In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween. Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory. Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks? So capitalist thinking goes. While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is. A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.
I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend. Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music. In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence. Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself. The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions. An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous. Focus should be on resurrection, not death. But what if death isn’t seen as evil? Where is thy sting? This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.
The fear of death is natural enough. It’s the ultimate unknown. It fuels both religion and horror. In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death. Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually. Eternal torment isn’t in the picture. I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions. Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here. Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations. The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.