Thursday, 29 October 2015

Samhain in the Great South Land

It is commonly believed that the celebration of Halloween is a uniquely American practice, and, in a certain sense, this is true: it is highly unlikely that the celebration, as we know it today, with its canon of costumes, colours, and commercial impact, would have grown to its cultural reach and significance anywhere else.

When we look back from Halloween to All Hallow’s Eve, the Christian holy day from which its name was abbreviated, or further back to Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead which preceded both, we see a particular kind of migration. On one level there is the literal migration of the Irish across the Atlantic, and on another, there is the cultural migration which brought their Celto-Christian cultural customs along with them. These customs were then fed on American culture, with the conversion of offerings to deceased ancestors to the beginnings of the practice of trick-or-treating, and the later addition of specific monsters brought into society through the screen by Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and others. It is telling that the most iconic of these characters, the Wolfman, Count Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster, are all also examples of cultural migration, whether from the literature of English and Irish writers or from European folklore, and that the commercialism of these figures through film migrated with the characters into the celebration of Halloween.

Why can’t this mobile and mutable cultural practice travel south? There is a great deal of argument as to its suitability in Australia, much of which is quite justified. Max Fisher suggested that it’s a kind of cultural hangover from the Victorian conservative conditions in which Australia became a nation, which included frowning upon Halloween and other such festivities. He also writes that Halloween is “awfully unseasonal for the South Pacific”. As Jenni Ryall’s article on noted, even the pumpkins required for jack o’lanterns would pose a problem. They too are out of season at that time, and frequently the act of “[c]arving an unripe pumpkin can end with a knife wound.” The 31st of October heralds the beginning of spring in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning that the Celts would have celebrated Beltane rather than Samhain at this time if they had happened to have lived in Australia.         

Seasonal scares...
Perhaps most of all, the possibility of Halloween fitting into Australian culture is made difficult by the general ambivalence of Australians towards America’s cultural influence upon them. On one hand, it is very much the norm among “true blue” Australians to vehemently deny that American culture appeals to them or has an effect on them. On the other, the filmic diet of most Australians still consists almost entirely of Hollywood films, and Australian actors are often only considered to have made it once they have begun to star in big budget American movies. And they take up American accents in these films – dramatizing a particular variant of the very thing feared in the first place, by choosing to turn themselves into stage Americans rather than forcibly being turned.

There is another way to look at this. If a Celto-Christian festival, which was influenced by the Romans, adopted and altered by the Christians, and looked down upon by the Victorians, can travel across the Atlantic to the United States and have its associated supernatural cast updated according to movie releases and other trends, why can’t it also travel south and have its costume wardrobe adapted once more to new settings? With a wealth of mythological material from the culture of indigenous Australians, the celebration could certainly be developed without necessarily following the well-worn American tracks (despite the willingness of Australian cinema-goers to do so).

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek (Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks)

Take the bunyip for example. This monster has played its part in many kinds of tales, from indigenous folk lore to children’s books, and its appearance cannot be narrowed down to one description. Percy Mumbulla describes one such creature being “high in the front and low at the back like a hyena, like a lion. It had a terrible big bull-head and it was milk-white”. The eponymous main character of Jenny Wagner’s classic picture book The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek spends most of the story asking other animals what bunyips look like, finally finding out that they have tails and fur. These examples show the bunyip to be suitable for Halloween for two additional reasons: the costuming possibilities are quite flexible and the interplay between the monstrous and the childlike or comical in books such as Wagner’s is much the same kind of dynamic as that of modern Halloween itself.

Halloween has shown itself not only to survive significant changes and cultural appropriations but to actually grow through them, becoming the cultural and commercial juggernaut it is today. Even in the Great South Land, where opposition to the festival is still vocal in some quarters, more and more toy and department stores are beginning to bring out Halloween ranges of costumes and other paraphernalia, and more children each year are seen on the streets of Australian suburbs, ready to knock and call "Trick or Treat!" There will be the usual ghouls and witches in Australian suburbia this October the thirty-first - but there's definitely room for some bunyips too.

Further Reading:

Mumbulla, Percy. “The Bunyip”, in K. Gelder (ed.) The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994. 250-1.

“Why Australians cackle in the face of Halloween”. Jenni Ryall.

“How British colonialism determined whether your country celebrates Halloween”. Max Fisher.

Wagner, Jenny. (story), and Ron Brooks (pictures). The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek.

Jason Archbold is a Cotutelle PhD candidate at Macquarie University and the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture at Justus-Liebig-Universit├Ąt. His dissertation explores morals and ethics in apocalyptic fictions. When he is not dodging zombies as part of his research, he can be found investigating cultures through cooking or buried in a mass of comic books.

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