In this third and final entry in our Over the Garden Wall trilogy, we’ll be taking a deep look into the holiday which the series is built around.
As such – fair warning – it is also my long overdue love letter to Hallowe'en.
To begin with, let’s acknowledge that there is absolutely no intrinsic reason why this story had to take place on Hallowe’en – it was a deeply intentional choice on McHale’s part, and should be considered deeply important. Other times of year could be just as significant: Christmas is the most obvious holiday to explore ideas of magic and family and belonging; summer vacation is common setting for stories about teenagers coming of age, adventure, and self-acceptance; graduation, Sweet Sixteens, last days of school, homecoming, New Year’s Eve, bar mitvahs, Valentine’s Day, proms, formals, and band recitals are all excellent rites of passage or testing times for teenage characters who are struggling to accept themselves.
So why Hallowe’en?
"All That Was Lost is Revealed":
A 3-Part Series Analyzing Over the Garden Wall's
Macabre Beauty, Joyful Whimsy,
and Profound Philosophy
On the surface, plot-wise, the obvious solution is that it allows the Brothers to be dressed anachronistically, disguising their modern origins – and there is truth to that. However, I think the deeper cultural meaning behind Hallowe’en – this imaginative festival of loosely-held contradictions and existential emotions – deserves the credit.
One of the obvious influences of the contemporary scenes in the last two episodes is the Peanuts 1966 Hallowe’en Special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which also follows the misadventures of two socially awkward boys (the gloomy, Wirt-like Charlie Brown and the imaginative, Greg-ish Linus Van Pelt) as they navigate rejection and embarrassment from their peers. The stakes are high in this cutthroat children’s crusade – especially for Charlie Brown (who is accidentally invited to a party, tossed rocks in lieu of candy, and taunted for his pumpkin-shaped head).
Like Lord of the Flies, Peanuts has an anxious, chaotic world without adults where the children spar for power and influence – one where the weak are ostracized or tormented. It is much, much harsher than Wirt’s own high school experience (although he clearly believes himself to be some kind of irredeemable, undesirable "Charlie Brown").
The two shows share little in terms of their actually messages: OtGW is optimistic, transcendental, and life-affirming while The Great Pumpkin is largely pessimistic, cynical, and misanthropic (this is perhaps a surprising assertion for those of us who grew up with it and associate it with childhood innocence, but Charles Schulz was a bitter, fatalistic man). Although their ethoses are so different, I was still reminded of one of Charlie Brown’s favorite catchphrases while I was watching OtGW's final episode – “good grief.”
Much has been written about this phrase and how it – like Hallowe’en – is a complex contradiction, but I think its literal meaning – a deeply felt sorrow that is somehow life-affirming – embodies so much of what both OtGW and Hallowe’en itself stand for: the intentional, collective processing of trauma and pain.
"EVERYONE'S GOT A TORCH TO BURN":
The Transcendental Power of Embracing Grief
I mention that this thought first occurred to me during the final episode, and with good reason. This is the episode where we see the clearest, most heartbreaking example of “good grief”: the Woodsman acknowledging the insanity to which his unprocessed grief has driven him. He realizes in stunned horror that his false hope has deluded him into allying himself with the Beast.
In a real world example of this, we might imagine a father grieving a daughter lost to her depression, who – by failing to process his trauma – allows himself to be manipulated into hopeless inaction by his own depression. Sadly, instead of feeling his feelings, and using this newly-restored emotional energy to raise awareness, start a foundation, or mentor other hurting kids, he might chose to stay at home, lost in self-isolation, letting the Beast of Hopelessness run his life.
When the Woodsman confronts his fear (that by dousing the light and experiencing the emotional darkness he will “lose” his daughter) he is able to feel, move through, and process his trauma. He realizes that his daughter is still alive in his heart, and summons the courage to let go of the deceptive flame – a fire kept alive by the fuel created through the Beast’s continued campaign against humanity.
He sees that by passively playing the Beast’s game he has been unintentionally complicit in the harvesting of other lost children's souls. Disgusted and horrified, he choses to confront reality, sever ties with his wicked master, and allow himself to sit in the crushing darkness of his grief, no longer afraid to do so.
