Zelophehad’s Daughters

Halloween and Ritual Boundary Crossing

Posted by Kiskilili

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.

28 Responses to “Halloween and Ritual Boundary Crossing”

  1. 1.

    Basically, I see at least two issues here:

    (a) what the boundaries on appropriate behavior are;
    (b) whether or not it’s acceptable to violate those boundaries “ritually” without trangressing them literally.

    I’m more interested in the second question here, but feel free to address either.

  2. 2.

    Now I’m wondering about the kid who dressed up as a missionary last night at the trunk-or-treat/ward dinner.

  3. 3.

    For an interesting description of pushing the boundaries with humor, I recommend reading “Portraits of ‘the Whiteman: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols among the Western Apache” by Keith Basso. Long title, short book, excellent read.

  4. 4.

    Great post and true to some extent.

    “If dressing as a devil were socially sanctioned, it wouldn’t be appropriate for Halloween.” This isn’t exactly true. Someone can dress in a costume that is completely socially sanctioned, but it can still be a costume. The missionary example is good because it is appropriate for a missionary to wear, but not something someone else should wear. You can dress as a prom date or a groom or a surgeon. Socially appropriate only in certain circumstances.

  5. 5.

    Exactly–I didn’t intend to make the point that a costume need necessarily play no social role outside masquerades in order to qualify as a costume, but merely that it be inappropriate to the individual. Perhaps I should have clarified by writing “if dressing as a devil were socially sanctioned for a particular individual, it wouldn’t be appropriate for Halloween to that individual.”

    (But that sounds cumbersome to my ear. Also, I don’t want to imply there are other people for whom devil costumes are socially sanctioned year-round. (?))

  6. 6.

    where are these wards?! so often on this website (which I love and read often) I hear about wards who cast out, restrict, or put personal (ie, nowhere to be found in any handbook of instruction or any conference talk) prohibitions on individuals or behaviors. granted, I’ve lived in other countries my whole life, but I have never, ever encountered this sort of behavior in the LDS communities I grew up in. Are these examples localized in the oft-stereotyped western U.S. or do all areas of theLDS world have their own idiosyncracies? I don’t mean indigenous to the local culture, necessarily, but rather taboos that have grown up around Church culture that can’t be explained doctrinally?

  7. 7.

    The prohibition on masks was actually in the CHI (or the GHI), at least as late as the mid-80s. (Doesn’t particularly matter to the argument, just for the record).

  8. 8.

    I like it, k.

    On the crossdressing thing, when I was in fifth grade I was in a play in which I played a female part. There was a picture of three of us actors in our local paper, me in a dress and wig. It was a great shot, and no one–not my family or anyone at church–had the slightest problem with it.

  9. 9.

    I have to disagree about the Mormons and joking about alcohol; in most work environments I’ve been in (legal and academic), the joking about alcohol is pretty standard. It’s worth noting that I’ve never (since BYU) been in a workplace that had other Mormons in it.

    After a great morning, afternoon, and evening of Halloween, I know what I love about it. It’s a very community-oriented holiday. Moreso even than Christmas—everybody celebrates Halloween. The businesses a block over did, the neighbors across the street, and you should have seen the houses we trick-or-treated at.

    A finer point: nobody worries that she’s going to offend somebody by wishing them a Happy Halloween. So everybody can celebrate, unconcerned. (Our ward party last week was great, but the neighborhood and, for that matter, the city were absolutely stunning.)

  10. 10.

    I should add, overall, I don’t see transgression as being the purpose of Halloween. Of the kids we went out with (none of whom were Mormon), we had Wendy and Tinker Bell (my daughters), Things 1 and 2, a banana, the Cat in the Hat, and a bride. We’re in a pretty gay neighborhood, but only saw one crossdresser.

  11. 11.

    queuno, personally, I would be very afraid of a kid dressed in a missionary costume.

    Sounds interesting, Brian!

    Awesome, Kevin! Probably harder to pull off now with the beard. Though that could add to its entertainment value!

    Well, Small Dog, it would no doubt be enlightening to have some hard data on Mormons’ attitudes toward Halloween around the world! I have no doubt that it differs from bishop to bishop (I wonder how much, though). And thanks for reading. If you happen to have a juicy story about dressing as a devil to the ward Halloween dance, don’t be shy! ;)

    Sam, I agree that one of the most appealing aspects of Halloween is its civic nature. It’s nice to see neighbors getting out and interacting.

