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Raising Hell: The Rise of Halloween in Australia

We’re a competitive lot, oh we of the Antipodes. We love a good stoush. We love formalising a good stoush and we like our stoushes punctual. Just take a look at the zeal surrounding the yearly event that is the State of Origin, or how the Melbourne Cup annually “stops the nation”, as the marketing (quite accurately) tells us. There’s a new event rising, two new contenders in a new ring, and the odds are fairly certain if you want to place your bets. Halloween is on the rise here in Australia. Every year the camps divide: there are those that throw their hats gladly into the ring, actively engaged in creating a new tradition, and those that spit and pooh-pooh and reflexively decry its rising, blood-dimmed tide. The spleens of the latter are vented in vein; Halloween has dug its cloven hooves into our red earth and it’s not going anywhere. But what fuels the ire? Does the inevitability of Halloween’s onslaught in some way drive the disdain?

Critics in Australia offer up varying arguments against Halloween’s growing encroachment. One of the most obvious, and one with some merit, is to deride its obviously commercialised nature, although those who suggest that marketing has played a role in its rising popularity and that Halloween enthusiasts are but poor sods duped by Big Confectionary are engaged in something of a “No shit, Sherlock”. Congratulations, you just described capitalism. This is a valid criticism, of course, but part of a wider conversation and one that is hardly exclusive to the garish excess that is Halloween. Unlike some other festivities, which hide their commercialised nature behind such dubious concepts as “love” and “giving”, Halloween wears its excess on its sleeve, revels in it even; excess is the point. Whether this is for better or worse it is at the very least honest in intention. Critics also cite the conflicting messages we give to children, encouraging healthy lifestyles but then sending them out demanding confectionary en masse, but again this is part of a wider conversation and one that treats Halloween as a donkey to blindly pin a tail on.  

Another more convincing argument, at least on the surface, is that we are celebrating it on the wrong day; Samhain in Australia falls on April 30. Dig a little deeper though and this argument becomes disingenuous, doled out insincerely in the full knowledge other arguments pack little punch. No one crying Beltane on October 31st is ever going to complain about the Queen’s Birthday public holiday not being on the Queen’s actual birthday, something that is in fact celebrated, for in Queensland it coincides with the AFL Grand Final weekend, a pleasant coincidence that combines two of our great loves: sport and getting wasted. It means you can be drunk for three days instead of the standard two. It’s very un-Australian to not occasionally get drunk on a weekday. Of course, from an atmospheric standpoint, an Autumn (or Fall, as you US maniacs call it) Halloween might have merit, but to fall back on tradition would be to forgo some of our own. While all you lunatics in the Northern Hemisphere decided it should snow on Christmas, we just had to go against the grain and make it shine. While many when they think of Christmas think of the proverbial “white Christmas”, Australians associate the season with the outdoors, with barbeques, swimming and shellfish. The mangoes are juicy and plentiful and the stone fruit is in season. The sun is hot but the beer is cold. Sunny Christmases as a point of difference are a national point of pride. So get back in your box with your “Halloween in April” nonsense, Jack, your diplomacy is all trick and no treat. Another, more honourable, debate in Australia concerns changing the date of Australia Day. What to some Australians is an excuse to drape themselves in flags while they place bets on their favoured contender for Triple J Radio’s Hottest 100 winner and just engage in general, drunken, patriotic yahooery is to Indigenous Australians a day of mourning, hence the argument for a more inclusive date. Dates matter but it is the meaning we as human beings invest in them that make them matter, and treating them with some malleability to find that investment is worthwhile. An October Halloween favours solidarity with the global community of costumed freaks and sexy something-or-others.