Sitting in darkness – accepting and feeling our scary feelings – is what Hallowe’en is largely all about. And yet, as I’ll get to in the conclusion, I’m very much afraid that we have lost touch with what Hallowe’en has done for humans over the centuries, what it can do for us today, and what it is really, really about.
I think that, far too often, we see it as a time to masochistically languish in darkness – in existential hopelessness and pessimism – without accessing its joy, light, and community.
Like the Unknown’s ubiquitous half-moon, Hallowe’en has historically been a season defined by balance – between fear and hope, isolation and community, the material and the mystical, reality and imagination – and one of its core projects is the embracing and redemption of fear.
During October, we still deck out our houses in symbols associated with fear and the unknown (lower-case “u”) and commit our reading and entertainment to topics that are unsettling or even terrifying. It is a controlled burn of anxiety – exposure therapy of our existential anxieties – and if done with follow through, it can be astonishingly life-affirming.
What we have lost, I fear, is the courage to commit to that follow through: we gin up our anxieties of murderers, torture, loneliness, vulnerability, death, and oblivion, but so infrequently, it seems to me, do we take the cue from Greg’s Gospel (see our previous post on that) to joyfully and trustingly surrender ourselves over to the certainty of uncertainty.
By fighting against it – even while surrounded by plastic ghouls and binging zombie movies – we never come out on the other side, and become metaphorically lost in the Unknown of our anxiety and self-consciousness. We never sanctify our anxiety with humanity and love.
"ALL THAT WAS LOST IS REVEALED":
Reclaiming & Sanctifying Death in Community
This idea – the critical need to confront and process anxiety – replays regularly throughout OtGW, but it is first and most beautifully illustrated in “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” where Wirt is confronted with a colony of resurrected skeletons who have re-envisioned their lonely fate by donning vegetable suits to recontextualize their predicament: yes, they are dead, but no – their deaths have not been in vain, nor are they to be pitied, feared, or seen as useless.
Like seeds that are buried, die, and bloom forth in stunning, new life, their mortality is given new purpose and identity. The name of their town – Pottsfield – is a portmanteau (an intentionally wholesome reimagining) of a much sadder phrase: “potter’s field.” A Potter’s Field was a secluded piece of ground outside of town where unclaimed bodies, the very poor, homeless folks, and strangers were buried in cheap, mass graves.
The implication of Pottsfield – hinted at in the final montage – is that Enoch (the black cat masquerading as a giant pumpkin) is something of a King Moonracer (the benevolent cultivator and guardian of Rudolph's colony of discarded, Misfit Toys): he has stumbled upon this sad cemetery, rallied its denizens, and helped them to find new meaning, purpose, and life.
This is what both Over the Garden Wall and Hallowe’en itself tend to do with our isolation and fear. Like the bony residents of Pottsfield – skeletons redeemed and consecrated with a dignifying suit of jack-o-lanterns – OtGW builds a lovely, autumnal exterior around its heavy, central theme: the quiet beauty of confronting your mourning and mortality with childlike trust. As such, the show’s humor and nostalgia domesticates its innate darkness: not to hide it, but to sanctify it.
In the same way, when Larry the skeleton is reclaimed from his unmarked grave in the Potter’s Field, he isn’t ashamed or self-conscious about his decomposed status, and he doesn’t don the pumpkins and corn shocks like fig leaves to hide his nature from his community. Instead, his friends joyfully rush to reclaim him from death, covering him in the fruits of the harvest like a martyr being dressed in a clean, white robe.
His friends aren’t uncomfortable with his mortality, nor is he, but they are quick to use the pumpkin suit to symbolically bless his bones. In the same way that special garments are used at transitional ceremonies (robes at graduations, gowns at weddings, and chasubles in religious services), Larry’s friends provide him with vegetable vestments to mark his transcendent transition from death.
This scene also underscores the final line of the Latin dirge “Potatus et Molassus” which solemnly plays when Greg is found sacrificed on the Edelwood stump: “Grow, tiny seed, you are called to the trees…” As mentioned in our second post, this recalls the theological tenets of many global faiths which find spiritual value in existential vulnerability.
We see this in the counterintuitive moral philosophy of the Gospels (“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds”); the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; and the Jewish notion of Middah Kabbalat HaYisurin.
