The value of liminal space and transitional imagination remain personally and culturally undeveloped. — Michael Leunig
Halloween conjures a panoply of images for Americans. Children clad in store-bought or homemade costumes. Ghosts and goblins, witches and vampires, zombies and skeletons running amok in residential neighborhoods in search of sugary treasures. Yards decorated with blow-up Frankenstein monsters and black bats dangling from trees. Strobe lights pulsing and machines spewing whisps of fog add a surreal tone to our modern take of the macabre.
Most of us of course realize our interpretation of Halloween is but a faint echo of the historical roots that are the foundation of this holiday. If you grew up in Texas, or any state that has a strong Mexican influence, you likely know about Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), a two-day holiday in which families create ofrendas, or offerings, to honor their departed family members that have passed on to another realm in an effort to achieve a reunion.
However, there are other cultural connections to Halloween that originate in Europe, specifically Ireland. The Oweynagat cave (Cave of the Cats), which is “part of a complex of 50 archaeological monuments that make up the ancient pre-Christian Connaught royal site of Cruachán,” is purported to be the supernatural origin of Halloween. Located in Ireland’s County Roscommon, the Oweynagat is steeped in ghoulish lore because it is the birthplace of the Celtic religious festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvesting season. Regardless of the cultural origin, however, the symbols share a common theme of transition, a liminal moment in time when we have our feet between two realities.
In celebration of Samhain, or Fest of the Dead, Druid priests would “light a community fire using a wheel that would cause friction and spark flames” while “Cattle were sacrificed, and participants took a flame from the communal bonfire back to their home to relight the hearth,” according to history.com. Mike McCarthy, a Celtic researcher, states “Samhain was when the invisible wall between the living world and the otherworld disappeared,” and “A whole host of fearsome otherworldly beasts emerged to ravage the surrounding landscape and make it ready for winter.”
In this sense, Samhain is a portal to another world, thereby tearing the thin fabric that separates our reality from a darker, murkier place. As a way of interacting with this supernatural realm, people would wear masks as a measure to “ensure that the crops grow well.” Samhain is a liminal event, marking the transitionary zone in a rite of passage that ultimately transforms who we are. Or as Author and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr describes, it is a place “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown” and “our old world [is] left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence.”
There is a sense that Halloween was a time when Oweynagat could open the gates of hell or become an entrance to a liminal world.
Photo: Gary Dempsey
Although seemingly abstruse, the concept of liminal space is crucial to understanding the human condition. We are, much like mother nature itself, in a constant state of change. Our springs give way to falls, which in turn morph into winters, each season marked by psychological and spiritual challenges. But in between these seasons, there is a liminal space, a transitionary zone that allows us to adjust to the changes, to “put on masks” as we forge new identifies. but these liminal challenges come with a psychological price. As Alan Seale of Transformational Presence reminds us, “The liminal space can bring us face-to-face with our inner fears about who we are, how we show up in the world, our strengths and vulnerabilities, and our successes and disappointments. It can cause us to question the very core of our beliefs, practices, and identities.” In essence, “liminal spaces are the gaps between the sacred and the profane,” states Daniel Schwartz, associate professor in the Department of History at Texas A&M.
Similarly, Halloween within the U.S. used to be a time for those “between childhood and adulthood to go perform acts of trickery,” according to the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World. By participating in Halloween, with all of its macabre pageantry, children are signifying that they too are in transition, that their masks are hiding their identities which are not quite set. This liminality is particularly acute during adolescence when they are neither children nor adults.
On a personal level, many of us remember our struggles to decide whether or not to participate in Halloween. In compromise, we may trick or treat with only a faint sense of Halloween, perhaps wearing a witch’s hat or squirting some fake blood on a t-shirt, all pale imitations of our faded childhood zeal for the holiday. By doing so, we are marking the end of the liminal space, a recognition that our childhood journey is fading, that our innocence is fleeting, preparing us to don the often ill-fitting maks of adulthood.
This liminal space marked by Halloween also has larger sociological intimations because it reminds us that though most of us live in an orderly, material, predictable world, there is but a thin veil separating us from spiritual realms, from supernatural dimensions that are always there, existing in that liminal space between our waking realities and our dreams. Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and philosopher, wrote, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known,” reminding us of this liminal space that become increasingly elusive as we age.
Part of the problem in the West is we no longer have rituals to demarcate these important transitions or “ruptures” in identity, or when we do, they tend to be nominal or superficial in nature. Dr. Kd Farris, a Jungian-based therapist, contends:
“These days, our culture lacks proper rituals to mark the time and space of these ruptures, their critical role, and subsequent changes. Consequently, we are often plunged into transitions of great magnitude without identification or ceremony. Rupture characterizes our descent into this disorienting terrain, while disorientation characters our experience as we enter and begin to move through it.”
And while it would be more than a bit odd to light large bonfires and worship pagan gods under a full moon, perhaps it is more about attitude and openness than ritual. Pascal framed it perfectly: “If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural.” So this Halloween, or better yet, with whatever remaining years we have, have an open mind and heart to that liminal space, for it may mark the beginning of something more important than merely things that “go bump in the night.”
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