The holiday of Halloween has to be the strangest American export to the world. As globalization facilitates the Americanization of more and more world cultures, Halloween is becoming adopted by more cultures without the faintest idea of what it all means or signifies.
x One of my most distinct first memories of this life aside from some strangely lucid memories of being in the crib, were of going on my first Halloween “trick or treating” down the block of my neighborhood with my mother leading me or holding me up by the hand wearing a bunny costume that she had sewn by hand along with the other young children of the neighborhood. I still remember having tripped and stubbing my toe and coming home delighted with my free bag of candy and nursing my toe by watching the evening local horror host, Igor, on our black and white television. Igor was bald with dark rings around his eyes whose skit was that he had started his own eye bank and was busy extracting an eye from his screaming victim all during the break in this bad horror film.
Americans themselves have little idea of its origins or purpose, but spend more on Halloween second only to the high holy day of consumerism, Christmas. Articles abound concerning the rising market of Halloween at home and abroad with the UK as the second largest market, but also of Halloween’s growing European popularity. The online site for the world’s largest international toy trade fair in Nuremberg, Spielwarenmesse, mentions “Germany’s growing market for Halloween related merchandise and anticipates sales to rise even higher due to the fact that Halloween falls on a Saturday in 2015, also cites Planet Retail for the UK’s 2014 Halloween sales at 414 million EUR”. It also quotes the “National Retail Federation’s 2014 statistic for US Halloween estimated sales as 7.4 billion US dollars with a 7% year on year increase”. Whether this seems to become an evocative case of “life imitating art” with the threat of Halloween’s usurpation of Christmas in popularity as in Tim Burton’s animated feature Nightmare Before Christmas where children’s Christmas presents become hijacked with Halloween toys and decorations or symptomatic of the US’ general 21st century “voodoo economics” where commodities seem to become less and less concrete and more phantasmagorical and solipsistic as in the case of social media. Spielwarenmesse also declares that “the 2015 trend for Halloween merchandise to be the Mexican Day of the Dead or Dia De Los Muertos and the related zombie with costumes of super-hero and pop stars as zombies”.
Whether or not the weather reflects the given pattern of the seasons, the inevitable and the inexorable cycle of cheaply made goods, home decorations, tchotchkkes, toys and party supplies used to commemorate Americanized holidays devoid of meaning or significance where merely time becomes the prime means to create markets and illusory desires for goods that probably would not exist otherwise. The appearance of the season of autumn is indicated no longer by the unreliability of the increasingly chaotic weather but the week after the start of the fatally prosaic obligation of the return to school, all of the shelf display spaces are suddenly cleared and begin to populate with boxes of orange and black.
While the pre-Christian Celtic holiday of Samhain, the festival of the dead, is often cited with unconvincing relevance, the European and English origins of All Hallows Eve (which is conjuncted into Halloween) much like the festival of Mardi Gras which commemorates a folk and popular celebration of excess before the required days of abstinence of the Catholic observance of Lent, Halloween is the day before All Saints Day as observed in the Catholic liturgical calendar and like Mardi Gras, is celebrated in a religious and cultural inversion of holiness and order.
x Admittedly, I take as much or more pleasure in viewing the first appearance of the displays and tableaus of Halloween decorations and themed items in stores than I do the season openings of art galleries which occur around the same time in September. I take particular delight in the fact that they never are quite the same from year to year and in detecting the themes and trends of their depiction or expression of the theme of Halloween for that year. This year I would have to say my favorite purchase at one of the “pop-up” Halloween seasonal retailers that opens in abandoned retail spaces, is a plastic automaton of a “ghost writer” shaped like a realistic incunabula with a feather quill affixed to the text by a magnet that moves as if writing by an invisible hand as the text “speaks” deep within itself random spooky things. In keeping with the German toy fair prediction a local drug store chain has already put out a whole shelf decorated with only items of the Mexican Day of the Dead theme. Given the high demographics for Hispanics in the area now it seems very appropriate. Yet while primarily depicting skeletal imagery, there is no trace of anything particularly frightening; while certainly macabre it is never morbid.There is a more transgressive aspect (which is in itself an underlying theme of Halloween) to Dia De Los Muertos imagery and iconography in its humorous yet tender depiction of skeletons almost mockingly engaging in various occupations or vainly attired in the trappings of wealth and social standing or even with its iconic skulls covered in flowers. The themes of death are stripped of their frightening and menacing aspects and more true to the energies of the zodiac sign of Scorpio, are always paired with themes of regeneration such as the lush offerings of food and favorite substances such as cigarettes and favored liquor of the particular dead honored on the highly creative and sensual altars constructed in homes, galleries or outdoors that are thick with burning copal incense and piles of marigolds (symbolic of regeneration themselves) and purple flowers indigenous to Mexico.