Likewise, Larry – and the other Pottsfield residents before him – died and was buried (like a seed) in a pauper’s grave, apparently forgotten and no longer useful to the world. But when his community had him harvested (like a ripe vegetable) from his dormancy in the ground, his life was validated, celebrated, and reclaimed.
In short, grief and mourning – the confrontation of unhappy truths – are used to reverse the curse of mortal angst. By accepting Larry’s death and coming face to face with his bony remains, his mourning community is able to enfold him into their embrace and recover connection with him. By letting go, we allow ourselves to reclaim and recover.
This lesson recurs throughout the series:
Mr. Langtree recovers his failing business and dying dream by accepting reality
Ms. Langtree recovers that no-good Jimmy Brown by going public with her grief
Mr. Endicott recovers his peace of mind by confronting the reality of his “ghost”
Lorna recovers her freedom by accepting the dark, taboo nature of her cannibalistic curse
Greg recovers Wirt’s salvation by acknowledging his lack of leadership and openly atoning for it
Greg recovers his inner child by accepting himself and embracing/sharing his eccentric passions
The Woodsman recovers his lost daughter by confronting his grief and letting her “go”
"CONTENT TO BE SLIGHTLY FORLORN"
Hallowe'en's Historic, Theraputic Role in Processing Fear, Anxiety, & Grief
This is also the primary, traditional lesson of Hallowe’en itself – one shared by all of its pre-modern sources. Most fundamentally, the pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) was meant to confront the passing of summer into winter, from fecundity, prosperity, health, and light into sterility, poverty, illness, and darkness.
With the coming onslaught of cold weather, limited resources, hunger, and disease, these Druidic communities knew that many among them would not live to see another summer – this was guaranteed – and indeed, many of them might be seeing one another for the very last time as they celebrated together around the communal bonfire, before parting ways into the dark night.
Like the cycles of nature and life around which their faith centered, Samhain represented an acknowledgment of the cycle of farewells which the harsh weather presented, but -- as with all cycles -- implied within the farewell is a coming hello, a restoration, and the promised peace of closure.
It was a festival acknowledging mortality and the confronting the particularly liminal nature of autumn – a season defined by stark beauty, life and death. It is a time of prosperity and harvest, but presages the approach of hardship and famine, where even the golden splendor of the autumn leaves is a symptom of death setting into nature. To the Celtic pagans, Samhain wasn’t a defiant expression of decadence or hedonism, but a peaceful acceptance of mortality.
For the early Christians, Hallowtide (All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day: October 31 – November 2) is by definition a celebration of the dead and a season of intentional mourning and hopeful celebration. This is probably most carefully preserved in Latin cultures, where the repressive, rugged individualism of Puritan culture never gained a foothold. Most famously, Mexican culture uses Dia de los Muertos as a multi-day festival of grief, love, and remembering.
All Hallows’ Eve helped prepare the community by meditating on the realities of death (“memento mori” – "remember that you will die") and was seen as a liminal moment when the dimensions of life and afterlife brushed shoulders – casting the shadow of mortality on the living and shining the light of hope on the memories of the dead, cultivating an open, expressive culture of "healthy grieving."
All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day provided the community with an intentional block of time to simultaneously mourn their lost loved ones and find comfort in their memories. Grieving, then, was no longer a luxury of the wealthy, but a sacred right and duty for all people, regardless of their class or influence, and one which merited a two-day festival of observance to validate the emotional and spiritual necessity of mourning.
When pagan and Christian traditions enmeshed together into "Hallowe’en," their shared DNA reinforced the holiday’s contradictory tones: joy and grief, excitement and anxiety, hope and fear. Regardless of our religions or philosophies, we are each invited to ponder death, mourn our traumas, and celebrate the lovely comforts of human community and creativity.
As a result – like OtGW’s gauzy borderland, the Unknown – Hallowtide naturally stews in liminal sensations: imagination, fantasy, and the supernatural. This creates a safe space for humans to experience the otherwise overwhelming feelings associated with mortality – especially the sadness of loss and the fear of death – and provides us with creative tools to securely express that emotion.
