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Hitchhiking in the Land of the Dead

Pull up a chair and sit a spell. Death’s in residence on my block

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die
To cease upon the midnight with no pain….

— Keats, Ode to a Nightingale

Once upon a time, when Europe could be had at $5 a day, I found myself hitchhiking on the freezing plains of Spain just outside of Madrid. Car after car swept past me, the winds in their wake chilling me further. This was very disconcerting since I had with me my fail-safe ride generator, and a hot hippie girlfriend (Think a good-looking Janis Joplin.) My ride generator had never failed me before but on this day she was generating zero rides even though the traffic on the road was heavy. Then I noticed two things.

First, there seemed to be no trucks on the road. Second, the cars that huffed past us were filled to the gills with whole Spanish families bearing vast bouquets of flowers. And all those Spaniards looked, to the last, very grim.

After a few futile hours, we made our way — walking — a few kilometers down the road to a truck stop where, using my pidgin Spanish, the mystery of the ride drought was solved. It seemed that we were trying to get to Barcelona on one of the holiest days of the Spanish year — All Saints Day, or as we have it here in America, Halloween.

The Spanish tradition on this day is for the whole family to load up the car with flowers and other offerings and haul off to the local graveyard for a visit and picnic with the dearly departed. After that many go off to a traditional performance of Spain’s Faustian epic Don Juan Tenario in which the final act takes place in a cemetery. On this holy day in Spain, we had almost zero chance of getting a ride anywhere other than the local graveyard. Chastened, we made our way back to Madrid by bus and set out the next day with much better luck.

What remains in my memory from watching the parade of cars on that long-lost Spanish highway is just how dour and serious the Spanish were on their Halloween. They weren’t fooling around with death, but taking it at its word. They not only believed in death they also, in their prayers and rituals and their traditional play, believed that what you do in life determines how you will be treated in the afterlife. They had, at bottom, that adamantine belief that is the pearl beyond price of the Catholics. But even if you were to strip away the 2000 years of dogma, these people still had the one thing that more and more Americans lack at the core of their lives: a belief in something greater than themselves, a belief in something greater than man, greater than death.

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.


In my neighborhood in Seattle, many don’t believe in anything sacred other than, at best, Obama. Their entire belief system centers on that tin god than on themselves and their “only one life to live, live, live!.” All of this makes for an empty skin sack of existential desolation that they try to fill every Halloween with the greatest of American secular concepts: fun.

“Fun” is a curiously American concept that seems to have begun its invasion of all aspects of our shared life shortly after the end of WWII. I suppose that after the Great Depression and the war, the nation felt it could use a little fun. And, as usual, that great American axiom, “If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing,” came into play. Nowhere do we see the idea that life should be “fun” pumped up into bigger balloons of pure vanity than on Halloween.

From a minor tradition of sending kids out to pick up some free candy, Halloween has mushroomed into a major American auto-fornication festival in which we regularly — and with increasing intensity — celebrate the meat state of life while pretending to vaguely celebrate the spiritual part. If you’ve noted, as I have, the increasing lust for gruesomeness in costumes at every new Halloween, you might have reflected that dark humor has taken a back seat to darker fascinations. One new costume around this year allows you to dress us as a corpse in a body bag complete with wounds and autopsy slashes. And that’s a mild one.

Added on to costumes depicting violent death, mutilation, and the corruption of the grave, we have the increasing trend of freak show street events and private parties where this week’s perversion is served as bubbling punch; as a witch’s brew we are only too pleased, dressed as dregs, to drink to the dregs. In Seattle, of course, freak show street events and perversion parties are pretty much the order of the day, if not the daily spectacle on many blocks. But there’s something about Halloween that brings out the horror show of many inner lives like no other event. The only thing that saves us from seeing ghouls and goblins parading naked about the streets with their full-body tattoos and multiple genital piercings on display is the colder temperature, but there are clubs that specialize in that all about the city so you can see it if you wish.

It seems strange that a day for the contemplation of mortality has been turned into a carnival of corruption in this country, but perhaps not all that strange. I’d suggest that, as the country becomes more secular; as it ceases to believe in anything other than the here and now, the moment in the meat, it becomes increasingly terrified of the extinction of the self by death. It is one thing to profess a belief in the Great Nothingness, it is quite another to have to face it. The only weak weapon that can be raised up against it is its denial. . . .

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  • Stargazer October 30, 2020, 3:19 PM

    I believe Halloween is a corruption of All Hallows Eve (the evening before All Saints Day).

  • Mary Hodges November 4, 2020, 10:46 AM

    All Hallows’ Eve = Hallowe’en 31 October
    All Saints Day = 1 November
    All Souls Day = 2 November
    That’s the way of it in the English speaking world. There are places in the US that don’t do Hallowe’en, some of them in Iowa, where they have Beggars’ Night, which is the day before Hallowe’en, if I recall correctly, invented by parents because Hallowe’en had gotten too rowdy. Why having it the night before made things less rowdy is unknown, but Iowa and the midwest have long been their own subculture, ticking along without much outside notice.

    There are a lot of Mormons hereabouts in the Rocky Mountain west, and there is a move afoot to make Hallowe’en the last Saturday in October, which makes a lot of people doubt that Mormons are Christians, because they don’t celebrate All Saints’ Day. But that seems kind of picky, because the original All Saint’s Day was in May, although those of Catholic and especially Spanish heritage find the idea of moving an event traditionally associated with a certain date for convenience, annoying.

    • Dirk October 29, 2021, 6:20 AM

      Mary, nice, I learned something. Wayyyy back when there were valid reasons for these days of remembrance. Anymore it means little. WWW, in many ways has dehumanized We The People. Think we are far less sensitive to others needs.

      Sad really.


  • jwm October 26, 2022, 11:09 AM

    Gerard recently celebrated his re-birthday. Today I celebrate my escape from the Day of the Dead.
    Link at my nic. Glad to be here.


  • Like An Everflowing Stream October 26, 2022, 4:14 PM

    The pagan Samhain or feast of the dead.
    A full moon would be just right but that was a few weeks back.
    Enemedia is on about Fentanyl in candy and other frights because they are Halloween every day.
    Look for the Spirit faux Halloween costumes celebration of the intellectual heavyweights in Clown World for gut busting morale maintenance.