But this does not account for the fact that America does not identify itself as a Catholic country and was initially settled by sects of rather fanatic Protestants who specifically sought to distance themselves from Catholicism and even some German visionary sects that espoused the esotericism of such Jakob Beohme who settled in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia.
x Halloween becomes an excuse to explore and to celebrate the darker and the more socially disowned energies of the zodiacal sign of Scorpio: eros and thanatos or sex and death. Mexico by the way itself is considered a country ruled by the sign of Scorpio and in the esoteric “book” which is a filing cabinet of associations and various kabbalistic correspondences, The Tarot deck, Scorpio is associated with both the Death and the Judgment cards of the Greater Arcana. The Death card as indicative of its meaning, appears roughly in the middle of the 22 Greater Arcana and not at the end which points to the transformative change aspects of death rather than to its finality and likewise the corresponding alchemical stage, the nigredo, is considered an earlier “lesser work” stage while the Judgment card is associated with themes of regeneration. Dia de los Muertos imagery has a tender yet irreverent aspect that takes a fundamental socially sequestered taboo and pushes it to invade inviolate spheres of everyday life and that encourages it to dance and to play with biting mockery of society and that also unexpectedly encourages and celebrates creativity, poetry and song and the visual arts. Ironically it becomes a celebration of life through the recognition of its finiteness and its identities and social positions.
If anything All Hallows Eve refers to the survival of European and clerical paranoid mythologies of the dangerous and contaminating presence and influence of the supposed Satanic gatherings of witches called Sabbaths (which term also reflects their paranoid fears of the Jews) that likewise took place on the eves before often holy days of the Church.
Another treasured childhood memory of Halloween involves my mother who was an accomplished violinist and teacher who took me out on the front porch one Halloween with her violin and a cassette recording of Saint Saens’ Danse Macabre and played the solo violin part beautifully to my rapt delight and for the night filling it with an eerie enchantment. Saint Saens’ famous work was typical of the Romantic Movement which revived the myths and superstitions of the past as inspiration in service of its tenets of emotional feeling and of the sublime, and was also heir to the late 18th century’s development of the Gothic novel, which was one of the greatest developments of the horror genre in the West. Danse Macabre was originally composed as a tone poem to accompany an actual poem recitation was based on an old French superstition concerning Halloween where Death personified arose at midnight and plays the violin and caused the dead to dance in wild abandon the whole night. It is truly a tone poem and must be one of the most evocative and picturesque pieces in classical music. It begins with a soft chiming of the clock at twelve and immediately after a tapping sound of the bow hitting a tombstone strikes an eerie and unsettling chord known of as a “tritone” or even as the “Devil’s chord” and launches into a rushing swirling melody of a madly unhinged yet plaintive waltz alternating with xylophone sections evocative of skeleton bones knocking. Its title reinvoking the late medieval unsettlingly macabre and morbid allegorical iconography whose depiction of personified Death leading figures of all classes of society in abandoned ring dances of death, Europe’s scarring memories of the Black Death even appearing as shockingly depicting and almost delighting in vividly gruesome imagery of rotting and putrefying corpses on funeral sculpture and monuments which became characteristic of the fevered pitch and last decaying gasp of the Gothic style whose morbidity would all but disappear in the Renaissance. Whether these mad dances actually occurred in the midst of the plagues, their depictions survive in much late Gothic iconography and it is said even inspiring the English nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie”. I did notice in this year’s Halloween decorations an electric candle printed with a medieval Dance Macabre engraving.