As a result, we will see otherwise normal houses suddenly robed in symbols of death: draped in cobwebs, sprouting headstones, ornamented with skeletons, and fluttering with ghosts. Indeed, the seminal emblem of Hallowe’en – the jack-o-lantern – is a nice little microcosm of this impulse to cast a spell over the ordinary: each porch is curiously decorated with a family of suspiciously head-shaped gourds (usually one for each resident) which – at some point – disappear into the house and reemerge with a grotesque face carved into it.
The natural is emblazoned with an expression of the supernatural, just as our monotonous, commercialized lives are briefly marked with the memory of death – the deaths of those whom we’ve lost, and the primary one which we will each eventually experience.
Since death is oddly sanctifying (it brings us into contact with the sublime: our mysterious, existential origins and destiny) Hallowe’en provides a unique opportunity for us to be like jack-o-lanterns (or the residents of Pottsfield): awakened from our daily stupor of ordinariness and touched (we might even say engraved – or carved) by the transcendental.
This is even more enhanced by the widespread use of costumes: yet another opportunity for us to express our hidden, sublime nature. Through costumes, an introverted IT guy can express his unrecognized heroic nature by dressing as a robust knight, a gentle elementary teacher can express her unrecognized eroticism by dressing as a alluring witch, and a harried housewife can express her unrecognized anxieties by dressing as a decomposing corpse bride. An angsty outsider could even dress as a weird elf-boy to express his fear that his core identity is his aloof otherness. The internal is now allowed to be external, the anxiety is exposed, the fear is confronted, and the hope is expressed.
By serving as a shared moment to imagine, mourn, and process the various disparities between desire and reality Hallowe’en offers us a collective, cultural pause to acknowledge what could be, what is not, what is, what was, and what will be.
We can hope while we grieve and aspire while we accept, allowing our minds to float in and out of different emotional states with graceful allowance. In so many ways, this is what the Unknown provides: a space to feel things simultaneously with tolerance and imagination.
People can be complicated, difficult to understand, and even outright contradictions in the Unknown, but none of their compatriots seem to care or judge them. Is Lorna a sweet or savage? Is Endicott generous or greedy? Is Pottsfield a community or a cult? Is Langtree a idealist or an idiot? Is Auntie Whispers grotesque or gracious?
In the Unknown, the certainty of these types is unimportant: like the half-moon gleaming above them, they represent the misty in-between nature of humankind – so full of potential yet limited by circumstances.
Upon returning to the waking world, Wirt carries with him this permission to be something in-between: it’s okay if he is both a little odd and kind of a catch, and its okay if he’s misunderstood by some but accepted by others.
In true Hallowe’en fashion, he has been wearing a costume, masquerading as something which he is not – or not entirely – and with the closing of the holiday, from his hospital bed, he appears to make the decision to accept himself and remove his social façade – an identity just as fabricated as his blue-caped, pointy-hatted get-up.
The costume served a purpose: it was fun, provided protection, and gave Wirt's imagination breathing room, but with the conclusion of the holiday, Wirt is prepared to make a choice about his identity, to commit to it, and to cease putting up walls and wearing disguises. He is who he is, and no long feels the need to hide himself from his peers.
At the end of the series, Hallowe’en has done its magic, and Wirt crosses out of the fantasy world back into the waking world, but empowered by the lessons and growth which the Unknown afforded him.
"THE LOVELIEST LIES OF ALL":
Using Nostalgia to Mourn, Love, Feel, & Forgive
As we highlighted in our first article, Over the Garden Wall’s intoxicating aesthetic was primarily inspired by pre-war American culture – ranging from the early 1800s to the Great Depression. The final two episodes rocket us forward in time, but not quite to our present age: we learn that the Brothers hail from the United States, sometime between the Ford and Reagan administrations (the cop car is a 1977 LTD Ford), predating cell phones, the internet, and helicopter parents.
As such, from start to finish, OtGW exudes a retro atmosphere which takes a moment to appreciate bygone peoples and cultures (rather than painstakingly deconstructing them with exhausting, puritanical fervor).
This can explain, at least in part, why nostalgia is such a dominant theme in OtGW. Although the past is, naturally, very complicated, and although the wise understand that “the good old days” are never quite as good as we remember them (and, indeed, were nightmarish for many people who were unfortunate enough to live them), it is natural to use nostalgia as an outlet for grief.
