Each year as the end of October draws near, we are haunted by images of our inevitable demise. The rattling bones of a skeleton, decontextualized from our own anatomy, and spooky white-sheet ghosts, representing our soul, adorn front yards across the world.
Halloween, at its roots, has always been a holiday centered around death. From the ancient Pagan New Year of Samhain, to the westernized Christian tradition of All Hallow’s Eve, the end of October has been marked by aesthetics of the deceased emblematic of relevant cultural lessons throughout generations.
Modern Halloween celebrants often distance themselves from the meaning within death-related imagery. But the original reason for the season was for communities to gather, preparing emotionally and physically for the gruelling and unpredictable winter ahead. I suggest that when we see Halloween decorations, we are looking at our own mortality even if that’s not what we initially perceive.
The Mascots of Halloween: Our Mortality as Decoration
The Celts believed that on October 31st, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Considering that ancient winters often brought death much closer to home through food scarcity and bitter storms, this belief makes sense. Acknowledging the fragility of life, the Samhain/Halloween season was a time of acceptance that our life is always somewhere between the present moment and death. Rituals including fortune telling and costume wearing were created to abate the stresses of impending loss and the liminality of life by instilling a sense of certainty and safety among the community.
Today, the nearing winter no longer necessarily spells “death,” and yet its imagery has stuck with us still. Perhaps reflecting on our mortality is just in our bones (pun intended)? This explains why spectres of our impermanent existence continue to haunt Halloween celebrations. The skeleton and the ghost–two halves of the mortal, yet spiritual whole of human experience, endure to represent the death-centric foundations of this holiday.
Symbolism of Ghosts and Skeletons
As inhabitants of a world that we will one day leave, symbols, myths, and rituals help us better understand the complex cycle of life and death. Ghosts and skeletons occupy a ghoulishly enticing neighborhood of the collective imagination, allowing us a glimpse into our future–dying. The mascots of modern Halloween provide a safe distance from the present moment and the reality of our mortality; what one interprets within that space is up to the viewer and influenced by the cultures within which they exist.
No matter your beliefs about spirits, souls, or ghosts, this mystically intangible human essence has long helped us make sense of our existence–the first written account of paranormal experience was penned by Pliny the Younger in the first century A.D. Ghosts have helped humans to explain the inexplicable and it is this gap in scientific knowledge where contemplations of mortality and meanings of life flourish, allowing us to partake in thought experiments about the intangible afterlife.
Of course, filling in the blank like this, we might seek comfort rather than reality. Rebelling against the dichotomy of life and death, ghosts represent a hopeful potential that we can maintain relevance for all eternity, never having to fully release ourselves from the life that we’ve known.
Skeletons, however, are knowable. We are present in this life because we have a body–flesh, blood, and organs all connected and supported by our bones– that one day will cease to be animated. In Medieval times, people became very interested in the skeletal structure for practical reasons, like medicine, but also for artistic emphasis and religious contemplation such as Memento Mori.
Today, skeletons typically remain hidden except for the Halloween season. Since the first COVID Halloween, we’ve watched them become bigger than life in an attempt to differentiate the decoration from the anatomy that makes us mortal. According to Time magazine, skeletons are, “a marker of people’s intimate and public relationship to the realities of living and dying.” While ghosts provide an opportunity of after-life shenanigans, bones lock us into the reality of our bodies which cannot live forever.
Putting Death Back into Halloween
In truly imperialist fashion, Halloween has been stripped of its traditional communal practices and replaced with consumer products, inspiring a neighborly competition of ostentation. Our focus is now on garnering reactions from passersby, rather than connecting with our community in contemplations of temporality and preparing for death. Although we still use the visage of death, it rings hollow without the ritualistic space to reflect on the fragility of life with those on whom we rely for safety and stability–our community.
But all is not lost–we can still put the death back into Halloween by sharing our stories of grief, love, and loss with each other. Death-positivity, although a cultural movement, is built on individuals choosing to have honest conversations about the realities of our lives and deaths so as to reframe cultural norms about our mortality.
Consider taking some time this spooky season to do something death-affirming like visiting your local cemetery, attending a death cafe, or hosting your own death-positive Halloween bash. However you decide to celebrate, the ghost-like and skeletal decor will be there to peacefully usher you into the winter season.
So interesting and thought provoking!