Halloween on campus is probably the single most distasteful annual occurrence at Yale. In the next two days, students will receive emails from Deans and professional staff desperately warning us to be careful and responsible in our drinking and sexual activity. Nevertheless, Yale Acute Care will add extra staff and prepare for the inevitable and nightmarish inflow of violently ill patients. Multiple people will make mistakes that will likely cause significant suffering to themselves and others.
As with most tragedies and unfortunate events, the harm is all too easy to disconnect from our own experience. Most students’ eyes will glaze over as they reach this sentence; they will discount the kill-joy columnist who seems to be auditioning for a role as the Halloween version of the Grinch. After all, the vast majority of us won’t do anything all that irrevocable in the next few days. And those who do, the thinking goes, have no one to blame but themselves.
This cavalier, dismissive attitude is as self-absolving as it is inaccurate. Halloween is a holiday, and its celebration on campus is a cultural phenomenon. And though the worst of Halloween is experienced by relatively few students, the seeds of the holiday’s destructiveness are felt and created by many more.
For starters, Halloween as a holiday seems utterly meaningless. Other American and Christian holidays celebrate great moments in history, dynamic personalities and actual values. The modern Halloween does none of these things. It is a heavily commercialized ritualization of nothingness.
Perhaps we could hold onto the candy and the costumes of childhood memory. Certainly, there is something beautiful about children’s imaginations coming to life and neighbors visiting one another and sharing food. But these positive and familial Halloween moments barely exist at Yale. Instead of neighbors greeting children with kind words and candy, we have depersonalized masses of students wreaking havoc as they move from suite to suite drinking themselves into oblivion. And instead of using costumes to express magical, childlike fantasies, we privilege the very worst of Halloween’s historical origins: the celebration of the horrible.
Unlike the Celtic celebrants of old, hardly anyone at Yale uses Halloween as an opportunity to worship demonic spirits. Nevertheless there is something demonic about our own modern fascination with terror and pain. Most people who wear bloody costumes and enjoy horror films don’t think of themselves as condoning violence. Yet their actions help create a world in which terror and suffering feel more acceptable. For each axe-murderer that walks by us on Cross Campus on Wednesday night, we become a little more conditioned to violence. We grow a little less viscerally repulsed by evil.
On campus, the problem isn’t simply that the ghoulish aspect of Halloween is privileged, but that the ghoulish becomes intertwined with the sexual. The combination of costumes and alcohol supposedly allows people to give expression to their deepest fantasies and desires. But as the Playboy bunnies and Grim Reapers stream through campus, we have to ask ourselves: what sort of collective fantasies are we expressing and promoting?
Even worse, the violence and the sex are oddly gendered. Nearly every female outfit seems to begin with “sexy.” “Princesses or “fairies” aren’t good enough for a college student; no, only “sexy princesses” and “sexy fairies.” The men, of course, wander around as blood-spattered axe-murderers and Sweeney Todds. So the men are bloody and women are sexy — and everyone of course, is incredibly drunk.
We thus have alcohol, violence and sex being stirred together in one big toxic brew. For some students, that brew will boil over obviously and viciously. But the rest of us should not delude ourselves into thinking that we have gotten through unscathed. The glorification of evil and the gendering of violence and sexuality do subtle but pernicious damage to our way of viewing the world. So dial back the gore and sex. After the YSO show, why not simply eat candy?
Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .