What started out as pagan tradition rooted in Europe that celebrated the feast of the new year has gradually shifted over time to represent a snapshot of American culture. Destined to yield a large following and consumer market consistently for decades, Halloween at a surface level can seem like just another shallow tradition-turned-profit opportunity that many Americans ignorantly can’t quite let go of. Yet, beneath the sour gaze of Halloween critics, however sound their arguments may be, lies the foundation of a unique social suspension that offers a gateway into expression, social interaction, and healing that Halloween continues to provide. Especially amidst the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic that has induced drastic changes to our reality and exacerbated existing stress, the continued participation in celebrating Halloween allows people to exert control and a sense of enjoyment over their fear through a creative and collective framework. Within a year filled with unpredictable outcomes, mass death, and overall tragedy, an opportunity for escapism arises in the form of Halloween.
As the ongoing battle with coronavirus continues, and with no clear end in sight, the vision of what Halloween looks and feels like will inevitably be different for many this year. The once highly saturated proliferation of Halloween parties, trick or treating, and haunted house attractions face extreme downsizing or outright cancellation. In a time and context where the elephant in the room, COVID-19, still lingers in the discussion of social interactions, the effort required to engage in the Halloween festivities this year may not seem worthwhile. However, Erik Piepenburg from the New York Times lists Halloween activities that are possible under the restraints of COVID-19 by citing, “The C.D.C.’s website provides advice for a “safer, alternative” Halloween, including outdoor costume parties and grab-and-go bags of candy. Streaming services have horror films galore. Haunted drive-through experiences are booming.”
The success of modified Halloween traditions under coronavirus isn’t surprising. Rather, it reveals the charming allure that Halloween uniquely excels at by distracting the masses from the horrors of real life by actively choosing to embrace the fictional aspect of fear. To allow defeat to consume your spirit in the face of the year’s hardships and frustrations is perhaps a way of giving into the loss that has already destroyed so many. However, the continued dedication to joy and imagination, even in modified moments, is a radical act of resilience and self-love.
In my own depth of childhood memories, I can recall Halloween as not only fun, but as the backdrop for my crucial understanding of fear as something that could be processed and eventually controlled. As a little girl, working up the courage to walk through my suburban neighborhood’s home-made haunted houses that reeked of make-shift ketchup blood and the dewy scent of fake-smog machines required bravery, and a thorough understanding of what’s real and what isn’t. Through those brief and exhilarating moments of having conquered something scary, I gained access to a sort of emotional agency that was foreign to a child. Now, in a time where our reality mirrors some of our deepest fears, the search desperately continues for an outlet into processing the collective grief, fear, and stress that this year has posed. Jeremy E. Sherman in Psychology Today’s article, “The Art of Escapism for People Suffering a Reality Overdose” explores the psychology of escapism within society by explaining that, “We humans have a challenge that other organisms don’t have. We are confronted with way more reality than any of us can stomach and we are afforded way more ways to escape it.” Whether consciously or not, we as humans continue to experience pressure to constantly make sense of and work through the problems of the real world through creative outlets, often rooted in tradition and a sense of community. While our collective morale may have reached new lows, why not take a breather while still maintaining safety precautions against COVID-19?
Halloween has historically united and fostered a limited time frame of creativity and acceptance that would otherwise disrupt the status quo. For individuals experiencing the effects of the pandemic’s emphasis on isolation, engaging in Halloween activities this year is an opportunity for expression and connection within a lighthearted context rooted in tradition and community, which could be the mood-booster that would mentally help many as they endure the last months of a grueling year. Charlotte, a 31-year-old Public Relations manager based in the United Kingdom, told Eleanor Segall for Metro that “Halloween provides escapism and within that you can express aspects of yourself that you might otherwise hide. It’s okay to be different.”
An avid Halloween participant and Horror lover, fourth-year Britni Delgado, is also determined to continue her Halloween plans — with modifications. “I still want to celebrate Halloween but by following COVID[-19] guidelines. I think even with COVID[-19] going on, we can still find ways to celebrate holidays. For example, I’ll be staying inside to watch Halloween movies and bake cookies.” Even under different circumstances than prior years, members of our community are still innovating ways to continue the enjoyable aspects of Halloween, as a way of validating our yearning for joy and comfort that feels distinctly familiar amidst times so strange and unprecedented.
Regina Hansen, a researcher of supernatural film and literature at Boston University, offered Amy Laskowski of BU Today the following explanation for the dedication to all things that go bump in the night by saying, “Stephen King once said that horror is a way to face death. It’s an existential thrill, a way to laugh at death and be fine afterwards.” Maybe Halloween 2020 offers people with just that: a much-needed, ironic, and vulnerable experience of choosing to craft your own happiness wherever you are. Through the last grasps at normalcy, exploring the weirdness and scary parts of life on your own accord, for one night, may hold the breath of fresh air that a suffocating culture desperately needs.
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