Such paranoid and frequently lurid fantasies were more than likely drafted, devised and authored by members of the Catholic Church itself and its Inquisition that were very effective in spreading fear and terror over religious divergence from established Church doctrine as well as spreading divisiveness, fear and suspicion amongst the people thereby making them much easier to control and to oppress. Such is mankind’s oldest cheap trick of power, divide and conquer. Such narratives of paranoia focused on the disowned qualities and the marginalized aspects of culture that especially included sexuality, the feminine aspect and difference. Such mythological narratives of the contaminating influences of “Evil” in the form of witches or of the practitioners of magic were formally adopted and inscribed into the canon law of the Catholic Church with the papal bull of Pope Innocent VIII, the Summis desiderantes affectibus, in 1484 shortly before the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain and the “discovery” and subsequent colonization of America. Such fictions masquerading as truth became increasingly paranoid and were perfect examples of cultural “texts” that subvert and unravel themselves as the futile attempt of the official totalizing overarching narratives of the Sacred and of Religion that devolve into a Manichean dualism where the delineation of Evil becomes more obsessively attractive than that of the Good. As stated in the Siva Sutras, “notions of good and bad are but mere ‘Boogie Men’ used to frighten those who are terrified of life itself”.
Suddenly your expectations for synthesized wholesome perkiness if not tranquilized droning remixes of pop music hits continuous background music for your life as consumer in the quintessential American setting of the shopping mall are subverted by eerie and menacing soundtracks for horror films, full of creaking doors opening, cat’s hissing, ghouls groaning, wolves howling, chains rattling and witches cackling, and that also betrays its Chinese production origins (along with most of the other goods in the mall) by including less occidental sonic references of the macabre such as ghostly notes on a bamboo flute. The stumbling groaning revenants of aspects menacing and terrible slowly proceed in their promenade down the open sky-lit glass roofed atrium of the mall a la George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead. Drooling hideous effluvium, heading towards the empty stage and the press photographers, stumbling up the steps onto the stage to the shouting of the throngs of their loving suburban fans, straining to accept their awards from the perky, wholesome yet immaculately dressed news anchor for America’s New Popular Heroes.
The perversions of creativity of these official paranoid narratives of contaminating Evil become more ironic and complicated as shown in the fascinating history of the spread of forbidden texts on magic and sorcery in Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books which delineates how works on the esoteric sciences of magic, both astral and “necromantic”, and alchemy from the Hellenistic world survived by being transcribed and translated by Arabic scholars in their thirst to preserve the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient and Classical world and who quickly benefited from that endeavor by developing a much more advanced civilization in science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and in various technologies than the Christian West which was initially seemingly content to let the wisdom of the Classical world fade into obscurity as dangerous pagan knowledge and who were also all too quick to destroy any text that dealt with the esoteric or with magic.
