Friday, October 26, 2007
The Simulacra of Halloween
From about 1988 to sometime around 2000, this commercial aired every year, and I didn't really feel as if it was Halloween season without it. Once I caught it on TV, I could start thinking about costume ideas or how to work up the courage to get past my germaphobia long enough to bob for apples.
It may seem like a strange determiner for holiday readiness, but my point is that everyone does that in one form or another. Halloween is based upon traditions and practices in which no one ever fully engages but that everyone assumes they should. Halloween makes no sense, and it never has.
Blah blah, pagans, All Hollow's Eve, All Saints' Day, blah blah. That's not my point about it not making sense. Maybe this will help: Halloween (and New Year's Eve for that matter) is like ordering ribs at a restaurant. On paper, ribs sound delicious. You can imagine that sloppy rack balancing off the edge of a plate (no homo just in case). It doesn't seem like something a restaurant could easily mess up. But a half-hour and eighteen dollars later, you're picking meat from your teeth with saucy hands and wondering what you were thinking. Halloween is supposed to be this reckless, crazy night, but you always end up disappointed.
Another surefire way to know October 31 is coming? Talk shows start to showcase those eerily detailed jack-o-lantern portraits. That's where Letterman makes his money. Anyone can make Angelina Jolie seem interesting. Keep me watching that one day per year when you have on the guy known in your Rolodex as "Pumpkin Dude."
Our conceptions of Halloween are based completely on portrayals of it in popular culture. Besides Christmas, there are more Halloween-themed episodes of TV shows than any other holiday. I basically copied everything that happened in the very special episodes of "Step by Step" or "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper." You're supposed to have some elaborate costume, journey around your neigborhood pacing candy, occasionally trick the deserving neighbor, visit a haunted house, watch scary movies, and get wrapped up in some terrabull case of mistaken identity. ("OMG, Slater's the astronaut?")
1:32 was the closest I could get to what I was referencing. Without meaning to, "Saved by the Bell" has become the shorthand of my generation. Just a few days ago, this exchange occurred:
Will: "I really don't want to go to this interview tomorrow."
Me: "Do you want me to pull a Zack at Slater's West Point interview?"
Will: "No. It would get back to my program, and I'd get into trouble."
How unremarkable was that allusion? See?
Therein lies a major problem: this shit is way too structured. I'm supposed to do all of that stuff, and if I don't, my Halloween won't be complete?
The obvious parallel is Christmas, but all you really need for that is a tree, presents, and joyful cheer. (And reflection on the birth of our lord and savior.) All the gingerbread houses and stringing popcorn around the tree or whatever is optional. Yet somehow you have to make these crucial decisions during Halloween of what gets left out and what stays in. Do you know anyone who has ever really tricked? I never threw eggs or rolled trees. And if you lived in an apartment complex where no one trick-or-treated, did you miss out on the real experience?
Our popular culture would say yes. Every year we're trying to construct our own experiences based on what they're supposed to be. As Jean Baudrillard would say, "It is a copy with no original." And for what? Even the desired tone of Halloween is unclear. Anyone can get behind the goodwill of Christmas or the gratitude of Thanksgiving. But on Halloween am I just supposed to feel, like...really scared?
You know what's been holding all of this together for the past few hundred years? Girls have permission to dress sluttily. That and "Treehouse of Horror" are pretty much it.
Of course, here are some songs to help sculpt this thing that might not exist:
Ben Gibbard- "Thriller"
Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff- "A Nightmare on My Street"