The day after seeing the first TV commercial for the December holiday gift potlatch seems like an appropriate time to consider the point at which the celebration of Halloween transformed from a secular celebration of a religious holiday to a major factor in the infantilization of American culture.
Infantilization occurs when adults continue to act like children in their adult years, e.g., living at home after college (although many must), vacationing at Disney facilities, collecting My Little Ponies or Legos, indulging in superhero culture, participating in adult sleepovers at museums, engaging in cosplay or spending a good deal of time playing video games. The list of movies glorifying adults who remain children grows so quickly that I have tired of trying to keep up, and so supply a slightly old set of examples: The “Bad Mothers” series, “Tammy,” “Harold & Kumar” movies, “Old School,” “Big,” “Grandma’s Boy,” the “Ted” flicks, “The Wedding Crashers,” “Billy Madison,” ”Step Brothers,” “You, Me and Dupree,” “Dodgeball,” “The 40-year-old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” all three “Hangovers,” the “Jackass” movies, “Bridesmaids,” “Hall Pass” and “Identity Thief.”
My central assertion over what has become ten pieces on the infantilization of American culture has been that retailers and advertisers embrace and encourage adults to keep their childish habits and ways of thinking because it’s easier to convince children to buy something, easier to manipulate their emotions and dissemble their still forming critical faculties.
Celebrating Halloween is different from attending a “My Little Pony” convention because it has a long history dating to the ancient Celts. Christianity rolled pagan customs into a three-day celebration of saints. When I lived in Germany in 1976, no one celebrated Halloween, but churches were opened and stores closed for the next day, All Saints Day. In England, by contrast, children have been trick-or-treating since the 16th century. Moreover in much of the civilized world, rich folk have dressed up for costume balls and parties since at least the Romans, if not before. Like all holidays that predate the establishment of the world’s major religions, Halloween is at essence a way of marking time, which means both counting years and separating the parts of the year—and the day—into parts and defining appropriate human behavior for marking those parts.
As it has done to all modern celebration, commercialization has slowly corrupted the holiday of Halloween. In every decade since World War II, fewer costumes are home-made and more are store-bought than in the prior decade. Virtually all treats are now prepackaged candy: a handful of highly-publicized cases of adulterating food aided by urban-legend type rumors of others in the 1980’s pretty much put the kibosh on distributing home-made cookies or brownies. Giving even a small amount of something healthy like raisins or nuts is way too expensive for most families. Decorations have gotten completely out of hand. Once people put a pumpkin or two in their window or on their porch. As children in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, my brother and I used to add a few cut-outs of ghosts, sometimes bought and sometimes created from construction paper. We would add twists of orange and black crepe to the living room when we threw a party. Decorations have become more and more elaborate with each passing decade and today symbolize an apotheosis of conspicuous consumption: elaborate and very expensive displays of three-dimensional witches, ghosts, goblins, gremlins, goons and monsters. Thorsten Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, would marvel at how Halloween now turns the exterior of the house into yet another opportunity for the bourgeoisie to demonstrate that they have enough money to waste large sums of it on trifling showiness. People now also routinely send Halloween cards. With the increase in the intensity of Halloween celebration has come, of course, a growing tsunami of TV and Internet ads and entertainment programming starting around October 1st each year. In total, Americans spent $8.4 billion to celebrate Halloween last year, or $82.93 for each individual making a Halloween purchase.
But while we can regret this commercialization of Halloween, there is no infantilization in these developments, just the same good old-fashion American commercialization that has corrupted Christmas, Hanukkah and Easter, while creating new opportunities to commemorate by spending such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Many adults, however, are celebrating Halloween as if they were still children, all involving costumes. When you get dressed up in a costume to stay at home and distribute treats, you have been infantilized. When you insist on donning a costume to accompany your children on their trick-or-treating journey, you have been infantilized. When you wear a costume to the office during office hours, even if it is to attend a Halloween party that takes place at the lunch hour, yes, you’ve been infantilized. In all these situations, you are extending the habits and thought processes of childhood into adulthood. These practices are of course new reasons to buy stuff for the holiday, and so have been encouraged by commercials and entertainment, e.g., situation comedies and family dramas.
Moreover, Halloween was a holiday for children for many years. Now it is a holiday for children and adults. Commercialization and infantilization have worked together to transform Halloween from a special occasion for the community to give its children sweets from the harvest bounty to another excuse for Americans to spend to show they’re human and to pretend, for one evening, to be children again.
When I wrote at the beginning of this piece that I saw my first holiday gift TV commercial yesterday, it was a mild distortion. The commercial alluded only obliquely to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but instead pushed the idea of getting Black Friday prices before Black Friday, which has all but official recognition as a major American holiday, one dedicated to the greatest of all American past times—shopping for goods and services that express emotion and define relationships. The only benefit from this overlapping of the Halloween and the Christmas season is that it provides further protection from commercialization to Thanksgiving.
I want to close this piece with a base commercial announcement of my own: My latest book of poetry, a flipbook titled Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month is available from the publisher, Poet’s Haven Press or Amazon. Cubist States of Mind uses language equivalents of Cubist painting techniques to depict mental states, such as anger, desire, jealousy, boredom, hunger and wonder. Not the Cruelest Month is a cycle of vignettes of New York City the April after Superstorm Sandy hit that explores the relationship between reality, perception and language. That’s a lot of thought-provoking poetry, and at $6 it’ll make a great stocking stuffer or small gift.
Now that I have ended my shameless shill, I leave it to my readers to determine whether I have subverted commercial culture or been co-opted by it.