145. The Cognitive and Moral Worth of Halloween

A still from Ingmar Bergman’s thoughtful horror film The Hour of the Wolf

Aesthetic expressions of horror are produced and enjoyed by people all over the world. But some bemoan such horror and do their best to avoid it. However, when Halloween arrives they find it difficult, given all the decorations, costumes, music, movies, events, and so on, to escape!  Over the last few years I have spoken to quite a few students, colleagues, family members, and neighbors about their unease with Halloween imagery. Some told me they are pleased to see how little horror is present these days. And some would like to see all the horror eradicated! In the days following Halloween I reflected on these encounters in order to find some justification for horrific imagery.

I think philosopher Cynthia A. Freeland, in her book The Naked and the Undead (Westview, 2000), offers one convincing justification in her reflection on horror films:

“Films of uncanny horror prompt a complex cognitive and emotional response of appreciation for the worldview they represent. We may not endorse or accept their message, but we can find it worth considering and responding to….As a whole, the uncanny object, if it is an artwork like a film, can have an aesthetic power in the way it requires us to feel repulsion or dread, to “see” and reflect about the horrors it so evocatively presents. We could not think seriously about such a worldview if we did not picture it and respond to that image so thoroughly.” (239)

Do we, like Dracula, turn away from self-reflection when it comes to death and evil?

Like many good horror films, the varied imagery of Halloween can be seen as a means to contemplate a worldview that includes threats to the good, repressed feelings and memories, ambiguous identity, death, abnormality, insanity, and so on. In doing so we have an opportunity to think about many elusive phenomena that, while difficult to deal with, are indeed part of our world. This would be a cognitivist or instrumental approach to Halloween, namely, one that sees it as a means to intellectual stimulation that can teach us something and help us see the world and ourselves in a more comprehensive, sensitive, and honest way. And Halloween is qualified to help us in this regard since there is, of course, an ample amount of fun which provides the distance needed to deal with the horror. But we can choose to use the holiday, just like we can use other holidays, for reflection on serious things which, in our busy lives, we tend to overlook. For example, I have investigated the aesthetic category of the uncanny in some detail which has enriched my experience of Halloween (see here). I have made an effort to engage with some of the novels and films associated with Halloween (see my series on Dracula here.) And I have learned a great deal by investigating the nature of Franz Liszt’s demonic music (see here.) In doing so, I have been able to retrieve some insights into the human condition which, in our consumer society, often get lost in an effort to make everything accessible to pop culture. So much art is kitsch: it is easy to swallow, formulaic, and, in many cases, a lie. We escape through this thoughtless art from a difficult world we would rather forget. Now there is a time and place for such art. But isn’t there a time and place to thoughtfully reflect on darker expressions of the human condition? If so, then perhaps the Halloween season is that time.

Moreover, we can see a moral dimension to this reflection if we consider the memento mori (remember that you have to die) tradition which “is the medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. It is related to the ars moriendi (“The Art of Dying”) and related literature. Memento mori has been an important part of ascetic disciplines as a means of perfecting the character, by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.” (Wikipedia). Memento mori art, far from coming out once a year, was integrated into people’s homes and, of course, places of worship. It served a cognitive and moral function despite its horror. For example, Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanitas (c. 1671) presents the three essentials for us to contemplate, namely, Life, Death, and Time:

We should also think of the many depictions of the dance of death in which Death appears to take everyone away regardless of their stations in life. Hans Holbein’s (c. 1497-1543) disturbing yet funny woodcuts are excellent examples. Here is his image of Death coming to take away even the doctor who helps preserve life:

These works aren’t only instrumental to understanding something. They were the means to practicing something and becoming a better person. Cultures all around the world have different ways of remembering death and incorporating such memory into their lives. I think the art of Halloween and its rich traditions in literature, music, and cinema can serve a similar moral function for us. The lives we are so caught up in will not last forever; indeed, they may not last another year, day, or minute. Seeing strange images of horror all over the environment for a few weeks can, perhaps, put some things into perspective if we choose to remember death.

Given this quick instrumental analysis of Halloween as potentially a means to cognitive and moral development, I say, against some efforts underway to the contrary:

Keep the horror in Halloween!




One thought on “145. The Cognitive and Moral Worth of Halloween

  1. Nancy G on

    Love your blog and its message, Dwight. Philippe de Champaigne’s still life and Holbein’s woodcuts are great references for your theme as well as visual reminders of our vulnerability. I particularly love the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead (Nov.1st) where people laugh at death and joyously honor the passing of loved ones by laying flowers (marigolds) on their graves.

    Your conclusion is perfect; keep the horror in Halloween (but also the fun)!

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