Saturday, 25 October 2014

Unholy Halloween

The name Halloween dates to about 1745 and is of Christian origin, meaning “hallowed evening” or "holy evening”.

It’s Halloween time again – the black costumes, horror masks, plastic pumpkin lights, crazy wigs and vampire teeth are paraded out in the Malls, $2 shops and costume hire places. The great and over-powering market-place encourages us to trick or treat, party and scare ourselves silly with horror movies. Yet to me, this imported marketing (yet another) orgy seems the most transparent of all tired excuses to sell stuff.
In our lovely Downunder Spring, why exactly do we allow the ghouls to come out to play while the booze flows on October 31st  ? And then a week later, why do we light the bonfires and fire off crackers for Guy Fawkes?

Halloween used to be an Autumn festival. Global capitalism has turned it into a consumer junket. Lollies and sweets have replaced the traditional harvest foods of apples and nuts; renting dress-ups and selling liquor bring joy to the vendors and give the consumer yet another reason to party and binge drink. Little children are paraded round the safer suburban streets asking for lollies from their neighbours to feed their sugar habit.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m not at all against getting dressed up and turning one’s neighbourhood into a community.

However what exactly are we celebrating?!

Another anomaly is Guy Fawkes. This celebration is an English custom brought by European settlers to Aotearoa. Festivities fall a few days after Halloween on November 5th – a night of bonfires and crackers. The bonfires are part of older pagan rites that lit fires to honour  the power of the sun’s dying light.
Guy Fawkes was an English traitor, a catholic who was part of a plot in 1605 to blow up Parliament and replace the protestant monarch with a catholic one.

I like a good bonfire and a burning effigy (or two) of political figures seems like a great idea that really should catch on more these days! (In the 1970s I can remember making a wonderful “guy” of Robert Muldoon that we burnt with glee whilst dancing like heathens round the fire.)

However I ask again  what exactly are we celebrating? Blowing up the Beehive? Religious wars? The Victory of the Forces of the Establishment?

Once, not so very long ago we were all much closer to nature and its cycles. Before the electric light (only a century and a bit) the dark night was lit by candles, gaslights and firelight. Their flickering light highlighted the shadows and only kept the dark marginally at bay.
It only took a few generations and now nature has become irrelevant to most city dwellers. We look to the light boxes in our living rooms (TV and computers) instead of the sky, to tell us what weather and season it is. The stars and moon are hardly glimpsed, and only satellites use them to navigate by; seasonal cycles are barely noticed except as selling points for fashion; and thanks to technology and globalisation, we are available 24/7 for working and shopping.

When we lived closer to the planet’s cyclical nature, the holy days – holidays – were festivities that celebrated the seasons and gave thanks for life and light.

Nowadays, we still practice certain holiday rituals and ceremonies, yet they have become hangovers from that time when Nature was a real – not virtual - presence in our lives. The rituals feel empty of meaning, and are used as marketing jingles that reverberate as if in a waking consumer nightmare. Halloween Christmas, Easter – have had their hearts drained away leaving only dead castoff shells from a past faintly remembered. We’re market-led zombies acting out old superstitions that quaintly reek of ‘once upon a time’, but taste of plastic.

Not so long ago, when a majority of people were Christian, the festivals did hold meaning - although the Church (unsuccessfully) attempted to cast out the unholy demons of paganism. Nature‘s gods were far too ribald and rude for the holy men. 

Crucifixion aside, Easter is still named after Oestre the dawn goddess and celebrates the return of the Northern Hemisphere’s Spring. 

The Winter Solstice – or Saturnalia - masqueraded as Christmas (The Mass of Christ), calling for the return of light as the old year falls into the cold dark winter.

Halloween too, is very much older than its name in the Northern traditions. Autumn is well established at the end of October as winter draws in. Once, the gods were propitiated with offerings of food, drink and portions of the newly harvested crops. The souls of the ancestors were said to re-visit their homes, and places were set at the dinner table or by the fire to welcome them. After rituals offered to the gods and the dead eating, drinking and then games would follow. These would include rituals and divination with nuts and apples, especially concerning questions to do with marriage and death.

Bonfires were lit and rituals involving these fires were observed. The flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers as well as being used for divination. The fires were a kind of sympathetic magic for they mimicked the Sun’s power. Fire’s light and warmth feel as if the decay and darkness of approaching cold winter can be held back momentarily, as well as promising the lights’ return in Spring.

Halloween was the time in nature’s year when veils might be lifted between mortals and fairies, the living and the dead.

In Celtic traditions the festival was called Samhain which means ‘summer’s end”. And this was one of the four most important quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar.


The name Halloween dates to about 1745 and is of Christian origin, meaning “hallowed evening” or” holy evening”.

We in Aotearoa actually do a version of Remembering our Dead on Anzac Day. Strangely this is exactly when Nature herself is in tune with this southern hemisphere event. April 25th falls after the Autumn Equinox, as the earth tilts us into the colder season. The dark approaches as we all join forces in honouring our glorious dead who sacrificed themselves for their countries’ sake in those cockiludicrous wars of Empire and Capital. (More on that festival when the time comes.)  

When Death comes to visit, mere mortals feel pretty powerless. We try to keep its icy finger at bay in the best ways we can. At Halloween, the Sun has moved into the zodiac sign of Scorpio – symbol of the dark side. Scorpio time is when our shadow waylays us. Halloween is the time to confront the powers of death. 

When death stalks, we may propitiate, pray, sacrifice, drink ( and other evasive tactics)  – or practice ridicule and humour.
Or all of the above.
Laughter is probably our best and only defence against such a powerful adversary as the spectre of Death. Although eating, drinking and fornicating all perform jolly well too.

