Halloween as American cultural hegemony
How do I explain to my four-year old son that Halloween is a load of rubbish?
He barely grasps the concept of other ethnicities and their countries-of-origin, let alone the idea of national cultures and divergences within the English-speaking world.
But nonetheless Halloween is rubbish in Australia.
I never thought I’d see Australians on “trick-or-treat” adventures, dressing up their kids and going door-to-door like we used to watch on TV, when American sitcoms or dramas would have their Halloween, Christmas, and Thanksgiving themed episodes.
I’m teaching my boy what “inauthentic” means, but I’m not sure authenticity holds real cultural cachet, notwithstanding the rise of bespoke, hand-crafted, hipster-themed goods and services in the last few years.
On the one hand we celebrate authenticity when it comes to men who feel like they “really are” women and vice versa, or when it comes to encouraging us all to be true to our sexual orientation.
But in the process we redefine what a man or a woman really is, or what marriage really means; privileging one form of authenticity over another.
Maybe it’s the same with Halloween?
On the one hand, Halloween in Australia is profoundly meaningless, deeply inauthentic, and the kind of culturally vapid, commercially-driven embrace of superficial Americana that our own cultural elites always warned of.
On the other hand, an increasing number of Australians feel like doing it. It’s an authentic expression of their wishes and enjoyment. And what could be more authentically Australian than people doing what they want, because they enjoy it?
I could argue that meaning is more important than enjoyment…but what if some people find meaning in enjoyment? And would it be far from the mark to say that I’m the kind of person who simply finds enjoyment in meaning?
For years my job description was essentially “warn people about the bad things that could happen if we keep heading down this road”. Not a lot of fun, but it seemed like important work, and people had a right to know the more dire implications of innovations in our ethical principles.
But at some stage it became apparent that the warnings didn’t dissuade people. The curious thing is that, over time, what seemed at first like a dire prediction turned out to be what everyone subsequently wanted.
In other words: don’t worry about the frightening future consequences of today’s choices; by the time they arrive, you’ll already love them.
When people used to warn about the Americanisation of Australian culture, their unspoken implication was that everyone will love it. That’s what makes the Americanisation of our culture successful.
By the time the change arrives, it’s already too late. Yesterday’s dire prediction is tomorrow’s welcome reality.
If I had to go trick-or-treating, I should probably go dressed as Cassandra, the Greek figure of tragedy cursed by Apollo to speak true prophecies no one would believe.
But that’s the kind of overly-meaningful Halloween costume I’d end up having to explain to everyone. Plus it’d look like I was cross-dressing, and in the current climate may be deemed an act of hurtful transphobia.
Perhaps a better choice would be Ulysses. He had the foresight to know that once he heard the Siren’s song he would be unable to control himself. He had his men tie him to the mast so he could hear the seductive beauty of the song, but not be dashed to pieces on the rocks.
It’s too much to expect friends and neighbours to be moved by our own sense of what is authentic and meaningful. But we can at least be authentic ourselves, even if our authenticity is at odds with everyone around us.