My strongest and earliest memory of Halloween is of my father. Imagine a dark, chilly, autumn evening in South London. Dad awaits a horde of English children knock-knock-knocking for chocolate and treats. He’s grumbling about how rude it is to beg and not say thank you, how these children interrupt his time with the evening radio news, and how dare they vandalize his car as a trick.
My parents were Jamaican immigrants to the UK with no social or religious affinity for the British costume holiday, and they made their distaste for it clear to us.
“No daughter of mine,” my mother told my sister, “has the temerity to go out begging for sweets like some sort of feral child!”
Mum is also a staunch Adventist who doesn’t care for fantasy or science fiction. She discouraged idle chatter about monsters, witches, goblins, and devils. Her brood would not dress up to roam the neighborhood at the end of October. There’d be no ghost tales or scary movies, and it wasn’t until my mid-teens that I saw the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
My school-year history classes taught me how women, LGBT people, herbalists, Jews, and other non-Christians had become targets for medieval fear and violence as the Black Death danced across Europe. My schoolmates and I sang the Ring-a-Ring-of-Roses rhyme outside of the classroom, but in classes we learned about the rats, the trade ships, the ignorance of germ theory and sanitation, the bodies piling in the street and the prayers designed to ward off death, the moralizing against difference, the quarantines, propaganda, pogroms, and torture. Some of this history is now memorialized in the National Holocaust Museum.1
When I visited the museum last year, I was overwhelmed by the pattern of violent scapegoating practiced in one context (medieval Europe), repeated in another (modern Germany), applied in yet another (the United States), and revised and localized in each successive decade and century (Cambodia, Armenia, Peru, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan). The roots were similar. The results were similar. When we see monsters, we root them out.
We’ve grown as humans in many ways. We’ve improved our technologies and we’ve refined our rhetoric about community and identity, but we haven’t escaped our shadow. We haven’t lost our inclination to dissociate, blame, and Other—and some researchers argue that this pattern is baked into human cognition and there's no way to shed it entirely.
This is one reason Leonard Cohen’s poem about the Holocaust’s logistics manager is still so shocking.
All There is to Know About Adolph Eichmann
NUMBER OF FINGERS:…………………Ten
NUMBER OF TOES………………………Ten
What did you expect?
What do you expect when you stare at your community’s latest monster? “Talons? Oversize incisors? Green saliva? Madness?”
Seventh-Gay Adventists draws a laugh from audiences when we see a mother sewing Pathfinder badges on her daughters’ uniforms and musing about the “racy lifestyle” others believe she enjoys.
I also chuckle to myself: I live down the highway from the General Conference office in Silver Spring, MD. Church life in this area is a constant reminder that those who staff this denomination are desperately normal people. There are no talons. There’s no trail of blood. There are no monsters, except, perhaps, those we project outward.
This morning I chatted with Herb Montgomery about the sociological functions of Halloween and monster-play. Herb has spent the last few years comparing the theories of sociologist Rene Girard with the actions and teachings of Jesus in the gospels, and sharing how scapegoating manifests in society, theology, and religious community life.
Among the quotes he posted during our conversation is from Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
When the abyss gazes back: shall we flee? Or might we laugh? The 15th and 16th Century’s Dance of Death allowed medieval Europeans to personify and confront the horrors of their age, to prepare personally and communally for life’s most common but foreign experience:
"And yet we cannot discover any one thing more near the likeness of Death than the dead themselves, whence come these simulated effigies and images of Death's affairs, which imprint the memory of Death with more force than all the rhetorical descriptions of the orators ever could." — Jean de Varzelles
We’re far removed from de Vauzèle’s world now. The ancients’ ancestor memorials, Death Dances, and costuming traditions, rites that eventually became modern holidays like Halloween and Dia de Muertos, once helped ordinary people to give the fearsome Other an accessible face.
And when we did that, we discovered something: as we learn to humanize the monster in our midst, we really re-humanize ourselves. As we re-approach those we’ve dissociated ourselves from, we recover our own wholeness. The people we’ve designated “monster,” whoever they were, were always our people. It was only we who failed to recognize them as such.
I still don’t observe Halloween, this American Fall Festival of Cheap Chocolate.
But I do like the idea of being able to taking the sting out of my nemeses, my shadow, and all Others I feel compelled to resist.
Perhaps one day, I’ll put on a costume that represents my shadow and share quality food with my friends; we’ll dance a dance and laugh through our fear and grumbling. The Nemesis Festival: No dressing up or begging required, but the ability to self-examine and laugh through discomfort will be essential.
If I were to host a Nemesis Festival this year, I think I’d go as a General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists church administrator—for they’ve been among the Others I’ve been resisting and grumbling about this year. I imagine I’d need a grey or navy blue suit, a big leather bible with a copy of Adventist World tucked inside, and a short elevator speech about reasonable expectations of surveillance, voluntary self-censorship, and non-reappointment in 2015.
I asked my friends today what some of their Nemesis Festival costumes could be. One said Anxiety. Another described Miss Haversham from Great Expectations. A third named a local college president. All understood that we can examine our own monsters and scapegoats until they no longer loom over us; we can shave down the internal hook pulled by the external barb, and we can stare down our repulsion until it crumbles into communion.
“Facing the disconnected, neglected, rejected, abandoned, and isolated parts of ourselves is not easy at all,” one told me. He’s absolutely right.
Maybe an annual Nemesis Festival would be healthy for us: as healthy as Adventists taking each October’s Great Disappointment Day as a reminder that we can uncover error and failure and not be broken by that discovery. Our shadow need not overshadow our lives.
And that’s something I can celebrate.
1Based on the books of Iona and Peter Opie, we were told that this nursery rhyme echoed the symptoms of bubonic plague. Folklore researchers have since rejected this theory.
Keisha E. McKenzie (@mackenzian) lives and works in the MD-DC Metro region, and writes on politics, faith, and sexuality at mackenzian.com