Of all the holidays in the yearheck, of all the holidays in the fallHalloween makes the least impression in media involving screens. Television and movies have almost nothing to say about it, even though between the kids, whom the festivities are supposedly for, and the grownups, who, as they do every holiday, turn the kids’ day into an excuse to dress funny and drink to excess, it’s a monumentally profitable occasion. Party supply stores and costume shops say that recently the Halloween business has gone astro, with all ages and types shelling out for a piece of the pumpkin. But Halloween is basically absent from the giant leveling salon that is television. A private celebration, then, for which a public acknowledgment might seem suspect? It’s enough to make you think those fundamentalist Chicken Littles are right: It is a damn pagan holiday.
Let’s define our terms: Like all the big holidays, Halloween was an important Celtic tradition, sanitized in the seventh century for the protection of the skeptical flock who needed a rich load of pagan mulch if their newfound Christianity was to take root. (What are saints but a polytheistic pantheon with gruesome wounds?) The fire festival and Feast of the Dead (the Irish called it the Vigil of Saman, for Samhain, Lord of the Dead) took place the night before the actual holiday, as did all rituals according to the pagan lunar calendar. Simply put, the period between the two days was a wrinkle in time, during which the dead could come back and hassle the living unless they were appeased by sacrifices (though anthropologist and folklorist James Frazer paints a cozier picture of shivering ghosts warming their bones with their relatives’ food and fires). There is evidence that the Druids sent a human down to propitiate the ghoulish hordes; in Lithuania, the last European country to turn Christian, pagans offered up domestic animals.
Early Christianity retained good chunks of the pagan ritual, although All Soul’s Day was shoved safely up to Nov. 2, with the first of the month reserved for saints. But almost everything else survived in simplified form: We still take advantage of the window between the worlds to augur and divine (by bobbing for apples) and associate the holiday with soul-symbols and familiarscats, bats, owls, wolves. We still allow “demons” only so far into our homes; they pause menacingly on the threshold (where a lighted signal reaped from the autumn harvest welcomes and warns) and demand to be propitiated or else.
There are movies that are fun to watch in late October, but scary films enjoy a year-round place in our culture. As for TV, gather-’round Halloween annuals are limited to the Peanuts special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and even it is paling in specialness since the big-headed gang has begun to trump up bizarre, patriotic hours for virtually every semi-occasion greedy Charles Schulz can think of. The last one was called, approximately, It’s the Framers, Charlie Brown.
Actually, the Peanuts show is a good example of just how anomalous Halloween is in the expensive, caloric slide of special days that begins nowish and lasts until Easter. The show recounts a strenuous and, finally, unsuccessful effort to construct a post-pagan ritual for the holiday, exerted by Linus, the group’s only Christian. (It is the biblically named Linus who delivers the nativity story according to Matthew for the crowd during their Christmas pageant, which appears to consist entirely of Linus delivering the nativity story.) And in Great Pumpkin, it’s Linus who reports his totally unprecedented belief in the kindly benefactor, who “rises out of the pumpkin patch he thinks is the most sincere and flies through the air with his pack of toys for all the good little children in the world.” This unshakable faith, for which the believer offers no origin, annoys his little heathen friends; Snoopy, being a beast, collapses with laughter.
The misunderstanding at the heart of Great Pumpkin is also what makes it so riveting: Halloween’s very greatness lies in the fact that it isn’t more like Christmas or Easter. Whatever pious/joyful/pro-family noises grown-ups make about Christmas, kids know that Halloween is their time. Children play an active role in the festivitiesthey don’t passively wait for goodies to be bestowed upon them, they strong-arm the givers into making with the Pixy Stix. They are not excluded in any way from the evening’s mysteriesas the day looms, Mom and Dad don’t mutter behind closed doors or, as my folks did, speak French (that trick didn’t work for long); kids know just what they’ll be getting, groans about fresh fruit and little boxes of raisins aside.
The addition of a mythical distributor of toys into the messy pagan mix is unnecessary and jarring, but it does serve the useful function of pointing up just how barbaric the other Peanuts look, making the rounds in their holey sheets and string-tied masks, Charlie Brown with his mournful refrain, “I got a rock.” Add to that Linus’ admirable if insane suretyafter his fruitless night among the pumpkins, his faith remains unbowed: “Just wait until next year!” he cries.