The current fascination with the reanimated corpse of the zombie in American pop culture has already spawned numerous manifestations ranging from shallow sensationalist rewritings of American history and literary classics to prime time television shows featuring zombies or zombie hunters as prime characters to popular “zombie walks” where the public is invited to dress as zombies and invade city streets and act out their favorite undead characters. Needless to say, the comparison of the zombie to consumerism is only too apparent. But it is in Haiti where the figure of the zombie first emerges in the West, not as a brain-craving reanimated victim of a virus much as Ebola was first portrayed in the media, but as a victim of a dark sorcery binding spell and a powerful drug administered in a powder. Scholars have commented on the phenomenon of the zombie as an almost culturally internalized manifestation of slavery since in myth their mindless victims were conscripted into slavery through their sorcerer “master”. It was rumored that the infamous “Papa Doc” Duvalier was even skilled in this craft and form of intimidation. Yet the zombie is also ruled by the spirit deity or loa of the Baron Samedi in the pantheon of creative syncretism of Hatian Voodou. Zambi or Nzambi is the name of the Supreme Deity in Congo indigenous religion much of which was brought by slaves to work the plantations of Haiti and syncretised in the new cultural context. The figure of the Baron Samedi (also called Papa Gede) is representative of such creative creolizations in his skeletal appearance attired in the top hat and tails of the French bourgeoisie; he is more representative of the dual aspects of Scorpio and closer to the pre-Colombian syncretic imagery of Dia de los Muertos than the ghastly morbidity of European dance macabre iconography. Probably the most representative figure of eros and thanatos, his funereal and cemetery associations are sharply contrasted with his ribald humour and phallic imagery. While connected to the dark necromantic sorcery of zombie-making, he is also seen as a figure of justice, healing and a lover of life and of women and children. The Catholic liturgical feast of the dead on November the 2nd is also connected to his commemoration and the whole month of November is dedicated to his minions and companions the zombie-like Gedes where people embody these figures and wander around aimlessly in groups with white powder on their cheeks and cotton in their nostrils. The well documented Brooklyn based Haitian voodoo priestess, Mama Lola, while most practitioners have a deity that particularly is connected to them (like an ishta devata), “Everybody got Gede. Everybody!”
Yet it was in the early medieval frontiers of Europe that had contact with the Muslim world like in Spain or in Constantinople which became centers of translation where these books of magic slipped into circulation alongside the Classical works of philosophy and science that was to fuel the development of the early European universities and the development of Scholasticism in Catholic theology. While known for its dreaded Inquisition, Spain was where the possible late Hellenistic or early Roman treatise on astral magic, the Picatrix was translated from Arabic into Spanish and where its early medieval more enlightened ruler, Alfonso the Wise helped to create one of Europe’s first universities in Salamanca along with his multi-cultural court to be a center of cross cultural scholarship where Muslim Jewish & Christian scholars would exchange knowledge. Incidentally both cities of Salamanca and Toledo (another center of cross cultural translation) have local myths (and are both actual archeological sites today) of caves where the Devil himself was supposed to have instructed students in black magic or necromancy. Salamanca’s cave was supposed to have been located underneath in the crypt of a chapel to Saint Cyprian an early Christian saint and martyr from Antioch who in popular legend was an accomplished magician and sorcerer who had traveled and studied magic in most of the great centers of the ancient world who had converted to Christianity in part because of the powerlessness of his magic over a virginal Christian woman he had been commissioned to attach magically. There eventually spawned a whole genre of grimoires or magical instruction books supposedly written by this St. Cyprian. This mirrors another greater genre of grimoires whose authorship was attributed to other Church bishops and even to select Popes such as The Sworn Book of Honorius, who were thought to be able to command hoards of demons in their magical practices. The scholar of medieval magic, Richard Kieckhefer goes so far as to claim in his book Forbidden Rites that “many of the notorious grimoires of necromantic or diabolic import in circulation in the medieval era were authored or copied by members of a ‘clerical underground’ who were some of the society’s few literates, but who were poorly schooled, supervised or paid yet who also had access to church rituals of exorcism and banishment”. As the criminalization of magic by the Church in the High medieval period despite the probable fact that many members of its clergy were practitioners of black ceremonial magic or at least distributors of its texts, magic’s criminalization became linked with heresy or religious non-conformity and led to an escalating campaign of censorship and of the extermination of difference. The obsession with the elimination of the perceived contaminating influence of witches which fueled Inquisitorial crimes against humanity was by no means limited to the Catholic Church and likewise spread throughout Protestant Europe and to the New World and to the small but self-righteous Puritan community of Salem where the narratives of intolerant religious conformity and purity danced the dragon’s dance of dualism, of endlessly chasing its own tail, where purity cannot be content in and with itself and seeks a scapegoat on which to project its own fears and disowned or rejected qualities. Halloween is thus the only holiday dedicated to just such a scapegoat, the witch, and it’s supposed lewd and infernal holiday on All Hallows Eve in which it supposedly seeks to undo the dominant narratives of the sacred, which makes the assumption that they were just as dualistic as the Christians were and whose beliefs could only exist as a narrow form of negation.
The strange inexplicable phenomenon of the pleasures of being scared has fueled escalating horror and Halloween industries of film (which has always had a strong horror genre since its inception), books, costumes and décor and has produced the site-specific, interactive theatrical installation of the “Spook House”, labyrinths devoted and designed to produce an intimate and unexpected encounter with fear and fright and its consequent production of endorphins much like the thrilling and disorienting ride on a roller coaster. This desire to be scared for its own sake seems to have a fatal redundancy in America and today’s world, public shootings in schools, malls and in movie theatres, terrorist bombings and attacks and violent criminal invasions make Hollywood and television’s escalating struggle for more and more frightening and shocking images, scenarios and plots that devolve into baser, more crude devolutions into barbarous atavistic slaughter for its own sake and splattering viscera just as the addict craves more and more of its fix that wraps the tendrils of its binding attachments while decreasing the sensitivity and clarity of the addict who needs more of its consumed commodity to even slightly quell its burgeoning appetites that loses more and more objectivity or detachment and that merely settles with cruder quantities of turgid developments replete with poorly wrought vulgar barbarisms that are needed to produce the same sensations that once a more refined or quality could affect.
The great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was a direct descendant of the only judge directly involved in the Salem witch trials who never recanted his decisions and role in the trials. Hawthorne was always haunted by his association with this hysteric travesty of justice and religion and even added a “w” to his name to differentiate his from his ancestor, John Hathorne. This dark karmic stain on family and country, resulting from the escalated paranoid theatrics of the omnipotent agents of Satan disguised in the midst of their Puritan community inspired many of Hawthorne’s works set in local history with foreboding and oppressive cultural atmospheres such as his masterpieces, The House of Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter. It was his story “Young Goodman Brown” later published in his collection Mosses from an Old Manse that most directly addresses and almost parodies the Puritan obsessive paranoia of Satan’s minions disguised in their midst where the young Goodman insists on leaving one evening his young wife to take a walk in the woods alone where he overhears a strange gathering reminiscent of the notorious witches Sabbath of All Hallows Eve and where he recognizes many upstanding citizens in the strange and sinister revelry and he actually recognizes the voice of his own newly married wife. While Hawthorne’s Puritan past haunted him and led to the inspiration for much of his literary output, the prolific Puritan apologist, writer and minister Cotton Mother who frequently attempted to justify Puritan identities and history with specious Biblical comparisons was also an effective demagogue whose many inflammatory and polemical works such as his book Wonders of the Invisible World significantly influenced the paranoid suspicions of witchcraft as well as the actual proceedings of the Salem trials by histrionically localizing the fictionalized cosmic battle of the instruments of Satan who seek to overthrow the righteous reign of God’s kingdom on earth in Salem through the infernal contagion of witchcraft. Yet it is a strange irony of history that this same unrepentant witch-hater Cotton Mather, who went against prevailing superstition, read English medical journals and decided to inoculate his own sons against smallpox which non-intuitive process must have seemed like infernal witchcraft to his Puritan neighbors of injecting some of the very same “contagion” into his sons in order to cure the same disease which must have seemed like the occult cures of the esoteric doctor of Germany, Paracelsus, who famously prescribed treating a battle wound by finding and treating the weapon guilty of effecting the wound.
One has the choice this year to celebrate Halloween by living out your worst fears of social and cultural collapse through the combination of sensationalist dystopic film and spook house by attempting to survive the “maze” designed at Universal Studios that mimics the sets of the film The Purge that does not resort to the supernatural to generate fear, but simply escalates current social trends in the US to imagine a society so overrun by crime and social unrest and overpopulation that the government allows for annual “purge” days where violent crime and murder is allowed to go unpunished.