For many viewers – Gen-Xers and Elder Millennials, especially – OtGW’s preference for the music and animation of the 1920s and 1930s will remind them of their grandparents and great-grandparents who grew up during the Roaring Twenties, Great Depression, and World War II.
For me, the allusions to Depression-era cartoons and singers took me back to the handful of public domain cartoon-compilation VHS’s that my grandparents had at their house. These grainy tapes with their warbly audio were incredibly weird, yet comforting, effortlessly blending children’s fantasies with children’s anxieties (not unlike Hallowe’en).
Some of the shorts were cute with sinister elements, but some were outright terrifying. They combined episodes of Popeye the Sailor, Betty Boop, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Gumby, interspersed with terrifying stand-alone shorts like “Jack Frost,” “The Cobweb Hotel,” and “The Skeleton Dance.”
Regardless of their varying degrees of creepiness, they were unified by their depictions of vulnerability, usually involving children or small animals being menaced by a threatening, predatory villain (who is older and stronger), but ending with the protagonist escaping (often through the help of others, or through their own creativity) and finding themselves newly empowered.
In the Fleischer Studios short “The Cobweb Hotel,” a pair of cute, honeymooning flies are lured to a leering spider’s insidious hotel which proves, of course, to be a trap, allowing the hump-backed killer to feed on his guests. They ultimately escape by rallying their fellow captives in a plucky uprising – but barely.
Oddly enough, however, I have almost exclusively fond memories of these cartoons – even though I’m able to admit that they were objectively horrifying – because of the setting in which my sister, cousins, and I watched them. Grandma’s house was warm and safe, and these kooky cartoons seemed like another genre of fairy tale: startling imagination-fuel that allowed us kids to explore big emotions and frightening anxieties in a controlled context.
(Almost sounds like Hallowe'en...)
The same content warnings could be pasted to most of the 80s and early 90s cartoons that were contemporary during my childhood, too: Fern Gully, Anastasia, Rerurn to Oz, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Brave Little Toaster, We’re Back!, The Secret of NIMH, The Swan Princess, and Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumber Land were just as horrifying – often more so – despite coming from a supposedly more enlightened age.
Although it might be argued that we have enough real-life horrors to deal with in our daily life during the 2020s, I think many of us who were born in the 20th century miss the ability to casually explore our anxieties through mediums designed for children. Kids’ content today is often gentle and commonplace – sweet, sanitized, and realistic – intentionally devoid of much fantasy and certainly any peril (probably to protect their imaginations from our childhood nightmares). While I appreciate the attempt to avoid the insensitivity of boomer parents, I wonder if something is being lost in our attempt to cut loose from the perceived “barbarism” of fairy tales.
Gen-Xers and Elder Millennials who watch OtGW are likely to be transported back to the nostalgic experience of watching some frightening cartoon in their Grandma’s back room – you know the one: with the dusty shag carpet, a quiet room smelling of potpourri and cold cream, with kitschy, sun-faded art on the walls, and a collection of scratchy, blue blankets in the closet for sleepovers. Meanwhile, the comforting sound of adults’ laughter and the clinking of cutlery emanates from the kitchen where supper is being made (it's ham and bean soup with green beans and Kraft macaroni), reminding us that "it's just a cartoon."
(My grandparents' Indiana farmhouse, Christmas 2015 -- the last holiday we spent there before they
downsized after living there for half a century)
Even the modern sequences are tellingly nostalgic – set vaguely in the very late 70s or early 80s, a world where parents let their kids roam around free range (for better or worse), where cassette tapes are cutting-edge technology, where the blue-collar neighborhood is still cozy, safe, and optimistic, where the local beat cop is a slightly checked-out jokester who turns an avuncular blind eye at Hallowe’en shenanigans.
It lacks the self-seriousness and social alienation of our present decade, and allows the Brothers to return to a world that feels oddly comforting (despite the sexism, serial killers, Satanic Panic, and surging divorce rate) compared to our existentially-agitated age.
So why the nostalgia? I believe it is yet another attempt to encourage mourning from its audience. There are plenty of days – and weeks and months – of the year when we can criticize or judge the decades which OtGW pines for.
We can upbraid the Victorians for the imperialism, judge the Edwardians for their lack of women’s suffrage, indict the 20s for the return of the Klan, reject the 30s for the rise of fascism, and unload on the 70s and 80s for negligent parenting, shallow consumerism, and climate crimes.
