Essay: Halloween gets historical due

The Virginia Gazette

Last year, the Washington Post reported that Americans spent twice as much money on Halloween -- $7.4 billion – as on the 2014 federal elections.

$7.4 billion buys a lot of fright. Broader cultural implications of the spending comparison aside, it's a figure that speaks volumes about this holiday's grip on the American psyche.

Evolved from ancient Celtic tradition, Halloween's popularity has risen and fallen with the changing tides of popular culture. Whatever arguments the naysayers have mounted against it, Halloween has always prevailed. Because, truthfully, we don't just like it. We love it. Some might even say we need it, now more than ever.

At a time when our relationships with the world are increasingly mediated by technology, opportunities for "real" experiences are more precious to us. Enter Halloween, an in-your-face feast for both the mind and senses. The adrenaline (and sugar) that fuels this oddest of holidays provides vital connective tissue between the unruliest impulses of our imaginations and raw physical sensation. The less we are able to control or predict our own responses, the better we like it. The very premise of "Trick OR Treat" promises this unpredictability -- we know not what awaits us.

Peering into the darkness may actually be good for you. Early in the last century, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung argued that disconnecting our conscious selves from the fears and anxieties that lurk deep within is hazardous for our mental health. Better to confront the "morbid phenomena" that reflect our innermost terrors – as the writer Eric. G. Wilson paraphrased it – to "express the energies of darkness and reconcile them to the light."

I can't say that Jung was on our minds when we decided to launch Colonial Williamsburg's first all-out celebration of Halloween this year. But I do believe the hauntings and other surprises we have planned for the East end of Duke of Gloucester Street on Oct. 30 and 31 will leave revelers feeling more than satisfied.

If there is one thing Colonial Williamsburg understands – even celebrates -- it is the importance of directly experiencing the world around us in order to make better sense of it. For decades, this has been a place where people have come to connect with the daily lives and labors of their forefathers and mothers. It is not only the sights, but the sounds, smells and even tastes of the Historic Area that cinch the experience – making it not just educational, but personal. In that sense, a Halloween program is a natural fit for the talented folks who already bring the Historic Area to life for our guests, every day of the year.

Historical authenticity is, of course, critical – even, yes, on Halloween. Fanciful as some of the programming for this event may be, it draws nonetheless from a dark chapter in Williamsburg's past: the actual trial and hangings of Blackbeard's pirate crew here in 1719. It was this direct historical connection that convinced us to give this holiday its due on DoG Street. We have "real" ghost stories. And as of this writing, we have thousands of children coming to experience them.

If there is one "selling point" that truly sets our event apart from the rest, this is it: While most other venues will revert to business-as-usual on Nov. 1, the tale of Blackbeard and his crew will live on here, as one among the many narratives that our actor/interpreters weave from the pages of history. Every day, these individuals find new ways to draw people into the story of early America. And in so doing, make the experience all the more relevant, and all the more real.

Mitchell B. Reiss is President & CEO of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

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