Halloween is nostalgia all the way down.
I have spent time reading Halloween Facebook groups over several years. I have also engaged Facebook Halloween communities in conversation about what they love about Halloween. I have read on the history of Halloween and observed the Halloween-loving subculture in the United States. I wouldn’t say I have entered into a full-blown research project on Halloween but I have kept a scholar’s eye on the subject.
I have found that nostalgia is central to Halloween on several levels. First, we have nostalgia for childhood. For many adult Halloween enthusiasts, Halloween is a time that brings childhood back to life. They seek to relive the enchanted world of childhood. They live vicariously through the children in their lives, taking their kids trick-or-treating or to children’s Halloween festivities. They decorate their houses for trick-or-treaters and savor the experience of passing out candy to kids in costumes.
Beyond that, these adults seek to relive the Halloweens of their childhood memories. Media like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “Hocus Pocus” are wildly popular. Halloween television and movie specials are revisited almost ritually every year, and the watchers are transported into a liminal space in which the past and present meet.
Another example of this nostalgia for childhood can be found in the seasonal sharing of images and videos of old McDonald’s Halloween toys and candy buckets. Adults recall the pumpkin, ghost, and witch plastic Halloween buckets McDonald’s gave out with Happy Meals in the 1980s and 1990s. They try to find the buckets and other Halloween Happy Meal toys that have survived from that time. This year, McDonald’s has capitalized on this nostalgia by releasing a new version of their vintage Halloween buckets, and Halloween Facebook is going crazy for them.
An Enchanted Past
In another sense, Halloween is steeped in nostalgia for an enchanted, pre-modern past. Frequently Halloween enthusiasts recall the ancient origins of Halloween in Christian festivals surrounding the dead or the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain. Halloween media likewise recall these ancient roots, especially in supernatural tales. Halloween is imagined to be a festival that, from time immemorial, has marked a thinning of the veil between the living and the dead, or our world and the spirit world.
Nostalgia for a time when science and rationalization did not dominate every day life is conjured around Halloween. This nostalgia becomes more powerful the more the United States plunges into a world with lower and lower traditional religious affiliation and more and more secular rationality. There is a sense in which mainstream and professional society seeks to banish ghosts, ghouls, and spirits from the realm of serious discourse. Everyday people from various walks of life, however, refuse to give up the supernatural.
The fact that Halloween is a deeply American holiday highlights these dynamics. Halloween is not as popular and widespread in the British Isles where it began as it is in the United States. America’s enthusiasm for the spooky and magical holiday has led to its export back out to the rest of the world, where it is gaining a fresh foothold in places overseas. Halloween enthusiasts in the UK on Facebook look longingly toward the Halloween apparatus we erect every year in the US.
America is a place where people often feel severed from deep and ancient roots. European colonization has been fairly recent in the history of humanity. In the US, people seek the ancient and enchanted that people overseas might find in medieval cathedrals or other old and sacred places. On the other hand, America has remained more enchanted than Western and Northern Europe, where religious disaffiliation and eschewal of the supernatural has taken a firmer hold. In other words, America is fertile ground for Halloween while also being a place that craves something like Halloween.
Halloween is about nostalgia: nostalgia for the magical time that is childhood, and nostalgia for a magical pre-modern age.