Up until the Halloween scandal on Yale’s campus last year, the controversy surrounding the political correctness movement and cultural appropriation manifested as a relatively latent tension within American culture. Following the incident, discussions about political correctness have invaded the political mainstream and have, not surprisingly, spearheaded a wave of angst and uncertainty about what qualifies as an acceptable Halloween costume. Just like any sociological trend, the question that we should be asking is not only what to do about the issue, but why specifically this problem has arisen now and what factors have led to this upheaval. In fact, by breaking down the tradition of Halloween in America, it becomes clear that there are two competing purposes for the holiday which have collided and are directly linked to the current political crises of 2016. One branch of the Halloween tradition has exploited the capitalistic potential of the holiday and retains the holiday’s medieval Christian origins of fear mongering. The other Halloween interpretation uses the holiday as a democratizing force and a microcosm for quasi-anarchist and socialist sentiments by ridiculing powerful figures and fetishized cultural icons, thereby equalizing social ranks.
The history of Halloween reveals its different purposes to various societies, and the magnitude of its influence to the American ethos. Halloween’s origins date back to the Celts’ festival of Samhain, which celebrated the transition from fall to winter. The Celts were deeply devoted to natural powers and therefore experience the beginning of winter, nature’s death, as a day to celebrate deceased ancestors. The day blurred the lines between the world of the living and the world of the dead. While worshiping the dead carried over to Roman and Christian versions of All Hallows Eve, its utility transmogrified. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the day to martyrs and saints, glorifying their influence within the public consciousness. However, with the developing popularity of the holiday within Christian society came the archetypes, still prevalent today, of witches and demons, instituted by the church to represent immoral people and evil practices. The underlying associations tied to these caricatures were used to control public thought by dehumanizing alternative religious groups that differed from Christian orthodoxy. The stereotypical depiction of a witch encompasses a large nose and female ugliness, reinforced by Christian intentions to marginalize both Jews and women.
When Halloween migrated to the U.S. during the colonial period, it melded to American customs but still maintained these Christian underpinnings. While the same icons remained a central tenet, the holiday more directly connected the celebration with the harvest and was therefore primarily adopted by working-class agrarian farmers. The day allowed for farmers to revel in their work and join together to tell ghost stories and partake in mischief and superstitions involving divine intervention. The superstitious elements of American Halloween represented a grassroots rejection of the enlightened elitist culture that privileged rationality. With the integration of Irish immigrants, Americans revitalized the Christian practice of dressing up in costume and added “trick-or-treating,” which originated as an opportunity for the relatively needy to collect food and money from the rich. This conglomeration of Christian and American traditions further entrenched Halloween as a holiday of the working class.
As secularization took hold in America, Halloween transitioned into a community-centered event and lost many of the superstitions and religious overtones. Variations in costumes, as a modern expression of icons, created the first diverging point in American Halloween traditions that carries over to today. Some groups wear costumes with the same purpose as the agrarian farmers did to mock elitist power. Others, however, held onto the Christian method of using costumes to disenfranchise minority groups. The developments in Halloween taking place in the 1970s and 1980s, however, solidified this divide in the ideological ramifications of the holiday. As a consequence of the neo-liberalist reforms implemented during the Nixon and Reagan presidencies, Halloween was usurped from its working class roots and turned into a capitalistic shrine. Today, Americans spend an estimated six billion dollars on decorations, costumes, and candy, making it the country’s second most profitable holiday. According to Experian Marketing Services, 49 percent of marketers will launch holiday campaigns just prior to Halloween, proving how a single day out of the year provides an entire market for businesses. The advent of a capitalistic Halloween now exists as a currency for the expression of wealth and social status by serving as a platform for wealthy neighborhoods to put their opulence on display through extravagant decorations and assortments of candy.
The re-imagination of Halloween represents a fundamental change in American public life, transforming a rich cultural tradition into a commodity. For this very reason, the conversations around the country about cultural appropriation have been so impactful because it disrupts this system by adding a moral element to the choice of costume, thereby offering a competing vision of Halloween’s purpose.
If the issue of Halloween costumes is viewed from this perspective, then it seems abhorrent that critics of the idea of cultural appropriation, many of whom are conservative elites who actually benefit from the institution of Halloween, would then argue that they have the right to wear whatever offensive costume they want and further oppress marginalized groups. By reinforcing that Halloween should serve as a holiday to make fun of celebrities and notable public figures, thereby removing the pedestal that they normally stand on in society, this position enshrines Halloween as a democratizing force that promotes equality. Instead of Halloween existing as a capitalistic playground for wealthy people to make a profit, consciousness about cultural appropriation actually flips the power structure of Halloween and, in its place, mocks wealthy people who currently benefit from the holiday’s fabricated grandeur.
Goldstein is a member of the class of 2020.