond. You don’t need to believe in a God to believe there’s something more after we die. Or to find skeletons spooky.