Why skeletal remains have supplanted carved pumpkins as Halloween’s most popular decorations is just one question, among many others, I wanted to pose to Dr. Aldeni Ensernos, the world’s foremost expert on Halloween. Lucky for me, I was able to catch the elusive polymath (he holds the Granville Lash Distinguished Professorship of Occult Linguistics and Post-Structural Hermeneutics at Dixie State College) on his cell phone just as he was leaving his condo to lead a tour of Norwegian tourists through the St. George temple.
Dr. Ensernos: Make it quick, I’ve got a sweaty bunch of Scandahoovians crammed into a bus, and the air-conditioner isn’t working.
Deep End: Just wondering why you see scary skeletons everywhere instead of those lovable pumpkins?
Dr. Ensernos: Noticed the same thing, myself. Actually, skeletons have always been at the heart of Halloween, as I write in my book of the same name. [Editor’s note: The first 10 callers will get a free signed copy of The Heart of Halloween: Deconstructing the Dread of Death] Through all its iterations—pagan, Roman, Christian—Halloween has been the time, a “time out of time” as the French would say, when, between the end of summer and the start of winter, the membrane between life and death becomes permeable, the veil between this world and the next becomes so gossamer that the dead come calling; pop in for a visit, as it were.
DE: So, skeletons belong to the folks who missed the train back to heaven or hell or wherever they came from?
Dr. Ensernos: Not exactly. People dressed up like skeletons so the dead folk wouldn’t be so self-conscious about their lack of flesh. They were good hosts, those ancient Celts. Besides, death was a fact of life a couple of thousand years ago, people dropping like flies all the time, so death wasn’t such a big deal. Nowadays, of course, death happens at the hospital and the purpose of an open casket is to pretend the dead person is somehow still alive. “She looks so natural,” and all that. I bet most people don’t realize that skeletons are what we look like after worms feast on our dead flesh.
DE: You don’t see a lot of people dressing up like skeletons these days, except maybe little kids, and that’s a little creepy.
Dr. Ensernos: Just proves my point about the denial of death in our culture. It’s kinda cute to dress up a toddler in a skeleton costume
DE: So, what about all those skeletons and skulls and assorted bones we see all over the place on Halloween?
Dr. Ensernos: I have a whole chapter in my book on the subject. It’s titled “The Ubiquity of Bones, or How to Stop Worrying and Love the Big Sleep.” On the one hand, skeletons are in the same category as vampires and ghosts and witches: imaginary beings you can have some fun with, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. On the other hand, skeletons are all too real to us, despite the modern denial of death. On some deep level we do see the skull beneath the skin, the skeleton beneath the summer dress. Halloween is the only time of year that death makes a cameo appearance. But we just squint at it out of the corners of our eyes.
DE: On a lighter note, how come we see so many sexy costumes on Halloween? Doesn’t that contradict your theory about death emerging from the shadows?
Dr. Ensernos: Au contraire, Halloween-candy breath. Sexy costumes, whether nurses or Lady Gaga or Sarah Palin are entirely life-affirming. It’s the other side of the coin. The bones of death versus the flesh of life. Sexy time has always been part of Halloween, especially in the pagan days when people would dance naked around the fires. Speaking of which, I notice my Norwegian tourists are taking off their clothes. I’m afraid I’ll have to ring off.
Deep End: Thank you, Dr. Ensernos. Happy Halloween.
Dr. Ensernos: Trick or treat to you, too.