Halloween: An American Ritual of Rebellion



Brazil is famous for Carnaval, a pre-Lenten festival celebrated the four days before Ash Wednesday. Carnival occurs, but has a limited distribution, in the United States. Here we know it as Mardi Gras for which New Orleans is famous. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is part of a Latin tradition that New Orleans, because of its French background, shares with Brazil. France and Italy also have carnival. No where, however, do people invest as much in carnival—in money, costumes, time and labor—as they do in Rio de Janeiro. There, on Saturday and Sunday before Mardi Gras, a dozen samba schools, each with thousands of members, take to the streets to compete in costumes, rhythmic dancing, chanting, singing and overall presentation.


The United States lacks any national celebration that is exactly equivalent to carnival, but we do have Halloween, which is similar in some respects. Even if Americans don’t dance in the street on Halloween, children do go out ringing bells and demanding “trick or treat.” AS they do things they don’t do on ordinary nights, they also disguise themselves in costumes, as Brazilians do at carnival.


The common thread in the two events is that they are times of culturally permitted inversion—carnival much more strongly and obvious than Halloween. In the United States Halloween is the only nationally celebrated occasion that dramatically inverts the normal relationship between children and adults. Halloween is a night of disguises and reversals. Normally, children are at home or in school, taking part in supervised activities. Kids are domesticated and diurnal—active during the day. Halloween permits them to become—once a year—nocturnal invaders of public space. Furthermore, they can be bad. Halloween’s symbolism can be potent. Children love to cloak themselves in evil as they enjoy special privileges of naughtiness. Darth Vader and Freddy Krueger are much more popular Halloween figures than are Luke Skywalker and the Smurfs (dated material, ed.).


Properly enculturated American kids aren’t normally let loose on the streets at night. They aren’t usually permitted to ask their neighbors for doles. They don’t generally walk around the neighborhood dressed as witches, goblins, or vampires. Traditionally, the expectation that children be good little boys and girls has been overlooked on Halloween. “Trick or treat” recalls the days when children who wouldn’t get treats would pull tricks such as soaping windows, turning over flower boxes, and setting off firecrackers on a grouch’s porch.


Halloween is like the “rituals of rebellion” that anthropologists have described in African societies, times when normal power relations are inverted, when the powerless turn on the powerful, expressing resentments they suppress during the rest of the year. Halloween lets kids meddle with the dark side of the force. Children can command adults to do their bidding and punish the adults if they don’t. Halloween behavior inverts the scoldings and spankings that adults inflict on kids. For adults, Halloween is a minor occasion, not even a holiday. For children, however, it’s a favorite time, a special night. Kids know what rituals of rebellion are all about.


Halloween is therefore a festival that inverts two oppositions important in American life: the adult-child power balance and expectations about good and evil. Halloween’s origin can be traced back 2,000 years to Samhain, the Day of the Dead, the most significant holiday in the Celtic religion (Santino 1983). Given its historical development through pagan rites, church suppression, and beliefs about witches and demons, Halloween continues to turn the distinction between good and bad on its head. Innocent children dress as witches and demons and act out their fantasies of rebellion and destruction. Once during the year, real adult witches are interviewed on talk shows, where than have a chance to describe their beliefs as solemnly as orthodox religious figures do. Puritan morality and the need for proper public behavior are important themes in American society. The rules are in abeyance on Halloween, and normal things are inverted. This is why Halloween, like Carnaval in Brazil, persists as a ritual of reversal and rebellion, particularly as an escape valve for the frustrations and resentments that build during enculturation.