During Halloween last year, I decided to dress to the nines. With the help of a friend, I donned a blue cardigan, a red cape, a few dyed cloth strips, and a pocket-watch-necklace in order to become Marvel’s Doctor Strange. (For those who know me, there was really no better option, and I’m discovering that it’s hard to find a similar match for my physical features and body type this year…maybe Gumbi…) However, there was one complication last year that I hadn’t considered: I was the only person who dressed up. I didn’t realize while at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, that it isn’t a cultural custom to dress up for Halloween at work—especially not as a popular film character who contained no element of gothic horror. Yet there I was, playing an American superhero among my perfectly proper British coworkers. Fun.
(Okay, it really was; I had a great time.)
As Halloween comes closer now, I can’t help but consider again those differences of festival culture; more importantly, I also find myself wondering why we continue to celebrate festival at all. What function does festival play during a time when harvest is no longer a direct part of life? Is it, as Guy Debord argues, an artifact of ancient cyclical time that has been simulated in our day with “travesty of dialogue” and “parody of gift” in order to commodify celebration (and time itself) in the service of capitalist structures?1 Perhaps. But we might cast a more generous light on it, if only to see what kinds of shadows are cast on the other side. In so doing, we might begin to see where time is still yet cyclical, and why it might be. But even during the proposed period of “cyclical time,” nature wasn’t always so kind with its timing. Although certain rhythms could most likely be counted on, any number of natural, viral, or even celestial disasters could negatively influence years of hard work and community labor.
I have been attempting lately to trace this anxiety of cosmic influences in my Early American Seminar this year with Professor Mary Eyring. As I’ve done so, I have actually been quite a bit impressed by the Puritan worldview: that grand unknowable forces both good and evil could and would exert their influence on trivial, everyday matters such as chores around the house and spoiled milk. With an unknowable God as well as an unknowable devil, grand chaotic forces would be fitting categories for otherwise unexplainable daily phenomena: a kind of grease-trap to catch the boiled-over tension, no matter how small. Although the Puritans didn’t celebrate holidays as we know them today, somewhat regular natural occurrences would still have been a welcome reprieve from the unmitigated chaos that largely surrounded them.
Accordingly, in an ancient world full of chaos, festival might have simply been a way to acknowledge that some things could actually be relied upon. In an unreliable universe, small things to count on would become much more meaningful. Modern festival, within this lens, might therefore expose the vestiges of a supremely optimistic gesture, one that says that we’ve made it through the mayhem of another year; that there are footholds among the shaky incline of community life and progress.
If this is true, though, what exactly would that mean that we are celebrating today? Following the advent of the mechanistic universe, nature—both physical and metaphysical—has seemed to become much more intellectually attainable and even in some ways controllable. What need have we to hold onto the optimistic gesture that life has continued on despite the instability of the universe when instability is no longer a concern?
Would it be too much of a stretch to say that festival might serve a similar but contradictory function today? That it reminds us instead of the chaotic structure of the universe—that not everything can be accounted for—and that larger forces are still at work, at least to some degree? Such questions implicate additional questions concerning the tendency of individuals to seek out experiences of horror. Recent critically acclaimed and popularly demanded films such as Get Out, A Quiet Place, Hereditary, and Annihilation suggest that we still have a need to feel scared. But why? Perhaps we crave disorder because our lives are too orderly now. If everything in life can be controlled . . . how boring! How inevitable. Perhaps we need just a hint of grander forces to balance out our meaning-waning world. According to Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, this inclination could also expose a need for transcendence as well, an allowance that there are forces larger than us, a haunting of a world which used to be full of wonderful and terrible unknowns. In sum, maybe we need to know that we aren’t always in control nor need to be.2
So then festival, whether horror-filled or devotional, might function as a cultural thermostat or a stabilizing mechanism: providing order in a chaotic universe, and allowing for chaos (transcendence?) in a world of concreteness and order. In a post-cyclical world, the continued cycle of festival might just keep us optimistic towards the chaotic possibilities of transcendent realities.
Although I agree that much has been overly commodified surrounding our holidays, I do see the worth in remembering the unknown forces that haunt our collective cultural memory. Such an acknowledgement for me—whether of the potential chaos I should prepare to encounter, or of the ambient good I should continually strive for—initiates a specific kind of creativity. The imagination of such an outer realm, even if only vestigial, nonetheless invites an inward response. I feel a call to react to the world with a different kind of wonder and intensity. As humanities students and scholars, should we not recognize, analyze, and even utilize the inner creative power that can come from the remaining chaos that surrounds us? During festive seasons, we might just find that a chaotic, transcendent, creative power could imbue our work with more meaning.
All this to say, if you see me this year in a ridiculous costume (not Gumbi, I hope), consider that such might be my acknowledgement of—and my creative response to—the inherent grandeur and chaos of the unknown forces that surround us. Consider that I might just be feeling a little bit festive.
This post was written by Isaac Robertson, Humanities Center Intern.
 Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone, 1995.
 Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. Many of my ideas presented here have been developed from my reading of this text.