Prof relays evolution of Halloween

Paganism, parties and professors with paper plates on their faces — those were just some of the topics discussed Wednesday night when the sociology department offered a look at the sociology of Halloween.

“We went way out of the way to make it as flamboyant as possible,” said sociology Prof. Bernard Beck, the primary speaker.

To begin the evening, Prof. Albert Hunter encouraged the nine students and other sociology department members in attendance to make sociology-themed masks using markers and paper plates.

One graduate student drew a few stick figures running to symbolize race, and another student decorated her plate with crosses, Jewish stars and moons to represent religion. Beck left his plate blank to symbolize alienation.

After the mask-making, Beck and Tim Hallett, a sociology graduate student, launched into a discussion about the sociology of Halloween.

Beck traced the holiday’s roots to pre-Christian pagan Europe. Vestiges of pagan culture continued to manifest themselves as part of a “counterrevolution against the Christianization of Europe,” Beck said. Rather than suppress these elements, the Catholic Church reluctantly accepted many pagan traditions, placing Halloween on its calendar on the eve of All Saints Day.

“It’s one of the elements of a new movement to inject all kinds of new holidays into the calendar,” he said, adding that the celebration of Christmas also is relatively new. By new, Beck meant within the past several centuries.

Early Christmases and Halloweens shared a practice that was the forerunner of modern trick-or-treating, Beck said. The tradition started with bands of oft-drunken peasants and workers demanding money from members of the upper class — a form of “siphoning off class resentment.”

The upper class eventually embraced the practice as an acceptable way of enforcing the social order during the rest of the year.

“What used to be done by adults who meant business now is done by little children,” Beck said.

In recent years, however, the pendulum has swung back toward the adults.

“The kids no longer own Halloween,” he said, pointing to the holiday’s heavy commercialization. Beck also said Halloween, like almost all holidays, is used by adults to throw parties, “get drunk, lose control and, if possible, have a sexual adventure.”

Children, however, just want the candy. To them, trick-or-treating is demanding “from a stranger what you’ve been told the other 364 days of the year not to accept from strangers,” Beck said.

And in “a purely American gesture — a status competition” — children often compare their candy loot, he said.

Hallett then discussed another staple of Halloween: costumes.

“When you look at the characters that persist over time,” he said, “they really tap into a collective unconscious of archetypal themes.” He cited Darth Vader, Frankenstein and Dracula as examples of costumes that have succeeded for this reason while more topical choices such as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costumes have largely disappeared.

Weinberg sophomore Kimberly Tester, who said she was not allowed to celebrate Halloween as a child because her minister father frowned on it, said she enjoyed the discussion.

“I thought it was pretty neat,” she said. “We used to have Hallelujah parties instead of Halloween parties.”