While Halloween is heir to America’s dark manifestation of the pan-European hysteria of witch hunting and the persecution and futile attempt at the extermination of occult texts and their practitioners, it could also be accurate to say because of its association with the darker aspects of Scorpio (which could be considered the most “disowned”, shadowy and the most secretive sign of the zodiac) that it is the most tantric of holidays. The pan-Indic religious and cultural phenomenon of tantra while still not fully understood as far as origins and motivations and whose study still works to separate itself from the cultural projections and moralistic judgments of colonialist scholars of the previous century, its eponymous texts or tantras of both Buddhist and Hindu religious contexts represent the fullest spectrums of associated religious, philosophies and or theologies from the most transcendent, monistic and ultimately supportive of traditional Hindu and Buddhist spiritual aims, or the most radical antinomian departures or to a fraction that have no apparent spiritual aims and that are virtually indistinguishable from the medieval grimoires in their pursuit of occult power through the most powerful if dangerous and diabolic of sources, but whose texts, little historical record reveals evidence of any systematic attempts at their destruction and attempted elimination. In general, tantric themes and iconography have the same preponderance of themes of eros and thanatos as does the sign of Scorpio, more than likely because of the Saivite mythic influence in both Buddhist and Hindu tantra, and it is also true of a majority of tantric traditions that non-duality itself rises to priority as the cause of ultimate liberation, and duality of any kind including the duality inherent in conventional morality, becomes the prime cause of bondage in tantric thought and practice. Also tantra critiques the compartmentalized approach to spirituality of conventional religion and views it as hypocritical and delusive and recommends instead an immersive and yogic approach that incorporates all aspects of life onto the spiritual path, especially those culturally disowned and shadowed aspects and liminal spaces of life that tantra uses the energies of their supposedly unspiritual emotions of desire and fear and tends to emphasize the interstitial aspects or the breaks in the totalizing cultural narratives that have the most powerful potential for practice and for realization and that almost delight in the invasion of the most profane and frightening with the most sacred and profound.
While there is every indication that Halloween is actually an American, early 20th century, suburban development, there is something mythic and spiritual in children masquerading in costumes going begging for candy like strange and ghoulish mendicants with the threat in the very name “trick or treat” that tricks would be played on the homes that did not provide treats which is what happened in the more rural areas. My grandfather even admitted to me that he and friends had actually stolen an outhouse and put it in the lobby of a bank on Halloween. Yet the holiday has always had an ultimately elusive quality to it that seems to fade as soon as it appears. For all of its latent magic of the evening, I have always seemed more a spectator than a participant in its masquerading revelries, either under or over dressed, frequently inappropriately so, and I have never planned ahead of time at all for a costume. I loved being in New Orleans (a city actually under the sign of Scorpio) for Halloween which seemed like a smaller private and more macabre Mardi Gras with its own parade whose spectators seemed to include spirits and its voodoo altars spontaneously constructed in Congo Square. The coincidental conjunctions of the separate feast days for all the saints and for all the dead consecutively on the liturgical calendar , besides even implying a certain anonymous promiscuity to them, becomes a convenient opportunity for less oppressively dualistic and fatalistic indigenous beliefs to syncretise just under the threshold of suspicion in the colonialist religious narratives. Halloween occurs while the sign of Scorpio is at its apex and it is easy to see why its deep Plutonian energies were incorporated by the alchemists in their myths of transformation, having seen engraved talismans on gems of Italian renaissance alchemical enthusiasts that were inscribed with the sign of Scorpio. Yet as soon as the revelry ends on the morning after, almost like the ending notes indicative of the dispersing revelers with the cock’s crow of the breaking dawn in Saint Saens’ Romantic macabre piece, it seems that the spell of the season is instantly broken no matter how much time or money was put into its celebrations or parties, and time once again seems to rush headlong into the more prosaic seasonal holidays and into the inevitable reckonings at the end of the year.
© Paul Smith, 2015
All photographs provided by Paul Smith
Nathaniel Hawthorne from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Hawthorne
Zodiac Sign Scorpio from: http://www.futuresobright.com/article/242-astrology-of-the-scorpio-star-sign/
The Purge poster from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Purge