After observing a Long Island home that was decorated with bodies hung by their necks on tree branches during October break, I was reminded about how desensitized our society is to violence and death. If a neighbor constructed a grueling massacre scene in his yard during April, there would be probable cause for suspicion and alarm. But it is acceptable—and encouraged—in October to display blood, gore and scenes of brutal death right on one’s own front lawn. These decorations bring a dark meaning to the word “festive.”
Halloween themes can arguably be defined in three broad categories: innocent autumn fun, supernatural legends and bodily horror. Innocent autumn fun celebrates the fall harvest with jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples and homemade costumes, while supernatural legends entertain the existence of witches, demons and ghosts. Bodily horror brings Halloween traditions to uncomfortable and disturbing heights with depictions of death, torture and disfigurement.
This is not necessarily an argument against contemporary Halloween’s portrayal of violence. Rather, it is a critical analysis of how—and why—people can celebrate this imagery for one special month out of the year without recognizing the implications of their behavior.
The cherishment of Halloween and horror films suggests that our society has a fascination with death. Experiencing loss in our lives impacts our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and what happens to a person’s consciousness after they die is one of the few phenomena we are still scientifically—and religiously—unsure about. To soothe the cognitive dissonance of facing one’s mortality and unknown afterlife, death is cultivated into a form of entertainment.
The popularity—and consequent media controversies—of crime documentaries such as “Making a Murderer” and “The Killing of JonBenet” exemplify the easiness with which we can blur horrible reality with callous entertainment. This entertainment goes even further with haunted house attractions, as some—such as McKamey Manor in San Diego, California—require a signed waiver in order to physically assault, mentally abuse and traumatize guests all in good fun and in the spirit of Halloween.
During Halloween, we subject ourselves to explicitly violent imagery that we often forget is a reflection of true events—and true loss. And these depictions can have an emotional impact on those who do not wish to participate in them.
Fascination with death is not necessarily a bad thing, but we can be critical of how this fascination is executed during Halloween festivities. We should question when and at what point is displaying and cultivating graphic violence an appropriate expression of this fascination. This behavior borderlines appreciation for and celebration of brutality and murder, rather than of an innocent pagan holiday marketed toward children.
Halloween isn’t the sole reason our society is desensitized to violence. Simply watching the news and witnessing war and tragedy from all over the world contributes to lessening our sensitivity. Halloween, however, is the unique time when we outwardly—and very publicly—express this desensitization on a large scale.
The juxtaposition of people mourning local and global tragedies one day—and then engaging in simulated brutality for entertainment the next day—is particularly troubling. It seems as though we are not self-aware of our own actions and behaviors during Halloween and how they reflect our beliefs and morals.
Having a colorful imagination and being festive during this time of year isn’t inherently wrong. But we might want to think twice before scattering fake amputated limbs on our porches and splattering blood on our driveways. This imagery is rooted in real violence, and those who do not wish to experience Halloween in such a disturbing way are barely able to avoid it.