Mormons tell more jokes about alcohol than anyone I know. There’s a simple reason for this, I think, and it’s not (in my reading of it) that many faithful Mormons are on the verge of losing their grips on the teetotalers’ wagon. Quite the contrary: the humor of such jokes derives specifically from the transgression of important cultural boundaries. It’s only funny to joke about heading over to the local pub for a Jack Daniels after the General Relief Society broadcast because such an outing is forbidden, highly improbable, and entirely incongruous with the tenor of the evening. If such an event were an ordinary occurrence, the joke would have no resonance.* One could argue that, rather than weakening community prohibitions, by violating them verbally humor actually reaffirms them.
Most wards I’ve attended permitted the celebration of Halloween within particular constraints: no cross-dressing, no masks, and no devil outfits. I suspect the rationale behind such regulations goes something like this: certain behaviors and attitudes should not be imitated under any circumstances, and thus certain boundaries given a wide berth. After all, if your son gets a taste for glitter slippers he might not be able to cross back; if your daughter is allowed to behave like a vampire tonight, what will stop her tomorrow night from biting her sister’s neck at the dinner table? Our aversion to masks might revolve around the impunity that anonymity often bequeaths: what will keep people in line when our ability to assign personal accountability is compromised? (Anyone else remember Ramona gleefully pulling other children’s hair from behind her witch mask in Ramona the Pest?)
I wonder whether these concerns might not be misplaced. Our script for appropriate Halloween behavior entails donning a costume and assuming an identity other than one’s own. You dress and behave in ways that are specifically not socially acceptable any other time of the year. If dressing as a devil were socially sanctioned, it wouldn’t be appropriate for Halloween. By putting on a devil costume, in a sense a person publicly affirms that they are not a devil: that’s what makes it a costume.
Especially in a community committed to stringent regulations on dress and public appearances, perhaps a cordoned-off environment in which those boundaries can be ritually loosened provides a healthy safety valve, a space in which alternative personalities and Jungian shadow sides can safely be explored. Ultimately, I would argue, masquerades reinforce rather than weaken those boundaries through their ritual transgression for the reason that the space and time around Halloween events is clearly demarcated from ordinary life.
This is not to say that I think any behavior is acceptable at a carnival or Saturnalia. A Lady Godiva outfit has a lot to recommend it: it’s cheap, convenient, and doesn’t require knowledge of how to operate a sewing machine. But personally, I’d have reservations about letting a nudist into my party, and here’s why: boundaries are no longer being just ritually crossed (as they are when we joke verbally about getting drunk without doing it or put on devil’s horns without actually making a pact). They’re now being literally crossed as well: not only is an alternative persona being assumed (the Lady Godiva part doesn’t worry me), but prohibitions on nudity are actually transgressed. And anything doesn’t go, even from behind a Darth Vader mask. (On the other hand, tellingly, I see nothing morally problematic about cross-dressing.)
On the whole, I find Halloween charming and benign.
*I’m well aware that for many Mormons, this kind of humor already has no resonance.
- 31 October 2009