On the night of October 30, 1938, several million Americans thought the world was being attacked by Martians. That’s because they were tuned in to the popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour” radio show until past 8:15PM EST, meaning they missed the initial announcement that Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast was indeed fictional (the original broadcast can be heard here). The “news reports” that made up the first two thirds of the broadcast were not real. Earth was not actually being attacked by invaders from Mars. But despite this announcement being made several more times throughout the evening, widespread fear took hold. Distressed listeners flooded local police stations and newspaper offices with phone calls to the point where switchboards were rendered inoperable. People bought gas masks and hid in their basements with shotguns. They stormed hospitals seeking medical treatment. Many claimed to have seen UFOs.
Experts still debate the nature and extent of this panic. Some – including Orson Welles himself – blamed the media for whipping up public fears (over 12,500 newspaper articles were published documenting the aftermath of the broadcast). But whatever the exact contours of the hysteria, its effects were real enough to prompt a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation into whether radio censorship was necessary to avoid the type of panic that followed War of the Worlds. It eventually concluded that steps already taken by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in the wake of public outcry were sufficient to protect the public interest. No further action was unnecessary, although the FCC did order the CBS programming department not to use the format of a “simulated news broadcast” in future radio plays.
The War of the Worlds episode depicts the trust of mainstream media that still prevailed in 1930s America, a time before the immediacy of social networks coupled to the caustic irony of faux reporting like The Onion blunted the public’s taste for the nightly news. Yet it also bears witness to the kind of censorship that has arisen around Halloween throughout its history as a modern holiday. The most recent example is the costume controversy at Yale, but despite the claim that this kind of outrage is only a recent phenomenon borne of social media, offensive costumes on campus have been an issue since at least the 1990s, for example in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals case Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University over an “ugly woman contest.”
Horror movies are another perennial object of the censors, with films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) causing outrage, panic, and even heart attacks in theaters. Urban legends of Halloween “sadism” – e.g. poisoned candy, razor blades in candy apples – have been circulating since at least the early twentieth century and reached a fever pitch between the 1950s and the 1970s. And every year, Evangelical Christians prohibit their children from dressing up and lobby public schools to shut down Halloween celebrations (this year there’s an added twist – in some places in the U.S., police are discouraging clown costumes because of the rash of alleged serial killer clown sightings in wooded areas throughout the country!).
But Halloween as a modern holiday is no stranger to debates about the limits of proper expression. Controversy about such limits go back to at least the 19th century, when the holiday was associated with “licentious revelries and masqueraded parades.” The first recorded instance of dressing up for Halloween – called “guising” – was in 1911, and scholars generally trace the holiday’s ancient origins to Celtic harvest festivals like Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) that were then Christianized by Pope Gregory III in the 8th century. Traditionally associated with commemorating and/or warding off dead souls wandering among the living, Halloween has also been a time for mischief and pranks, especially since the 18th century. “The conventions of rascality that invigorated turn-of-the-century Halloween took a long time to die,” writes Nicholas Rogers in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, remarking on the holiday’s slow transition to respectability in the American context.
Licentious revelries, conventions of rascality, the dead among the living – at its core, Halloween is connected to ideas of transgression and reversal. It means surpassing or inverting the normal bounds of right and wrong, proper and improper, or even life and death. In this sense, it resonates with what Mikhail Bakhtin called “the carnivalesque,” roughly defined as a world upside-down created through humor and chaos. Bakhtin was referring specifically to the ribald satire of Gargantua and Pantagruel by 15th-century French monk François Rabelais, but the idea of a transgressive, topsy-turvy social space can be found in every culture – ancient Greek Aristophanic drama, the medieval European Feast of Asses, native American shamans and contraries (heyokas), the shadow play (khayal al-zill) in Middle Eastern cultures, or the “wise fool” archetype embodied by Yu Sze and Lan Ts’ai-ho in China, Birbal in India, and Nasreddin Hodja in Turkey.
Little wonder that rituals and symbols like these – whose purpose is to be a kind of social catharsis, a temporary and fictionalized space for actions normally prohibited by social custom or law – should also traditionally be the object of both obsessive attention and vigilant policing. This partly has to do with the real potential to abuse brief allowances of bad behavior. The medieval European Feast of Fools, for example – the celebration vividly portrayed in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame – was perennially subject to condemnation by clerical authority figures like Robert Grosseteste, Eudes de Sully, and Cardinal Odo, out of fear that the celebration would lead to real subversion of legitimate religious and social custom. In this sense, the policing of “topsy-turvy” festivals partook of a similar spirit that led to various Inquisition offices springing up across western Europe.
But the censorship of ritualized behavior reversals also happened because such reversals have historically taken on the role of a political and social scapegoat. By singling out the sinful, the debased, the ‘low,’ a given social group can legitimize its own position as moral, exalted, ‘high.’ Yet ironically, this only happens because they are willing to let their gaze linger on the very thing they want to condemn. “Repugnance and fascination,” write Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, “are the twin poles of the process in which a political imperative to reject and eliminate the debasing ‘low’ conflicts powerfully and unpredictably with a desire for this Other.”
What does this mean for modern-day debates over proper expression which are bound to show up every year toward the end of October? It means that they take part in a longstanding struggle at the very core of human nature: the dance between hedonism and its suppression. We all have the urge to do something outrageous, unseemly, or even bad, yet at the same time we fear the real consequences of it. Days like Halloween provide a space to let us experience that fear but not the consequences, exploiting the positive benefits of a seemingly negative emotion (this is what Katerina Bantinaki calls the paradox of horror). The panic that ensued after War of the Worlds aired the night before Halloween came from fear and fascination all at once – it was, after all, one of the most popular radio broadcasts of all time.
As long as humans have a simultaneous desire for and fear of the macabre, the grotesque, and the diabolical, Halloween and its accompanying controversies will not be parting ways anytime soon.