So let’s do the Downunder thing and celebrate upside down standing on our heads.
Let Death be king as summer approaches.

Nature after all is not something to be worshipped here in Godzone.
Let’s glorify instead global corporate capitalism that is selling us the American customs.

When we dress up for our Halloween thrills, we turn to ghosts, witches, vampires, ghouls and zombies.

All these creatures are remnants of long forgotten historical realities, but now are embedded in popular culture as stereotypical totems of horror. Unlike Anzac Day where we remember the real ghastly horror of war and death (Lest We Forget ), these Halloween talismans just stand for the thrill of horror, the deathless frisson of the long and forgotten dead.

And yet they hold real power still. Despite the prevailing ethos that tries so hard to make us believe history is unimportant, the past is not a dead thing.
Witches, ghouls -  and all the unglorious undead  - still hold a mythic power that haunt us - yet also vampire-like, suck our culture dry.

Ghosts haunt the living, for ghosts are the dead who cannot rest.
I guess in one way they represent ancestors who cannot find peace. Ghosts must beset the living in their attempts to find restitution for the unremembered sins of the past.

Witches were real people who in their thousands over centuries, were gruesomely tortured and murdered by the Christian Inquisition – one of the earlier European holocausts preceding the 20th century.
If we so easily forget our history, we are doomed to re-enact it.

The current stereotype of a witch is misogynistic – a sly form of women-hating. The warts, the ugliness, the broomsticks are ways of dishonouring older women. Their story goes that wicked witches eat bad little children – mmmm??!
Last time I looked at the facts, it is generally men who are murdering our children. And always has been.

The vampire is grounded in European history, but lives on as myth.

The vampire story has become ever-increasingly popular since the 19th century. When a metaphor takes such deep root, we should recognise its relevance to our lived realities. The vampire myth acts like a cultural mirror.
A traditional vampire is a man who is ‘the living dead’, feeding off human blood - usually that of a female victim. She is preferably young and beautiful and the violation happens at night. So he drains his victim and turns her into his slave, feeding off more fresh blood, wherever it can be found.

Many men are in fact parasites who do feed off women whom they use and abuse. In a wider cultural sense however, young women are drained by a master misogynist culture that sucks their vital life force in many insidious ways.

Whether it be drug addiction, poverty, lack of educational opportunities, terrible working conditions  etc etc, both men and women - for many reasons - do live a bloodless existence in the shadows of the mainstream, trapped in the horror of loveless and meaningless darkness. 

Capitalism itself is a vampire feeding off our natural environment and its ecosystems, squandering and draining the lifeblood of not only humans, but all the other creatures that dwell in the habitat of planet earth.

Ghouls like vampires are the undead who seek sustenance from living human bodies. However, ghouls are ordinary and interchangeable, whereas vampires are intensely individualistic and require solely blood as their life source. At the heart of the vampire idea is emotion, sexuality and desire. The ghouls show no emotion only the hunger for flesh. Ghouls can be dispatched by killing their brains; vampires require a stake to their hearts. Ghouls are a monstrosity of consciousness; vampires of emotion.

Zombies are the walking dead.

Zombies describe a phenomenon I think of as ‘psychic numbing’. I mean by this a mental deadening involving a partial shutdown of emotional responses, denial, repression and apathy in the face of disaster.

I think we as a culture are experiencing extreme psychic numbing.
Every day we are surrounded by a world of man-made ugliness, profound social injustice, sexist and racist harassment, incessant machine noise and increasingly foul air and water.
We live with endemic (hu)man-made horror that is sprayed out through global networks and increasingly numerous and varied, visual portals.
Terror is the new buzzword that our political masters are manufacturing - with the help of a slavish media - for their own ideological agenda.
Not to mention the terror within. The sexually political terrorism of violence against women and children is perpetuated daily in our own domestic backyard, with only the occasional flurry of media interest.
And we seem to have become immune to it.
Like the living dead, we walk in oblivion. 

There seems precious little concerted resistance against the social, political and environmental ills our communities are enduring.
Psychic numbing makes us zombies.

I think one of the contributions toward this psychic numbing is the huge upswing - over the past 30 years - of misogynistic images of violence against women on TV, in the movies, through the internet.  Serial killers, always have female victims; naked female bodies on slabs like pieces of meat in the forensics dept; cops with guns who kill and crate mayhem indiscriminately, yet who play the ‘good guy’/’hero’ role.

There has been a general breaking down of taboos against showing graphic images of sexually violated women’s bodies, all forms of pornography and general objectification of female bodies.
Further to this, is the rise in popularity of the horror genre, the splatter movies, the ghouls, the zombies and particularly the vampire variety.

If we are to endure the world we encounter through our media channels,
anaesthetising our passions becomes a requirement

Halloween seems to have become one big celebration of this psychic numbing.
We turn ourselves out – or dress up our children - as vampires, ghouls, ghosts, spooky witches to celebrate the horror stories of our dead and undead.

Once a holy festival, now it seems to me just one big unholy Hallowed Eve dedicated to the horrors of our humanity gone mad. 
The undead celebrating the dead – can we tell the difference?

Gossips, Gorgons and Crones.
The Fates of the Earth by Jane Caputi.
Thanks to this feminist book from 1993 for the concept of ‘psychic numbing’ as well as ideas about vampires and ghouls.


  1. I have always disliked the commercialism of Halloween and it's misfit to NZ culture (though of recent years less so as NZ had become more Americanised) and I think you have gone a long way to explaining why... thank you Fern, a great article!

  2. its misfit not it's... oh dear god!

  3. When I get " trick or treaters " at my house all they ever get is a lecture about seasonal festivals and a suggestion that they should come back in 6 months!