But these are side arguments and no one who argues them is really that invested in their merit. There is one prevailing argument that is given, and I use the term loosely because it is not even an argument, and that is that the holiday “is American.” It’s all premise, no conclusion, held to be self evident, but it has been and remains the primary complaint among all detractors every year in October. It’s hard to argue with something that’s not actually an argument, besides to state the obvious in that it’s simply not true. It will be revelatory to precisely no one that Halloween has diverse origins, primarily rooted in an amalgam of Celtic and Christian traditions. The supposition is particularly baffling when you consider our country’s love affair with Irish culture (i.e. drinking). The Celts have origins in the area that is now Ireland and the holiday is widely celebrated there. We’re quick here to proclaim our Irish heritage and this is probably at no time more evident than on Saint Patricks day, which we celebrate with great fervour (i.e. by drinking) and without, I guarantee you, a second thought for how Saint Patrick banished all those pesky snakes.

Beyond that the “argument”, as it were, is hard to unpack. What is actually being suggested here? American culture is a bad thing and should be therefore rejected? If the previous arguments were disingenuous this one is delusional. If we weren’t so steeped in American culture there might be some credence to this but this is simply not the case. Not only is it not the case but also we have a tendency to be singularly uninterested in our own culture, at least when it comes to that of the popular variety. According to boxofficemojo.com, of the top 100 box office earners in 2017 only two Australian films even made the top 50, with the majority of the rest hailing from… well, I won’t insult your intelligence by finishing that sentence. One of those, Lion, is the first Australian production to crack the top 10 since, ahem, The Great Gatsby, an honour afforded to only three Australian productions in the last decade and only five in almost the last two. Of those five, Lion, Happy Feet, Australia, The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge, only one, Lion, was an entirely Australian production, the others being international co-productions. Guess which country had interests in those productions? That even Fury Road failed to find a place in the top 10 is more prophetic of the inevitable slide into the wasteland that depicted in the Mad Max series. Consider too the popularity of the annual Zombie Walk all over the country. The walk (always held, for some strange reason, around Halloween), and indeed zombies themselves (at least the modern, Romero-version) are both cultural imports from the States. Box office figures and zombies are hardly solid metrics by which to measure cultural identification, but from these examples alone we can reasonably deduce that any argument against Halloween based solely on some sort of assumed and pervasive aversion to American culture is not only incorrect, but downright nonsensical.

What is essentially going on is a sort of reflexive anti-Americanism that has found its mascot in the great Halloween bogeyman. But where does this come from? And why does it persist in a country that swallows up more American culture than the Outback does tourists? The answer might have less to do with the USA and more to do with our own cultural identity. Former Treasurer Peter Costello spoke at length about this sentiment. Mr Costello (2005) said, “There has always been hostility from some on the left of politics towards America. These are people who believe capitalism is evil and that the United States is the home of capitalism. In their eyes the United States is the place where the evil of capitalism and exploitation is most at home.” This somewhat echoes the anti-commercialism argument against Halloween, taking the extra step of politicising it along party lines. Mr Costello (2005) also stated, “Left wing politics and its more recent variant – anti globalisation – operates in a fever of anti-Americanism”. Mr Costello’s assertion that anti-Americanism is the sole property of the political left is debateable but he was onto something when he asserted this sentiment as motivated by a resentment of the US.  “In global terms the power of the United States is unrivalled. People are naturally suspicious of power. A lot of our literature tells stories about the little guy who takes on and overcomes the big guy: David vs. Goliath. We are supposed to identify with the little guy. There is something in human nature that resents another’s power.” (Costello 2005) What he is essentially talking about when he invokes David and Goliath and “the little guy” is the idea of underdog.

