Many Westerners have a peculiar relationship with dying, grieving, and death. We all tend to avoid the topic at the dinner table, and quickly change the subject if any of the sort finds itself in conversation. On the other hand, what we don’t always realise is that society actually celebrates death (in an abundance of inadvertent ways) and perhaps even more surprisingly, it seems like we vastly enjoy it. We watch shows like The Walking Dead and Squid Game, and are delighted by the gore and grotesque that keeps us hooked to the screen.
This complex relationship is further exemplified in Halloween. Halloween is the one time out of the year where people dress up, go trick or treating in their neighborhoods, and subconsciously enjoy the inevitability of death.
Interestingly enough, Halloween is a remarkable combination of celebrating the end and the beginning.
At Neo, we aim to break the taboo surrounding speaking about death and dying, which is why we felt it appropriate to highlight how Halloween is a holiday with many positive elements, including positive commentary about how confronting death is healthy for society.
We hope that this article brings some lightheartedness during this time and makes you think more deeply about the death positive movement and the benefit it brings to societies.
What is Halloween?
The Halloween we know today was a mixture of old Celtic and religious traditions. Halloween originally stemmed from the old Celtic festival of the Samhain, where people lit bonfires and dressed up to fend off ghosts. Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as All Saints’ Day to honour and remember the saints. This celebration incorporated elements of the festival of the Samhain. Halloween has been observed as a precursor to the religious holiday known as All Saints’ Day, or “All Hallows” translated from Old English. The holiday then transformed to what we know today as Halloween.
Halloween Puts Death Into Perspective
If one stops to think for a moment. Halloween can be seen as a children’s holiday commemorating and recognizing death. Halloween allows humankind to ritualise their fears surrounding death. It provides a space for death to become accessible.
Celebrating death and converting the concept into something digestible does wonders for the human psyche. Halloween is a fun example of “memento mori,” or the inevitability of death. It functions as an accessible and entertaining reminder to everyone that life eventually ends.
This kind of thinking has emotional upsides. In fact, one study presented in the book, How to Harness the Power of Negative Thinking, states that walking through a graveyard makes people 40% more likely to help a stranger out on the street than just regularly walking around the block.
Thinking about death is comforting and positive for our minds, and celebrating Halloween perpetuates this.
Darkly lit room with candles and pumpkins
Death Celebrations Are Almost Universal
There are many cultures in the world that celebrate death. As for Westerners, we have Halloween as an outlet. However, we are not the only ones. Death being a common thread in various communities and cultures as part of a celebration is an indicator of its universality.
What other cultures practice holiday’s commemorating death?
- Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos
Take for example in Mexico where Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a national holiday in Mexico. Now, Dia De Los Muertos is not to be conflated with Halloween. They are two separate holidays and celebrations.In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is a day of remembrance. It is a day where people come together to honour their ancestors and their achievements.
- England’s Guy Fawkes Night
Other countries and cultures celebrate the dead in other ways. Take the England for example. Guy Fawkes Night which takes place on the eve of November 5th is an autumnal death ritual that in a way took the place of Halloween (once the Protestant Reformation Halloween was not really practised in England).Guy Fawkes is a day that the English celebrate, which involves people lighting bonfires around cities throughout the night to celebrate the death of English traitor Guy Fawkes.
There are many more global rituals surrounding death, and if you’d like to read more about these interesting customs and norms (not all Halloween related) then read our blog, 10 Amazing Ways These Cultures Say Goodbye.
- Vietnam’s Ghost Festival
Vietnam dedicates an entire month to celebrating ghosts. Their Ghost Month takes place during the 7th month of the Lunar calendar. According to Vietnamese belief, an individual is composed of two parts, the body and soul.
It is their belief that the soul lingers on in the afterlife. Throughout the month, society takes part in many customs because it is believed that the spirits are roaming the earth during this time.
Up close image of a bioluminescent spider web
Death Positive Examples for Children
Finally, Halloween is a gentle way to expose children to the concept of death. Underneath the guise of entertainment, children have a safe space to explore one of life’s inevitabilities.
It’s understandable how some parents want to avoid the holiday for fear of danger and of overexposure. However, studies show that children are able to make the fantasy-reality distinction by ages 3 and 4.
After further reflection, we probably adore Halloween so much because it gives humans space and time to confront death. Halloween makes death more accessible, and even enjoyable. Studies show that humans actually enjoy some mild and managed forms of stress. Halloween is a fun way to face an element of human life that is massively dreaded and stressful.
In the end, Halloween is an interesting time of the year. Celebrating death and those who have departed reminds humankind to be grateful for life.