Linus the Christian and Charlie Brown the beleaguered accidental existentialist are at philosophical war when they lean on that brick wall and talk universe, but Schulz’s rigid sentimentality wins out every timethat’s why Linus gets a fresh pitchfork full of hope every year and Charlie Brown gets rocks. And where do those rocks come from? They’re a divine symbol: It isn’t the absent, squawking grown-up world that decides how to treat them; the struggle is the roundheads vs. the cosmos.
Unlike other holidays, Halloween doesn’t disrupt anyone’s scheduling. Banks don’t close, shops keep regular hours, school marches on. Kids don’t start hitting up neighbors (or, increasingly, neighborhoodsour kid-heavy part of town gets zero customers; they’re all in McLean) until after school or work, but they’re home before 8, so adult parties can proceed apace. Most importantly, it isn’t a family holidayno one’s stuck at home with the wee ones and oldsters.
Which is why it isn’t specials but sitcomsregular programmingthat pick up the ball. If we observe Halloween in relative privatepublic/private, amid colleagues or strangers, but not familythen the solitary-but-elastic pastime of watching television is the perfect psychic wallpaper.
Prime time’s Halloween metamorphoses mirror those of the costumed audiencefor a night all the rules are suspended, one’s secret self revealed. TV creates occasions. Just watch how Christmas programming slices the fruitcake thinner and thinner: the Santa aspect, the no-Santa scenario, the toy thing, the snowman thing, the reindeer thing, the greed issue for kids, the nonbeliever issue for adults, emphasis on food, emphasis on family, the origins story, the tradition-within-the-tradition lineup (of endless variations on hoary holiday “favorites”), and even sometimes the birth-of-Jesus yarn, which plays even weirder on TV than it does everywhere else. But the occasion of Halloween is all there in its insistence on physical transformation and psychological transgression, so no wonder merely skimming the surface of this anxious cauldron is borrowing trouble enough for TV.
Most sitcoms revel in the chance to turn the world they’ve created upside down, particularly among the lesser prime-time lights. There’ll surely be eye-popping, hand-wringing, faux-frantic hi-jinks when the greasepaint starts flying on Tony Danza’s new sitcom, but you won’t catch fancypants shows like Frasier or Seinfeld even admitting to holidays. Of those that do indulge, not surprisingly, the smartest shows make the best Halloween episodes, and when they’re not good anymorewhen the writing begins to suck and the actors begin to openly display their contemptthe quality of the special episodes plummets.
For its firstwhat, 132?years on the air, Roseanne’s Halloween episodes were worth skipping the parade for. Even the writers admitted that, as liberating as the blue-collar milieu was in allowing them to mix beat realism with humor, they threw the budget aside for this one day. The Conners’ haunted house was always elaborate and imaginative, their costumes not just funny but resourceful plot fodder. The writers loved to mess with genders: Roseanne’s butch disguise was a recurring motif and a useful one; it also echoed the intricate practical joke wherein the women in the family began to suspect that their husbands were gay. And it’s hard to say which was more disconcerting, the episode in which D.J. insisted on trick-or-treating as a witch or the King of the Hill where Bobby steals a mannequin head to practice kissing.
Before the characters’ psychologies broke down into unfunny chaos a few years ago, The Simpsons, too, went more wild than usual around the end of October. The writers displayed a complete, wholehearted dedication to the playful possibilities of the holiday, down to giving every credited crew member a ridiculous “scary” name.
The paucity of Halloween-specific TV may be the result of market forces, like every other decision made in that medium, but it’s unwittingly generous. The tube never airs anything pressing enough to keep folks home when they should be out guzzling red punch and hitting on Cleopatra, but in the absence of parties or parades, TV provides just enough seasonal background buzz to give the impression that we’re all participating in something, even if it’s only singing along to “Monster Mash” and enjoying car ads that feature Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula, and the mummy being punnily impressed with the prices”Now dat’s a deal I’d zink my teeth into!” Leaving you with only one decision to make, to cast in terms as mundane or existential as you like: What are you going to be?