Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Why Are Americans So Obsessed with Halloween?

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Tomorrow is, of course, Halloween — a day that a lot of people (including myself) have been looking forward to for at least a month, potentially since August, and highly likely since Halloween 2018. I don't have any plans in place just yet, but I know I'll likely gravitate somewhere where there's scary movies and candy.

Most people who live near me would be of a similar mindset, if not more so. But friends overseas... not so much. Friends of mine have questioned the American obsession with Halloween, and I know there's a pretty strong distaste abroad for just how hard we go on it. Or in fact going with it at all.


In a way, I guess I get it. It's relatively recently in the grand scheme of things that rolling out the month-long red carpet for the holiday has been a thing... or, more accurately, that the people who've been doing so have had a chance to meet each other online and spread their spooky vibe. But even without that, we've had a bit of an October-is-for-Halloween leaning for a bit now. Scary movies, the Great Pumpkin, Rocky Horror, haunted houses, and yard decorations aren't limited to one night.

So. Why?

I can't speak for everyone, but from where I'm standing, it's because of what we here in the U.S. don't have.

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Something that really hit me hard about England when I first visited more than a decade ago was how much old stuff there was... or rather, how casually "old" things were treated. Cities, streets, and even individual buildings can be a casual mix of things built last year and things built in 1200 AD. For someone living in a colonial/immigrant-based American society, that's wild. That alone isn't it, though: it's the jumping-off point.

There are a lot of ways I could lay this out long-form, but the short version is this — unless we're talking about one of the 5 million or so Native Americans whose ancestors crossed the Bering Strait literally 15,000 years ago, we have little to no history here. 400 years isn't much at all; and for many families we're looking at 100-200 years max.

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The concept of "American folklore" is young and still evolving. We have Sleepy Hollow and then stories farmers told to explain missing cows. No millennia-old demons living in underground rooms, no kings buried under car parks. The darker, weirder parts of history are less accessible to us because we don't live among those sorts of things here.

Autumn is a very liminal time. The days are getting shorter, the air is getting cooler; and even if you don't buy into anything spiritual or arcane, there is a feeling to it that gets you in a weird way. It's no wonder old stories talk about the "veil between worlds" being thinnest right now; that's a great way to describe the vibe.

This is the closest we're ever going to get to walking the halls of a castle built 1000 years ago without traveling. This time of year is all we've got when it comes to reproducing that vibe we don't have yet because we are an upstart kid in the grand scheme of things. Naturally we are going to roll around in it like a great big pile of leaves.

And if there's an excuse to thread it out through the month, as soon as the leaves start turning and the sun sets sooner, then why not?

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Every human, I believe, craves an opportunity deep down to interface with that nightmarish darkness. It's why fairy tales and folktales are the way they are. It's why we listen to that ghost story even if we don't believe in ghosts. The human condition is weird and wonderful and creepy and mysterious around the edges, and it's appealing to dive into these moments that let us explore those edges safely. That's true across the board, no matter where you're from, no matter who your parents were.

The short answer, then? Americans are obsessed with Halloween because we don't have a welcoming, appealing darkness etched into our DNA the way the British Isles do. We only have a little time each year, when the veil is thinnest, to play there. So we're going to go nuts.

That's my answer, anyway.

Happy Halloween.


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