Australia loves an underdog. Our stories are permeated by images of the underdog. Everything from the (highly suspect) cultural-canonisation of the outlaw Ned Kelly, to The Castle, to Breaker Morant and Gallipoli, is rife with David vs. Goliath tales. The events portrayed in the latter film are remembered annually on the very solemn (and possibly only Australian public holiday not celebrated by the proverbial piss-up, the absence of which is a measure of its solemnity) ANZAC Day. Australians have another word for the underdog, the “battler”. The term is almost as old as the country itself and has had several meanings over its lifespan but, as Neriko Sekiya (2008) states, the most commonly understood sense of the word is one of an ordinary individual “who has few natural advantages, but works doggedly and with little reward, struggles hard for livelihood, and displays enormous courage in doing so”. The battler, those that “persevere through their commitments despite adversity”, is the personification of what Australians sees as their “fighting spirit” or who, in other words, “expresses the value system of Australian identity”. Nekiyo (2008) argues the battler is an expression of Australian egalitarianism, a cultural consequence of which is the necessity to “actively play down and hide their success and intelligence.” This manifests in another cultural expression, “the tall poppy”. As Nekiyo (2008) states, “Australia seems most proud of its achievements when a tall poppy has been lopped or an underdog has won”. To return to Mr Costello’s analogy, in a sense Australia is David the underdog, the battler, America is Goliath and Halloween his mighty fist. Halloween is therefore perceived by some as a threat to Australian culture, an invasive force sent by a tall poppy in need of cutting down.

That the increasing popularity of Halloween in Australia represents a threat to the Australian way of life is a dubious concept but one likely driven by an ingrained, cultural compulsion. The inevitably of the onslaught no doubt fuels the furnaces of disdain directed towards it; it may be inevitable and while some embrace it, others aren’t going down without a fight. The old adage “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” is something of a deep-seated, unspoken philosophy down here, where playing the game means going down with knuckles up. Resistance is reflexive; it’s just in our nature. Maybe we’re still convicts at heart. And fight or no, widespread or not, Halloween is here; mighty Goliath advances and there’s nary a stone in sight. Those worried about cultural identity need not be, in fact, there’s cause for excitement. Halloween in Australia is something of a Tabula Rasa, a blank slate on which we can inscribe whatever we please. Just like Pavlova and Russell Crowe we can welcome it, appropriate it and claim it for our own. There is another more solemn reason to take up the holiday. Halloween “turns our minds to death,” as Christine Smyth (2016) says. “Modern western society struggles to discuss death and its impact.” Since once a year on ANZAC Day our minds turn in quiet reflection to our fallen soldiers and all that they have allowed for us would it not be appropriate once a year to reflect on and remember all those who have gone before us? Would not a bit more quiet reflection as a nation be perhaps desirable in general? But if two days a year of solemnity are too much for us then why not just add another public holiday, dye our beers blood red instead of clover green, and make a long-weekend of it. What could be more Australian than that?

To quote, in the spirit of festivities, Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 classic Night of the Demon, “It’s in the trees! It’s coming! The demon is coming!”

The runes are in our sunburnt hands, and there’s no passing them on.

Happy Halloween, ya bastards.

Bibliography

Costello, P. (2005) Speech by the Treasurer, the Hon Peter Costello to the Australian- American Leadership Dialogue Forum gala dinner: Art Gallery of New South Wales, The Domain, Sydney, retrieved from http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22media%2Fpressrel%2F922H6%22;src1=sm1.

Sekiya, N. (2008). ‘Aussie ‘battler’ as cultural keyword in Australian English’. Griffith Working Papers in Pragmatics and Intercultural Communication, Special Issue: The Ethnopragmatics of Australian English, Vol 1(1), 21-27.

Smyth, C. (2016). Days of the dead: ‘double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble.’ The Proctor, Vol. 36, No. 10.

About Hud William

Hud William is a would-be scholar who resides in Queensland. His taste, like his mental state, vacillates between both high and low but, like his mental state, gravitates towards the weird: queer, cult, exploitation, ozploitation, horror, trash, giallo; the usual unusual. He is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Popular Culture, after which he plans on undertaking postgraduate study, and is simultaneously working on several personal projects he hopes to share in the future. He hopes you enjoy reading his work as much as he enjoys freaking out about it being deemed worthy by strangers on the Internet.

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