"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Adult Halloween–A Tepid Affair Far From Dahomey

My son told me that he liked Halloween better than any other holiday.  “Better than Christmas?”, I asked. “And all the presents?”

“Way better.”

“And the Fourth of July?  Remember how last year we blew up trash cans just like Daddy used to do when he was a boy?”.

“Way, waaaayyy better.”

“Thanksgiving? You like Auntie Angie’s eggplant and Uncle Denton’s magic tricks.”

Nope, there was no holiday better than Halloween; and it wasn’t even a holiday, a day off from school, or the start of a long vacation.  It was simply the most fun ever.  You get to dress up like snakes and devils and He-Man figures, he said, and run around the neighborhood at night and eat candy for a week.

“The dressing up is the best part.”

He always decided on his Halloween costume in September, shortly after school started.  A comic book, a bad dream, something on television, a broken toy – wherever the idea came from, he knew it clearly and early.  His costumes were so unusual that they had to be made. 

One year he said he wanted to be a priest who really was a devil, and his grandmother – ironically a very devout Catholic – helped him find, assemble, and tailor his outfit. A dark jacket, black shirt, turned-around collar, and a tiny pair of red horns jerry-rigged to his head with picture wire and eye-hooks.  I asked him where he got this particular idea.

“Father Murphy looked like a devil in Confession”, he said, and indeed he did.  Behind the latticed screen of the confessional the old priest was cast in the weird flickering light of the votive candles by the altar. As he shifted his weight to fit in the small enclosure and raised his arms to adjust his clerical collar, the whorls and flanges on his badly-cut hair looked like horns.

Incidentally Father Murphy was the priest who preached most about the Devil who for him was real, palpable, and next door.  As the priest spoke from the pulpit, his eyes rolled back into his head, his arms were thrust out and wheeled wildly around him, and he hollered, “He is here.  The Devil is here.  Can you smell him?  Can you smell his rotting flesh, his foul teeth, and bestial body? Look around you…”  Here Father Murphy paused dramatically and watched as parishioners turned their heads towards the baptismal font and the sacristy. “See him? There!”, he pointed to the dark at the top of the stairs leading to Catechism class. “Follow him into the depths of Hell, and you will never return. “

“His breath stinks, too”, my son added.

My son did not want to be Father Murphy.  He wanted to be half-Christ, half-Devil - an ecstatic creation popular in the lore of the newly Christianized Papua New Guineans reported in National Geographic. He was definitely on the right track.

Halloween has become big business in America; and apparently adults now buy more Halloween gear for themselves than for their children.

I wore a Halloween costume only once as an adult many years ago. I dressed up as a bag lady. I wore three layers of old sweaters, a dirty, ripped skirt, old mules and half-rolled up stockings. My floppy rubber mask looked like a witch from Grimm’s fairy tales or one of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth.  All in all, I looked very much like the bag lady who rummaged dumpsters in Adams Morgan.  I even borrowed my daughter’s baby buggy which looked just like the one in the picture below.

When I rang the doorbell, the host opened the door, but just stood there.  No warm welcome, no pat on the back, no offered drink in hand.  I could see in his face that he thought I was a real bag lady, and that the mask was a clever Halloween trick to get into the house and leave with the family silver.  He wasn’t going to let me in.  My costume was that good. 

I quickly saw why my host was so nonplussed.  No one had really changed personae or turned into someone else. A tiara and some sparkly makeup was all that passed for Cleopatra. A blazer with a sash for Napoleon’s tunic and braces. A cute apron for Betty Crocker.  No one wore masks because the purpose of the party was to show off who you were – K Street lawyers, lobbyists, and real estate developers – not who you would like to be.  Conversation was about housing prices, trash pickup, schools, and vacations in the Caribbean. 

Foolishly, I thought that everyone would be in character – that the faux Napoleon would act like the real Napoleon; Betty Crocker like a 50s housewife, all demure and coquette, and I like a drunken bum – but I was very wrong indeed. There would be no temporary suspension of reality or transposition of character.  No one would be possessed.

