GETTYSBURG, Pa. - Halloween itself is wearing a mask, an ancient year-end spiritual ritual disguised as Spider-Man, says Gettysburg College sociology professor Charles Emmons.
"Halloween has gone through two major transformations since its beginning at least 3,000 years ago as an ancient European folk festival to a Christian folk festival and now a modern, pop culture holiday," said Emmons. "And you can see the pop culture influence on Halloween by visiting a Wal-Mart and looking at all of the products for consumers such as candy, costumes and decorations."
Emmons explained that prior to calendrical changes Halloween took place at the end of the year in conjunction with the winter solstice. In the evening, people would light bonfires and set out food to welcome back the spirits of the beloved dead and dress up as ghosts and goblins to scare away unwanted spirits. It was also a time of reflection on the past year and anticipation of the year ahead. The days directly following Halloween were known as All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which are rarely spoken about today, said Emmons.
"It was a renewal of sorts for people," said Emmons. "But pop culture over the decades has transformed the cultural survivals of the holiday so that it thinly resembles the Halloween of the past."
Halloween has become a holiday in which people are allowed to invert the normal social order, according to Emmons. Children dress up like their favorite superheroes to beg for candy at doorsteps. Adults dress up in costumes that are gender deviant or sexual in connotation and throw elaborate parties. People decorate with orange-colored lights and inflatable ghosts and witches in their front yards. All of those aspects of how we celebrate Halloween are influenced by pop culture, Emmons said. He also explained that despite thousands of local variations on the holiday that vary among communities, pop culture is still an influence on how people celebrate.
People are also spending more money each year to participate in Halloween. According to the National Retail Federation, the average American is expected to spend nearly $65 on Halloween this year.
"There is almost no end to all of this stuff that is made in China and sold at Wal-Mart," Emmons said. "It is a variation on a theme, spreading the culture and creating new commodities for people to buy. It is all in a pop culture frame of reference - parties, trick or treating, decorating. Except for a small amount of people who take it seriously in the old folk notion and those in the religious conservative camp who say Halloween is the work of the devil, most people are in this pop culture middle ground where it is just a fun holiday."
Emmons has been a professor of sociology at Gettysburg College since 1974. His research includes mass media and popular culture, religion, science and the paranormal. His books include "Chinese Ghosts" and "ESP," "At the Threshold: UFOs, Science and the New Age" and "Guided by Spirit: A Journey into the Mind of the Medium." He has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows in the United States and Hong Kong including a History Channel series and Art Bell's "Dreamland."
Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with approximately 2,600 students. It is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. The college was founded in 1832.
By: Kendra Martin
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