And all of these accusations would be just and fair.
But during the gentle reflectiveness of Hallowtide, McHale invites us to take a break from the constant white noise of outrage to simply mourn the passage of time and the loss of our innocence. At some point we were trusting, generous, and expressive, like Greg, and most of us (to once again paraphrase G. K. Chesterton) have grown old in our souls – skepitcal, jealous, and repressed – like Wirt. The reasons are unimportant, and likely justified, but our path back to the Good Life must pass through the dark woodland of healthy mourning.
Nostalgia can lie to us – the past is never as nice as we wish to remember it – but the lie can often be quite lovely. It can be a bejeweled memory that has taken on some kitschy embellishments and undergone some sanitizing Bowdlerization. We can often either enhance the bad parts or – likelier, in my experience – downplay them. But for all of nostalgia’s deceptions, it doesn’t fail to project some truth. It conveys a feeling and allows us to sit in the comfort of good memories, regardless of whether or not they can be trusted.
We can remember our grandmother’s laugh and hugs and forget the wreaths of cigarette smoke seeping from her ashtray into our lungs. We can recall our uncle’s funny stories about our dad’s childhood but forget his horrifyingly racist jokes that went unchallenged. We can think back on the time we spent swapping mixed CDs with our cousin (the one who OD’d from fentanyl after losing his custody battle four years ago) without remembering the obvious warning signs of his fatal self-loathing.
The bad parts are true and demand witness, but we are also human, and deserve a break from bitterness to miss and long for our lost loves.
As alluded to in our second post, these nostalgic memories are like shadows cast from Plato’s Realm of Forms – vague suggestions of a broader reality. They hint at the truth and give us a taste, but what they represent – the things we’ve lost – is impossibly complex, so our minds settle for a comforting middle ground of the Unknown where we can revisit the lost things and hold their shadows.
Our nostalgia allows us to love them as they should have been, not as they were, but somewhere in this childlike forgiveness is a deep and rich love – a love like that of Greg for Wirt (Greg who doesn’t abandon Wirt for being cynical and self-sabotaging, but who sacrifices himself for who Wirt could be in a better world).
If this seems overly generous – if you feel that justice is being miscarried by a naïve impulse to excuse unpardonable offenses – ponder this: what if you were graciously and patiently loved for who you could be by someone who knows all too well who you really are, warts and all. It would be the love of a child, or a mother, or a grandfather: the love we don't deserve, but which our starving souls so desperately crave.
Even if we haven't been fortunate enough to be granted this love, perhaps we have it in within our power to experience it by chosing to give it away to others, even the undeserving. Perhaps this is how we can start to heal...
"WE NEED TO DO OUR PART TO MAKE
THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE!"
Ending Our Pilgrimage through the Unknown,
We Emerge with a Gift of Hope
Although it is clear that 2023 has a great many advantages over, say, 1983, it is also evident that – like Wirt and Greg – our online age has lost something which it is desperately trying to recover.
And this brings us to our conclusion. As I mentioned at the top, I'm afraid that we have also lost something along the way in our celebration of Hallowe’en – something which Over the Garden Wall successfully taps and extends to us. So what is it?
In a word: Hope.
To be more specific, a childlike wonder at the sublime (life/death, nature/fantasy) and an equally childlike trust in our shared humanity. Until the past few decades, Hallowe’en was largely a holiday founded on social trust and communal security (manifesting itself through creative self-expression and collective generosity -- see: Greg's Gospel).
Even during the 19th century when it was dominated by chaotic, Purge-like pranks and destruction, there was a sense that it was collectively approved of by the broader community as a pressure relief valve for class frustration and emotional expression (cf. Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque).
Today, Hallowe’en continues to enjoy collective participation, but it has grown – or appears to have grown, at least from where I’m sitting – increasingly insular and neurotic over time. There seem to be fewer parties and parades and more guarded isolation. Exhausted and suspicious, we have parted ways with community expression, turning inward with quiet desperation.
Now, there is nothing wrong with binging horror movies and turning down invitations when you’re in need of a quiet night at home, but it seems to me that – out of instinctive distrust and crippling self-consciousness – we are slowly losing the collective connection which Hallowe’en has offered us from its very beginnings.
