October is upon us. The telltale signs are all there: trees just starting to turn, gray skies that hide an intangible menace, a coolness in the air, and Halloween stores sprouting like mushrooms. Halloween is a holiday with incredible sales appeal, I suspect, because people are still, at some level, very afraid. We evolved into who we are from a long history of being prey as well as predators. Fear governs many of our interactions in social settings, although we prefer to call it more abstract names such as “rule of law” or “peer pressure.” Deep down, we are afraid. Halloween allows us to wear that fear on our sleeves. And it isn’t just the Celts who made this confession; Día de los Muertos developed independently, giving us a different flavor of the same emotion. Savvy marketers know that where a human concern lies, there will be the purse-strings also.
Commercialization of religion—the fancy word is “commodification”—is as close to American religious experience as you can get. We live in a religious marketplace. Various religious groups offer their wares, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. Often the underlying motivation is fear—fear of displeasing deity, fear of eternal torment, fear of reincarnation. We are afraid and we don’t know what to do, so we try to buy our way out of it. Other times the Madison Avenue approach works. Consider the Crystal Cathedral, or even the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. These are tourist destinations, architectural marvels that draw us in. The message is still pretty much the same: the deity will get you unless you give back. How better to show respect (that is fear) than erecting a massive, complex, and very expensive edifice to the angry God?
It is simplistic to suggest that religion boils down to fear, but when all the water evaporates, fear is certainly evident among the residue. Next to the overtly commercial holiday of Christmas the most money can be coaxed out of Americans at Halloween. Or consider the appeal of horror movies. Love them or hate them, they will draw in big money at the box office. In a society that sublimates fear and tells its citizens that unimpeded growth is attainable, Halloween is the most parsimonious holiday. Perhaps the most honest, too. A full month before the creepy sight of naked trees and chill breezes that sound like screams whistling through their bare branches, the stores begin to appear. When Halloween is over they will be dormant for eleven months of the year, but like the undead they are never really gone. Only sleeping.