Against the unknown, Halloween is our brave face. It confronts the lengthening nights and approaching cold of winter. It laughs loudly in the face of death.
Today, Halloween is often perceived simply as a kid-friendly celebration for costume parties and collecting candy. Though the holiday suits our contemporary world, many of its traditions are surprisingly old. Trick-or-treating, for example, became widespread in America in the 1940s. However, the custom of dressing in costumes and begging door-to-door dates back to the Middle Ages. Wearing costumes to ward off harmful spirits at this time of year is even more ancient. This practice evolved over the centuries, yet the core intent to transform one's identity still captivates us.
The word Halloween is derived from All Hallows' Eve, the Roman Catholic holiday for remembrance of the dead that originated more than a thousand years ago. Before that, it was known as Samhain. This Celtic festival would commence on the evening of October 31, marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. This was regarded as the transition from the light half of the year (summer) to the dark half (winter). It is also when the boundaries between the seen and unseen worlds were thought to be closest, allowing the spirits of the dead to walk among the living.
Significantly, Halloween activities begin at twilight - the divide between day and night. The crossing from our familiar sunlit world to one cloaked in darkness symbolizes a transition from the conscious, rational mind to the unconscious - where our fears can readily take hold of us.
Many other traditions that we associate with Halloween can be traced back through the centuries. The bonfire was central to the ancient Samhain festival. Symbolically, it kept away the darkness of winter.
Other symbols, such as the jack-o-lantern or a witch on a broomstick accompanied by a black cat, have their origins in the Middle Ages. These, along with representations of death - from its personification (the grim reaper) to skeletons, ghosts, zombies, and vampires - continue to be associated with the holiday and are displayed prominently throughout our community.
One of the most extensive home displays in the Quad Cities is at 1109 East Rusholme Street in Davenport. It is an eye-popping menagerie of nightmare decorations that run the gamut from inflated, jolly ghosts at play to a grim severed head at the base of a guillotine. Some move and speak mechanically. Many are lighted from within like lanterns.
The home's owners, Randy and Pam Raabe, collected most of the decorations over the past 20 years. Some, however, are homemade - painted on wooden boards, constructed from a variety of materials, or glazed and fired in the owners' kilns.
In their display, the dead don't only walk among us. One skeleton is climbing onto a lower roof to reach an upper-story window; another is resting pleasantly in a hammock; others are dressed as pirates. The yard also has a sprawling cemetery with playful names such as Rattle M. Bones on the gravestones.
The display is meant to be entertaining, not an artistic statement. Yet, like a work of art, it evokes emotion and conveys meaning. Under the carnival-like environment, and under the guise of humor, there is an undercurrent of fear. It is disconcerting on some level that the dead are afoot in an otherwise safe neighborhood.
A few blocks to the north at 1135 East Central Park Avenue is another amazingly decorated home. Theresa Hamilton and Alan Thede Jr. have created scenes from classic horror films complete with projections of several of the films. These include the Bates Motel shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Pyscho, the cemetery from George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and the closet scene from John Carpenter's Halloween. There is even a lagoon and creature from Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Each tableau centers on an encounter with a monster (Norman Bates may look like us, but his mind is monstrous), a metaphor for death. Although we are safe in knowing that the scenes and figures are not real, the situations have psychological weight. As Danish horror-film scholar Mathias Clasen points out in a Psychology Today article on Halloween, successful horror fiction is usually realistic in its portrayals of human psychology and relationships. "That's where horror matters," Clasen explains. "That's where horror can teach us something truly valuable."
The sun sets at 5:57 in the Quad Cities this Halloween. When Daylight Savings ends two days later, it will be dark by 4:55. Even surrounded by our modern comforts, we feel winter's bony fingers reaching for us at this time of year. The ancient fear of the approaching darkness and cold is etched deeply in our psyche.
Halloween reminds us that we live in a world rife with horrors, that we tread close to the edge of the unknown. Yet it teaches us to confront our fears. And, in that confrontation, to overcome them.
Bruce Walters is a professor of art at Western Illinois University.
This is part of an occasional series on the history of public art in the Quad Cities. If there's a piece of public art that you'd like to learn more about, e-mail the location and a brief description to BD-Walters@wiu.edu.