Hungry Ghosts and the Real Meaning of Halloween

While considering a friend’s avoidance of trick or treaters I was struck by the essence of Halloween, which has been lost, though the form lives on. It used to be if you didn’t show up at the door with offerings the kids would vandalize your house, but we’re living in a soft age, with no real respect for tradition. So people get to hide out, as if the hungry ghosts can simply be avoided, because they’re all just imaginary, anyway.

This strikes me as a fit premise for a horror movie; “this” being the premise of sophisticated disbelief in the reality of needy ghosts. It’s like disturbing an Indian burial ground. Why is it always an Indian burial ground? Because “Indians” are symbolic of people who still believe in a sort of unbroken chain of duty to ancestors. A chain that has more than sentimental value. Rather, the sentimental value is a reminder of an occult reality of spirit beings, a reality we forget at our own peril.

Or as Thomas Paine describes them in Common Sense: “those feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which, we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life, or enjoying the felicities of it.”

So, the point of fictional “Indians” is to remind us of that sentimental and superstitious part of ourselves; that part that can be possessed by horror at realizing we’ve forgotten to honor the dead. Which is to say, we’ve forgotten to honor the truly human in ourselves.

And that, I think, is what Halloween used to be about. The dead come back, hungry as usual, and the householders pay them off so they don’t fuck shit up. It doesn’t have to just be the dead, but any of the spirits of wilderness banished in one way or another from civilized precincts. Makes sense to dress up kids as these spirits, as these are the malleable subjects most easily possessed by an angry ghost excluded from polite company.

Thinking along these lines it is particularly appropriate that we hold our elections at the start of November, after the ghosts of emails past have made their unwelcome appearance.

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