    Clarificiation: I’m in no way positing the ultimate purpose of Halloween in a broad sense, but more narrowly trying to get a fix on some of what occurs in the instances in which community norms are violated, such as when people assume anti-social identities like vampires (a much longer standing element historically in Halloween celebrations than banana costumes)–and thus, if not the purpose, one of the important ways in which it maybe functions. I have no doubt that the fluidity of identity that costumes afford and the reasons people choose particular pseudo-identities are much more complicated. Many girls are pretty transparently fairy princesses because they find that identity appealing. In contrast, I was in a ward once with the biggest tomboy ever, and I think when she came to the ward Halloween party dressed as a fairy princess it had very different significance and motivation (people died laughing at the incongruity of it).

    I could be at a particularly Puritan school; I’ve watched my colleagues get drunk, but I don’t recall ever having heard them joke about getting drunk. Maybe I should pay closer attention; it’s possible I’m not as attuned to it?

  12. 12.

    Alas, I’ve never rocked thigh highs or horns at the ward party! I’ll add that to the To-Do list. In response to Kristine, I didn’t word myself well. I meant, is the CHI intended, in this case, to limit behavior outside of church functions? Because if it is, I think that’s more than a little ridiculous. It’s funny that people can become so polarized over holidays, and not just Halloween. I think it’s easy to pick on Halloween because it’s a festival that is sort of intended to shock, or at least make things that would normally be shocking be alright for one day. Not a bad idea. I wouldn’t recommend a get-away-with-it-this-once murder or drug use day, but I think that turning fear into fun allows us to experience the emotion in a controlled way. People used to believe that the day was the day that the spirit and physical world crossed paths, allowing them to connect with death without actually dying. Catharsis, I gues…

    And reading over this, I realize all of this is really long winded and off topic. My point? Halloween is fun! It’s about harmless mischief and getting to live out a fantasy of being something else…which may or may not involve a mask. Indulge a little!

  13. 13.

    Well said, Small Dog!

  14. 14.

    Great post. I love Halloween and discreetly roll my eyes at Mormons that don’t and I hate it when ward Halloween parties get turned into “Fall Festivals.”

    The Brazilian sociologist Robert da Matta one told me that, when he was living in the New England, the thing that seemed most transgressive to him about Halloween was that you could knock on the door of a total stranger and ask for free stuff. Based on his experiences in the U.S. and the concept of American culture that he had constructed, it was the weirdest thing he’d ever seen. He viewed this as just as transgressive for Americans as Carnaval is for Catholics. We’re just too close to the phenomenon to perceive how strange it is.

    I totally see Halloween as a societal safety valve (in theory, anyway) — gotta keep those Jungian shadows down!

    Sam B., I see what you mean about alcohol jokes not being exclusively Mormon, but there is a definite brand of Mormon alcohol humor that I think K. is referring to which, in my opinion, does reaffirm cultural boundaries.

  15. 15.

    “one” => “once” [sigh]

  16. 16.

    “The New England”? I really needed to read through that again.

  17. 17.

    This reminds me of the constant boundary-transgressing humor missionaries engage in–proposals in district meeting that we go skiing on Mount Etna for P-day, etc. My comp and I once called our district leader and, all straight-voiced, asked permission to attend Carnivale with a couple of men who’d propositioned us on the street. It took him a while to catch on.

    I have never in my life heard as many homosexual jokes as I did from the elders on my mission. From some it was a more or less constant stream. You don’t have to be all Freudian to come up with a theory about that phenomenon.

  18. 18.

    I think it’s kind of like “the BYU.” :)

  19. 19.

    Great post, Kiskilili!

    As a side note: our ward specifically prohibited masks at the Trunk-or-Treat, but said nothing about devil costumes or cross-dressing. Maybe they just figured no one would. Also, I don’t think anyone said anything to the teenager who showed up on stilts and with a mask on — from what I could see, he was given candy just like everyone else. I’m not really sure why the church has a thing against masks; I’ve never understood it. I’ve never been in a ward where they told us not to wear masks anywhere else, though — just not to the church activity.

  20. 20.

    My dad once told me that the no mask thing came from the days when someone would come in a mask to tar and feather brother Joseph and then show up to church the next day.

    But he was prone to pulling things out of thin air, so who knows. It does seem to fit our collective long memory for grievances, though.

    I wish we were more open to exploring those shadow sides. I was just talking to CWC yesterday about how I’m still trying to shake off the consequences of growing up being told how big and scary “the world” was. Part of me was afraid of making friends with non-members because I was certain that the day would come when they’d be shoving drugs down my throat. I was a shade ridiculous as a teenager.

    I think having some safe ways to explore boundaries and fears would have made me feel less polarized about finding good and evil in the world.

