Our society fears death. And so we build an entire web of serious boundaries around it, talismans to protect our psyches – the solemnity of religion, the highly ritualized cultures of hospitals and the military, the hiding away of homes for the elderly. Even the complete lack of thought that most people give to wondering just how that hamburger or lamb chop ended up on their plate.
It is easy to see why this is so. Most of us deeply fear the cessation of our own life. We know it will happen, but that inevitability creates an existential contradiction: To dwell on our own death too closely – to acknowledge that this life we are experiencing is all temporary – might drain the meaning from our lives. And so we fortify ourselves with a world of carefully constructed symbols to guard against such thoughts.
Which is what is so wonderful about Halloween. It is the one time of year when we get to laugh in the face of death. We dress up in silly costumes, pretend we are visitors from beyond the grave, decorate our houses with toy skeletons and teach our children how to carve pumpkins into grinning demons from hell. In short, we have fun.
I love wandering around New York City on Halloween night. It is the one night of the year when strangers smile at each other, all enjoying the same shared joke. Normally serious adults wander around the streets in outlandishly ghoulish outfits, and by unspoken agreement all cares are put on the shelf for one magical evening.
And in a way this is logical. The only way to truly laugh at death, to be able to summon an easy and untroubled laughter in the face of death, is to not fear it. And so on All Hallows Eve we instinctively go back to that one time of our lives when death had no real meaning.
For just this one night of the year, we each return to our childhood. For childhood is the only time of our lives when we know what it feels like to be immortal.