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What Halloween Can Learn from History

What Halloween Can Learn from History
Michelle Brock
Assistant Professor of History

Michelle Brock is assistant professor of history at Washington and Lee University and teaches the age of the witch-hunts, history of Medieval, early modern and modern Britain, Scottish history and the British Reformations.

Imagine the following scene: An unruly parade of intoxicated men and women ambles down the street. One man dressed as a priest is singing bawdy songs and making obscene gestures at the gathering crowd. A woman in men’s clothing shouts orders and insults at a nearby man, presumably her husband, who happens to be dressed as a woman. At the front of the group is an older, poorer-looking fellow clad in bright, velvety clothes with a crown on his head. Everyone is drunk and jolly, adjusting their costumes and gorging themselves on sugary treats.

No, this isn’t a snapshot of a fraternity party or a downtown pub crawl on Halloween night. This scene would have occurred throughout medieval and Renaissance Europe as part of the carnivalesque festivals that marked an array of yearly events, including the end of harvest season, the New Year and the countdown to Lent. These popular, raucous festivities depicted a world turned upside down. Beggars played kings, women dominated men, and the laity mocked the clergy in deliberate and obvious inversions of social norms.

Halloween was not born of these pre-modern festivals of misrule. The origins of the modern holiday, as far as we know, trace back to the Catholic vigil observed on the eve of All Saints Day, November 1, during the Middle Ages. Popular lore locates the beginning of Halloween with the Christianization of the Celtic celebration of Samhain, but historians can find little evidence for this claim.

Yet the modern shenanigans of October 31 share much in common with the European festivals from centuries ago. People dress up, inhabit new personas, overindulge in sweets and alcohol, and enjoy time with friends and family. An element of escapism is evident in both celebrations. During Halloween, shy girls become rock stars, adults relive their childhood memories, and everyone imagines unseen worlds through ghost stories and horror films. In both, individuals and communities behave in ways that both invert and reaffirm cultural norms. The key difference lies in precisely who is performing which personas, and to what end.

Above all, and as many scholars have argued, the misrule and inversion of pre-modern carnivals reinforced social hierarchies. The unruly woman or empowered beggar was emblematic of a topsy-turvy world rather than an approved alternative. When the festivities ended, everyone expected order to be restored and the status quo maintained. Peasants and women could have their fun, and then go back to toiling in the fields and obeying their husbands. In short, these performances were not only fun and games; they helped to maintain the established order.

At the same time, many scholars suggest that such festivals also afforded the common folk an opportunity to subvert, at least for a moment, the accepted hierarchy. The peasant mocked the noble in a radically unequal society, and the wife cuckolded the husband in a world where women had few legal and political rights. Taboos were broken and stereotypes were flouted. Although these activities occurred within socially sanctioned channels, they nonetheless allowed the powerless to become powerful, the marginalized to take center stage, and everyone to envision, even in jest, a different world. This performance of ritualized disobedience, however brief, could plant in people’s minds the seeds of resistance and rebellion.

This is not the case during Halloween. More often than not, it is the people in positions of power who play—and mock—the disempowered. One only needs a few minutes on Google to find images of young white men outfitted as “thugs” or in blackface, wealthy college students dressed up as “rednecks,” and people of European descent playing Indian for the night. This year’s costume du jour revolves around Ebola, a disease that, while posing an almost nonexistent threat to Americans, is killing thousands of African men and women.

People will argue that these costumes are totally innocuous, all in good fun. But like the festivals of medieval and Renaissance Europe, Halloween celebrations suggest and strengthen social norms. They reflect and reinforce stereotypes. Unlike the pre-modern era, however, they usually offer no positive flipside, no hidden desire to challenge accepted hierarchies or escape the realities of inequality. When people in positions of power dress up and mock minorities or the poor, they are simply embodying their own privilege and disregarding the struggles of others. This is as socially corrosive as it is thoughtless.

So this Halloween, enjoy the candy and the costumes, the frights and the laughs. Dress up as something fantastical or emboldening, perhaps a zombie, a unicorn or a superhero. But don’t further disempower the historically or presently oppressed. Take a lesson from history—play and performance matter in ways seen and unseen, so make your Halloween fun a force for good.

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