Salvador do Bahia in Northeast Brazil, one of the most African communities in the county and one in which much of the old animist religions of Dahomey have been retained. Salvador is where Candomblé is practiced in its purest form, and although the slaves who had been brought to Brazil lost minor traditions – they quickly adapted to the food of the Amazon, the routine of plantation life, and the social customs of indigenous tribes, white slavers, and other Africans –  they retained Candomblé intact. Even in popularized form, its dances and rituals are mesmerizing and powerful.  They feature in the elaborate Carnival parades.

The movie Black Orpheus, set in Rio during Carnival, captures the voodoo, Candomblé, mystical spirit of Brazil.


Haitian voodoo is very much like Candomblé because they both come from the same African regional roots; but is darker and more sinister. Death has no finality in voodoo; and zombies, the undead or the dead returned, are always among the living.  Voodoo ceremonies are pagan and violently expressive; and worshippers are possessed by the spirits or the black souls of zombies.

Baron Samedi is a central figure in Haitian voodoo, a Loa of the Dead. He is usually depicted with a top hat, black tuxedo (dinner-jacket), dark glasses, and cotton plugs in the nostril to resemble a corpse dressed and prepared for burial.  According to voodoo belief, he can be found at the crossroad between the worlds of the living and the dead. When someone dies, he digs their grave and greets their soul after they have been buried, leading them to the underworld.

Aztec warriors wore the skins and feathers of leopards, jaguars, pumas, and eagles when they went into battle, feeling that their spirits would give them ferocity and a desire to kill. 

Mardi Gras in Venice is a more fashionable, chic, and conservative affair; but the desire to swap personas is no different.

The Folsom Street S&M Fair is the closest thing we have in America to living our Freudian fantasies.

Adult Halloween has become mass marketed and low-brow. Costumes are cute (sexy little girl outfits), ironically fey (smiling skeleton heads), or referential (Star Wars, The Godfather, Superman)

The spooky, scary, and downright terrifying (like Baron Samedi) has been expunged from Halloween.  Costumes are for show.  It’s cute to look cute; or fun to look silly. No jaguar skins, zombies, or pagan gods of Mesoamerica.

The homogenization of Halloween, fairy tales, and religion is not surprising.  We are thankful that we have progressed as a civilization beyond the paganism of Africa.  We are taught to be happy with ourselves, to celebrate self-esteem based on given, not acquired qualities.  How can you be happy with yourself if you want to turn into a flesh-eating zombie, the Loa of Death, or a whiplashing dominatrix?

The Pre-Columbian Zapotecs who lived on the Mexican isthmus, were pagan animists.  They worshiped the gods of the natural universe – the Gods of Thunder, Lightening, Earthquake, Eclipse, and Wind.  They were frightened of them and the horrible wrath they could inflict on them.  They had to appease them, calm them, supplicate them, and hope that they would be appreciative not punitive.

The ritual of human sacrifice and cannibalism performed on a high altar in the shadow of the mountains, on the great plain of Tehuantepec, was the highest form of respect, fear, and abject obedience.  The priest was dressed in high ritual costume – toucan feathers, eagle claws, and puma skin – and his acolytes were painted, streaked, and colored to attract the attention of the gods.  No one was human at the moment of ritual death.  Everyone was supra-natural, living in an elevated plane of impossibly powerful forces.

The ‘sacrifice of the Mass’ is all we have left of such psychically potent rituals, and a watered-down, tepid version it is.

Afro-Brazilian and Haitian Carnival, the most authentically pagan of Christian rituals, is still a shadow of those in ancient Dahomey; but it is still far more personal, psychologically liberating, and a wild expression of what is left of our primitive nature than anything that happens in America on Halloween.

“I know what I want to be for Halloween”, said my young grandson.  “A flesh-eating zombie!”

Good for him.

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