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halloween painting with graveyard

Halloween:We Are the Others

On this day the great masquerade –– with reversible possibilities and switched roles –– takes place.

Every year on October 31, while little ghosts and witches march through the streets, they are recreating ancient folkloric customs that pay homage to the spirits from the other world. It strikes as curious how this date is almost exactly the same in different pre-Christian cultures, which celebrated and made way for the dead in their journey to the afterlife. Halloween has its origin in an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter and the day when spirits mingled with people. For its part, the Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 2 in Mexico, and has a Meso-American origin which coincides with Catholic celebrations of the All Souls’ and All Saints’ days. Something certainly special occurs on these days, but what’s truly fascinating is the rite has now become an occasion for play, an almost unconscious recreation of the times when the living and the dead coexisted out of mutual convenience.

The Celts believed that on Samhain, more than at any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead could wander among the living, because on this day they traveled across realms. So they would make fires and libations of animals to help them on their passage, but more importantly to maintain a good relationship with them­­––On that day, the demons were set loose (including fairies, ghosts and leprechauns) and they needed to be kept satisfied. According to the book American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, the beliefs and costumes of Halloween arrived to the United States with the first Irish immigrants; those who went to establish themselves in the first half of the 19th Century to escape the great famine.

drawing of a witch on a broom with a cat

Since then, this celebration with an origin just short of spooky became a normalized game which at any other time of the year would not be ideologically tolerated. The symbolism of spirits, demons and sorcery is so basic for the human psyche that it still must be satisfied in one way or another. That is perhaps why Halloween is so stimulating, both for the skeptic and for the superstitious or naïve––Its playful spirit allows us to bear the idea that spirits and demons roam around the kingdom of tangible things. On Halloween we assume the kingdom of spirits in the only way we can: as a game in which we are the others.

Halloween is thus the great mise-en-scene of our secular modern times, on a date that is clearly proverbial: it is the night of reversible possibilities and switched roles. We are the witches, the demons and the entire supernatural imagery that we have collected over the years, and the deceased go unnoticed. We even give candy to little ghosts, which used to be food to satisfy the hungry spirits. On this night, the public performs an allegorical representation –– although the majority does so without knowing –– of a rite of passage between this world and another, and thus, in a great masquerade, the dead are finally the guests of the living.

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