This is even evident in the shift in our monsters. This may be a stretch, but indulge me: instead of dreading the incursions of inhuman, supernatural enemies – ghosts, vampires, monsters – our Hallowe’en aesthetic has grown increasingly based on our growing suspicion of one another : the very human threats of serial killers, masked maniacs, and infected zombies.
The earlier tropes positioned humanity in a joint, defensive posture – banding together against common "spiritual" enemies like the Beast and what – but in the 2020s our feelings toward one another are paranoid and isolated, perhaps trusting our friend circle, but viewing our fellow humans as dangerous liabilities rather than potential allies. People are no longer the solution – they’re the threat. We have lost our shared identity and – like Wirt – we are circling a drain of cynical self-absorption and fear.
If you recall the three tenets of Greg’s Gospel which we explored in our second post – community trust, joyful self-expression, and sacrificial love – it must be acknowledged that these ideals may be counter to survival: someone like Greg who chooses to trust, and shine, and give (instead of suspecting, withholding, and taking) will eventually be taken advantage of.
Eventually they’ll be let down. Eventually they’ll lose something or be hurt. They might not even survive. But – as we argued earlier – Greg’s Gospel also holds that “surviving” does not mean living – living, truly living, comes about through letting go and serving one another with open hearts.
While Hallowe’en doesn’t immediately conjure ideas of love and open hearts, it was designed – by multiple cultures and worldviews – to engender social trust and provide a designated, collective space for personal expression and grief. It is here – in the crux between the personal and the public – that Hallowe’en has historically brought people together and raised their spirits.
I want to close our time together with a thought on Over the Garden Wall's ending scene. Before we are shown a montage of reunions, reconciliations, and redemption, there is a critical moment – perhaps easy to miss – where Greg parades his frog around the hospital room, with Lorna's bell ringing and glowing inside of his stomach. Lorna's bell, we will recall, was a magic charm with the power to fight off evil spirits – symbols of humanity's spiritual adversaries: fear, doubt, greed, hate, depression, anxiety, despair. And here it is in our waking world, this precious, unasuming, sacramental, tinkling in the belly of a kid's pet frog. On first viewing this seems cute or silly, but having rewatched it, now it always brings tears to my eyes.
The bell peals out – soft but true – no less triumphant than the pounding clangor of a whole city's church steeples celebrating a great victory. Inside of this frog is a simple, easy-to-miss proof of the Brothers' experiences, a little token of hope. Greg marches around the room, ringing the bell in an inviting benediction over the wonderstruck highschoolers, holding the frog up like a pair of stone tablets – a divine signpost pointing to the Good Life.
A very basic reading of the Unknown and of Wirt's victorious emergence from it can help inform our own understanding of grief, fear, and anxiety. It is all right to enter the space of existential pain, in fact it is necessary. But if we stay there, we will become stuck -- Edelwood trees rooted in the forest of uncertainty.
However, if we can stand the darkness -- if we can face and feel our pain, confront our grief, and embrace our inner child with grace and forgiveness -- then we can emerge healed and made new.
And as with all Hero's Journeys, we will emerge with a gift: the gift of Hope -- a gift which helps empower us to live out Greg's Gospel: to trust our communities, to find joy in self-expression, and to love one another with generous charity.
...as we go out this Hallowe'en, let us enjoy ourselves. Let us watch our favorite movies (and 2014 miniseries), read our favorite books, and listen to our favorite murder podcasts. But don't keep all of it at home.
In the true spirit of Hallowe'en, mourn and remember, greive and forgive, and -- most importantly -- share your life with people. Trust them, create with them, and be radically generous with them. Celebrate with them. Band together against the darkness and shine your collective lights in unity against your respective Beasts. The loneliest pains in this life can truly be sanctified into a "good grief," if we allow ourselves to feel them, and share them with those we trust to be our community.
Like the Woodsman, however, this letting go is not just for us: it frees us up to serve and love the other hurting people around us. By processing our grief and fears, we can heal as a species, and banish the dark from our houses with the light of our love - just as long as we've been brave enough to sit in the dark long enough to name it.
This is what Hallowe'en is all about, and what it has always been all about.