Sunday, October 31, 2010

Can This Holiday Be Saved?

Halloween once reigned mighty as our designated day of fright. But the would-be spookfest has become irrelevant amidst a nonstop news and political scream season. Poor Halloween is a shadow of its former self and the real demons of whom the Celts were so fond have nowhere to walk. For their sake, but more for our own, let's control fear and only allow it free range one day a year, using the rest of the time more productively.

Fear-mongers hold that our modern demons are actually a subspecies of human – the classic "other." Foreigners have always filled that bill nicely – after all, Dracula, the first vampire to make headlines, was an immigrant. A legal immigrant, upping the eek factor, who came to London solely to murder its good and honest citizens. The modern Dracula, we're told, is in the person of illegal immigrants, and it's no longer enough to fear they will suck up our resources – now we're told they will literally take our heads. One becomes nostalgic for ye olde Halloween meme of razor blades in apples.

In a socio-political culture taken over by a 24/7 fear cycle, Stephen Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive" would seem, prima facie, superfluous – provided he were in earnest. Fear is not only alive and well, it's buying talk radio hosts Lear jets. For the sake of a healthy and fearless society, Colbert is badly needed, and serving the time-honored purpose of making fear funny, in the form of the medieval trickster.

Morality plays were major entertainment in the middle ages, and their centerpiece is the trickster – often the Devil himself - who was always funny. Laughing at one's enemy renders him less potent (hence Harry Potter's "ridikulus" spell), so here was the opportunity to literally laugh in the face of fear. The overall purpose of the plays was instruction – you might have a jolly time with evil, but the lesson was to stay on the side of humanity. The character Colbert plays is a subtle twist on this standard character – with better hair. He demonstrates that today's real bogeymen are in fact those who are shrieking about bogeymen. They know that if enough people believe in false demons, the frightened will cast their vote with those who promise to vanquish said demons.

Not just comedians but political opponents should call out the fear-mongers on their absurdity, which has rarely been easier. Christine O'Donnell's first political ad announced: "I am not a witch," an au courant talking point circa 1450. No one assumes O'Donnell turned anyone into a newt, but like a certain (scarier) Newt, she's tapping into the fear culture to gain power. The more we see the empty hilarity behind the curtain, the more we can cast aside fear and actually get on with doing something useful.

There are legitimate things to fear in our modern world, just as there were in the middle ages. Economic catastrophe and climate change are as terrifying as the specter of witches and warlocks. But excessive fears have driven us to carry firearms into restaurants, schools and houses of worship, which probably assists us as much as the beaked mask and black cloak of the medieval plague doctor assisted him (it certainly didn't improve the patient's state of mind). The fear is worse than the disease.

If we restore Halloween to its classic glory, allowing it to be the one day when spooks flourish and we disguise ourselves so they think we are one of them, we can use the other 364 to better purpose, harnessing our energies to accomplish something, instead of letting fear drive us to despair or political insanity.

We can even go one step further, and put Halloween to work. After laughing at how silly we all look in our costumes, we can gain some healthy life lessons from the demons we represent. Instead of the well-worn path of casting the IRS as an evil vampire, try thinking outside the coffin. In order to thrive and survive, vampires must mitigate their appetites, control their inner beasts. Such behavior could be a fine example to us as we attempt to control our anger and fear.

So yes, let the demons have their day: Halloween, as it ought to be. But the rest of year, let's leave aside medieval thinking. Roosevelt was right, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. If we can contain that within 24 hours, we can put a stake right through the heart of fear.