You know how some articles seem like they could have been written just for you? Well this one actually was! I invited Nimue Brown to write this article because I knew she'd do a great job of it. Enjoy!
Paul asked me to write about the horrification of Samhain, which I think is a decidedly interesting topic so, here goes! Of course every year the decorations seem to get that bit more grisly. I’m sure there’s more gore about than there was when I was a child, but it goes with a wider cultural trend. Films that would have been rated fifteen for violence twenty years ago would be twelves now, and we are regularly exposed to far more horrific images and content than ever we used to be. One of the effects is mass desensitization. Not a day will pass without each of us hearing a story about death, seeing a corpse (all be it a theatrical one on the TV) or otherwise encountering the unpleasant. Violence is like a drug, and to have an impact you need ever stronger hits.
At the same time, our actual lives are becoming cleaner and more sanitised. The odds are that unlike many of your ancestors, you’ve never seen a dead person lying in the road. You may have seen animal road kill, but whizzing by in the car is not the same experience as being out there, smelling it and seeing the gory details. Unless you have a very specifically corpse-orientated job, the odds of you seeing dead people are slim.
Go back a hundred years or so, and death existed alongside life. Humans died where they lived, not ‘away’ in some mysterious home or hospital. Animals died where they lived, too, with the annual pig slaughter being a notable feature of life for many people. Hunting and fishing meant killing things, and again, the majority participated. We had public executions, too. The hideously injured, the people disfigured by accident or disease, or birth defects would very likely have been begging on the streets in significant numbers, or living exhibits in freak shows. A trip to the madhouse was once an amusing way to pass an afternoon.
I can only guess at what it might be like to live alongside death and suffering in this way. I rather assume that death would acquire a degree of normality. It was so normal for our ancestors to lose children and babies to disease and accident, so normal for women to die in childbirth, and for someone to be hanging at the crossroads. We’ve replaced all of that with stylised TV murders and a horror genre that is taking over Halloween as its major festival.
For pagans, Samhain is at least in theory, a festival of the dead. But that’s not the dead in a dripping organs and chasing you with an axe sort of sense. We can honour and celebrate the dead, remember them and share their stories. However, most of our children, pagan or otherwise will be just itching to smear fake blood on themselves and get out there seeking the thrill of alarm. Go back a few decades and children were free range creatures. We had bicycles and dens, we went out and we did stuff. Much of it pointless, messy and full of risks to make the health and safety conscious blanche. The modern child is not allowed to take risks. If they get a bruise you can expect an explanation from the teacher. A cut is a source of shock and alarm. We keep our children so safe that many of them will die from obesity induced heart failure, at this rate. We let them do so little that is real. What real things in a modern child’s life will make their heart race with fear? What real thrills, dangers and adventures are they allowed to experience? For many, the answer will be ‘none at all’. Instead, we let them watch things that are far more horrific than we would have encountered as children. Computer games are ever more graphic, violence on the screen is normal. And of course the lovely, unreal horror-fest that is Halloween gives it all a once yearly focus.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against horror. I like the horror genre. What we have currently isn’t ‘proper’ horror though. It isn’t about shivers and creepy, uncanny feelings of dread. Modern horror depends on visceral ick, on gore and body parts, and depictions of pain that are often pornographic in nature. Have you noticed how fine a line there is between film depictions of pain, and sexual ecstasy? You could be forgiven for thinking they are one and the same thing.
A person living a real sort of life doesn’t need the thrill and adrenaline rush offered by modern entertainment. A real life provides that, leaving entertainment to furnish you with good stories and food for thought. The more we push into visceral horror, the more we move away from uncanny narratives. Now, the uncanny is rich with mystery and possibility, but visceral ick is just a scenario in which bits of human anatomy end up places they were not designed to be. There’s no mystery. There is instead a horrible kind of banality to it, and as I said before, the more you’ve seen, the more extreme the next round has to be in order to get your attention, partly because it’s also so unreal. As with any drug abuse, the consequences are profoundly unhealthy.
I’m all in favour of reclaiming Samhain – not for some kind of fluffy, sanitised round of ancestor worship, but for proper fear. There are plenty of things out there worth feeling uncomfortable about. Eternity always makes me very nervous, along with infinity, just for a start. Mystery is by its nature laden with the potential for danger. The unknown is both fascinating and unsettling. Death remains the ultimate mystery. So many things in our culture, are designed to make death distant and to help us imagine we can beat it. Death needs to be part of life, needs to be faced, needs to be feared, not in the adrenaline pumping rush of another zombie chainsaw sequence, but in the deeper, more important fear of that which we do not know. The more time we spend with our safe, tame visceral ick, the less time we spend with the big and truly frightening existential issues. What does death really mean? That ought to scare us. It ought to terrify us into living properly, and fully, but instead we play at being corpses and settling down for another evening of watching people pretending to die.
Thanks very much for writing, Nimue.
To read more of Nimue's fab insights, check out her blog - Druid Life or buy her latest book on Druidry
Druidry and the Ancestors…
Nimue is on the look out for more writing projects and she'd like to write you something, if you’d be willing and able to find it a home on your own site or another space.
She can do articles, poetry and flash fiction to order, and will try her hand at any topic, within reason. If you would like something for your blog, magazine, website, egroup or any other space, please get in touch with Nimue, and let her know what sort of thing and what sort of length, and if its remotely feasible, I’ll bet she'd do it. Try her - go on, I dare you.