In the North, Halloween's scariest spirit is loneliness

Halloween has become the holiday of twenty-somethings. Little kid's Halloween, of course, has not gone away, but it has changed in the 21st century. It's now the sacrament of sugar with accumulation and consumption of candy modeling adult accumulation of wealth and the economy of greed.

But the celebration of the night is now dominated by young adults from late-teens to thirties -- twenty-somethings. For them, Halloween is the one night of the year when a woman can dress like a whore and other women won't criticize her for it. For the politically aware, Trashy Hillary or Slutty Carly will be a hit this year. And there will be all manner of presidents, popes, doctors and lawyers which, for that one night, will be redefined from respectable to barely decent.

For guys it's different. Twenty-something guys' costumes tend toward superheroes or pirates. They'll put more effort into what they wear this one night than for what they'll wear for the rest of the year.

What's going on?

The most obvious explanation is young adult Halloween is an excuse to cut loose before the onset of winter and the coming serious and pressure-filled family holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I think there is more to it. I think there is a connection between today's twenty-something Halloween and the original Gaelic celebration of Samhain which was later incorporated into a Catholic All-Saints' (the hallowed) Day.

Wherever the culture, the spirituality of the North has three themes: The power of nature, ancestor spirits, and unseen or semi-seen forces often embodied in giants and little people. Northern spirits have been made to be a quaint figment of the superstitious, but a better characterization is they represent what people fear. Northern people do not fear cold or dark. That myth is a consequence of central heating, electric lights and pop psychology. Northern people fear loneliness. Not being alone, but loneliness. The concept of Arctic hysteria resonates with northern people in music and art despite its unproven psychological basis.

If you want to get some insight into yourself, try camping alone in December for several days. I don't mean in a cabin or motorhome, I mean in a tent or, better yet, throw your sleeping bag on spruce boughs and build a fire. You will be amazed what appears in the shadows of a campfire and the mysterious sounds of the night. You will be forced to confront your place and yourself.


For Northern Europeans, Samhain was celebrated midway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice at the transition to the dark season. It was said to be a time when the forces of nature were strongest and the frightening spirits, the fairies and others, were most accessible and most ominous.

There are three ways to respond to what we fear. We can let fears overwhelm us, we can deny them -- neither of which are helpful -- or we can acknowledge our fears and ridicule them. That was the way of Samhain. Dressing up as fairies and leprechauns, mimicking and ridiculing them through revelry around a bonfire took away the ominous power of the supernatural, it took away the specter of loneliness. It helped to dance together.

Popular history has it the Catholic Church placed All-Hallows day on Samhain to counteract paganism. That's not likely. More likely is that Gaelic and other Northern Europeans incorporated traditional forces into Catholicism and the saints and martyrs of Christianity stood along side the old spirits. Christian hell became the ultimate loneliness.

What do twenty-somethings fear today? At the risk of essentializing, young men fear failure. Success is hard to navigate these days and the old model of upwardly mobile career, family and an increasingly nice house in an increasingly nice neighborhood is difficult to achieve by many and not really wanted by others. Whatever success is, today, it's hard to define, yet its absence must be failure. A little help from a superpower familiar can acknowledge and combat that fear.

Young women fear failure too, but something else. Young women fear being marginalized by a male-controlled social and work environment that doesn't take them seriously and views them as a sex objects or no objects at all. Like the Gaelic of old, one way to deal with that fear is to ridicule it. That one night of the year a woman can dress up as skanky successful-person and mock the shallow male-dominated power structure. Having a good time is an added bonus.

And still there is loneliness to consider.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com