Early next week, more than 171 million Americans will celebrate Halloween, spending $8.4 billion on decorations, according to the National Retail Federation. Now at an all-time high, Halloween spending has doubled over the past decade, and 14 million more people than last year will “do Halloween.” Dina Khapaeva, professor in the Ivan Allen College School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech and author of the forthcoming book, The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture, offers an explanation:
Ever wonder why Halloween, whose meaning is at best vague for most Americans, captured the popular imagination so handily at the turn of the second millennium? After all, the symbolism of the holiday is not particularly relevant to postindustrial and postmodern society. It supposedly originated with the Celts, who celebrated Samhain, the “End of Summer,” either as a holiday to honor the dead or as a celebration of the god of death, with human sacrifices to ensure fertility and a good harvest.
Could the popularity of Halloween be related to its capacity to tap into pre-modern sensitivities? Without a doubt, Halloween home decorations and costumes are becoming more openly horrific every year. Their focus is shifting from pumpkins and black cats to images of violent death and general mayhem. A quick Internet search for pictures and recipes of Halloween food will produce explicit references to cannibalism, with cookies and other “goodies” imitating severed fingers, legs, or hands and baby dolls “served up” on a plate with Halloween treats.
Yet Halloween does not stand alone as a manifestation of the fascination with violent death in contemporary culture. The spread of death symbolism in fashion; the growing serial killer celebrity culture; “dark tourism;” the horror genre in books, movies and television; and contemporary Gothicism suggest that Halloween is part of a popular culture movement that has transformed fictionalized violent death into a trending commodity and a routine form of entertainment.
“The cult of death,” as I conceptualize it, is driven by denial of the exceptional value of human life. Neither Halloween nor death-centered entertainment is responsible for the burgeoning public demand for images of violence against people, though. Those images are, rather, expressions of the anti-humanist attitudes toward human beings that have taken over contemporary culture.
Originally featured in the Georgia Tech Amplifier.