  21. 21.

    Fascinating, Orwell–that hadn’t even occurred to me! Trick-or-treating really is outside our cultural norms; many of us barely even recognize the people who live downstairs from us or across the street. If nothing else, Halloween spurs us to interact with each other, which I think is great. And I find declawed “Fall Festivals” silly; it’s a pagan holiday–let’s unleash our inner pagans.

    I totally believe it of missionaries, Eve. Someone should do a study of Mormon humor.

    I’m glad they gave the rebellious soul in the mask candy anyway, Vada. :)

    So true, Reese! I also grew up thinking evil godless nonmembers wanted to shove drugs down my throat. The irony is that we make evil much scarier by refusing to explore it in safe ways. And maybe that’s the point, to be so in awe (not in a positive sense) of Satan that we wouldn’t dare dress as a ghoul–as in The Name of the Rose, in which religious figures have concluded effectively that the fear of the devil is necessary to our fear of God. In a roundabout way, maybe Mormon Halloweens are the scariest of all?

  22. 22.

    Hey, drop me an email about this post?

  23. 23.

    I have a dear friend who is a cross dresser. He dresses up like a woman on a regular basis; not just for Halloween or other ‘special’ occasions. It has been fascinating learning from him about his experiences. In his mind, the societal opinion of cross-dressers is far worse and lower than just about anything someone could subscribe to. He feels that people who are open to any number of disenfranchised or marginalized groups, are still largely judgmental of and prejudiced against cross dressing. And while he feels berated on a consistent basis– even by members of other disenfranchised groups– he feels ultimately so compelled to do what he does that he says he wouldn’t be true to himself if he did not. He equates it with a heterosexual person (or whatever) trying to change who they are to be a homosexual or vice versa. Out of sheer interest in the idea of the transgendered and fluidity of gender and sexuality, I have paid more attention these past couple of years, to friends, colleagues and others who have dressed up as the opposite gender be it for Halloween or otherwise.

    Uh threadjack I guess. Thanks for the interesting post!

  24. 24.


    I hear a number of jokes about alcohol in my no-Mo workplace, but they’re still jokes whose humor stems from boundary-crossing. (I.e., having a drink at work or in the middle of a job interview.)

  25. 25.

    I don’t want to derail this with a discussion of jokes about alcohol because, frankly, I love Halloween and any discussion of it. I’ll just say that the type of alcohol humor, I believe, has a lot to do with the relative age and availability of alcohol. Back when I was a summer associate at a large law firm in New York (back when the legal world was highly-functioning, financially), the summers joked almost nonstop about getting drunk. Not because it was forbidden–because it was encouraged by firm associates and paid for by the firm.

    That’s not to deny the potential for transgressive joking about alcohol. But, depending on the situation, it’s not always joking about what is forbidden–sometimes it’s joking about what is specifically permitted and encouraged. (Ditto with comments about getting wasted on Facebook from high school friends–most of them I’ve not seen in 10 or 15 years, so I don’t have a way to judge whether they’re verbally transgressing boundaries they wouldn’t cross in real life or not, but I assume that, at least for some of them, when they joke about getting plastered that night, they really will get plastered.)

  26. 26.

    On the whole, I find Halloween charming and benign.

    I’d have to agree. What is fun is to see the H1B visa holder’s kids on Halloween, really enjoying the immersion in local culture.

    The joke sub-thread has been interesting, Too bad no Lady Godiva costumes, at least none before the (non)wearers were arrested. ;)

    The heavy prohibition against masks goes back to when they were legislated against nationwide as part of the backlash against the KKK and similar groups. It remains with us, though fading, as the KKK and its memories fade.

  27. 27.

    Very interesting post. I always knew about the no-mask rule; however, I didn’t know the others. (And I’ve even lived in Utah!).

    This year, my 8-year old daughter dressed up as Alex Trebek. Last year it was Elvis, and the year before – Abraham Lincoln. We never felt any kind of negative feedback – even though she was technically cross-dressing. Mostly, people laughed (which is exactly what she was going for).

    anyways – I’m not sure what to make of this…;) but I’m glad that she didn’t get in trouble!

  28. 28.

    I really like this post, Kiskilili. I particularly like this point you made:

    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.

    So other than dressing up as devils for Halloween and making jokes about drinking, do Mormons have any other ways of doing this? I tend to agree with you that this chance to let off steam around the boundaries probably actually strengthens them. I was just thinking that we have so many boundaries that maybe we would have less actual crossing if we had more such chances to ritually cross. I don’t know–I’m just thinking out loud about this.

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