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To Laugh at Death

October 28th, 2011 | 2 min read

By Cate MacDonald

Yesterday I had the misfortune of having to go shopping for costume elements, which included looking for rubber snakes. Side note: Kids these days just don't seem to be interested in snakes. Dinosaurs are still doing a roaring trade, but it appears that snakes are out. Not enough branding and television shows, I suspect. Anyway, shopping at fabric and party stores three days before Halloween really highlights the strangeness of what exactly we're celebrating come October 31st.

I walked down aisles of disembodied heads and detached and bloodied rubber hands, wandered through a variety of gravestones, and ran into quite a few half-costumed ghouls and zombies attempting to get the approval of their mothers.  I saw some fancy light machines that projected ghosts on ones' front yard, and enough fake, plastic, bloody weapons to equip a horror film.

A house down the street from mine has a string of skull-shaped lights hanging from their porch. On the way to work every day I see three ghosts and two fairly friendly looking witches. Two other houses within my daily commute have gravestones on the front yard, and the McDonalds by my office is decked out in all sorts of spiritual beings and ghouls.

There's something very primitive, and distinctly human about Halloween. For all the modern world's enlightened thinking and secular commitments, we spend a day tramping around in costumes and decorating our homes, stores, and neighborhoods with trappings of physical death and afterlife.

But what strikes me most is how distinctly earthbound these images of death are. Zombies, ghosts, vampires, wiggling gravestones, animated skeletons, and haunted mirrors all display an afterlife which is, in it's own way, very understandable. We have turned the dead into extensions of our earthly existence. We are frightened of them, sort of, but only enough to think it's fun to talk about them and display them, which, I think, means we're not actually scared at all.

Death, on the other hand, is truly unknowable and beyond our comprehension. The idea of moving on, of entering a new, eternal existence far outside the world we currently know is the image of death that seems not to have captured our penchant for household decoration and merrymaking. As long as our spooks and spirits are sticking around and haunting us, then there is nothing to be too scared of in the afterlife. If the idea of haunted houses is to be believed, you may not even have to move.