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When Metaphors Become Zombies

BY Mark C.E. Peterson October 16, 2022

All Saint’s Day in Gniezno, Poland. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.

Halloween decorations sprang up suddenly, like giant mushrooms on front lawns all around my neighborhood this week—3 full weeks before the official holiday. (I’m writing this at the end of September so, technically, it’s a full month before the official holiday.) And let’s frame “holiday” with quotation marks in observance of its function as a true holy day, lurking at the end of October as if it were some kind of Thanksgiving warm-up in a, supposedly, secular calendar.

(I’ve come around to the idea that there are no purely secular holidays; and there never were. All holidays are holy days. Anyway, people sure do act like they are.)

Holidays have a ritual function and, as with all rituals, the function of such holidays is to help humans navigate difficult times (marriage, winters, harvests) and the psychological stressors common to the species—like fear: fear of failure, fear of freezing, fear of starving. Halloween, like the Frankenstein and arm-waving ghoul balloons filling my neighbors’ front yard, looms large in this month’s MythBlast theme of FEAR <cue scary soundtrack>. All Hallows Day (November 1) celebrates the spirits of departed saints but All Hallows Eve focuses on departed spirits who are supposed to be departed but haven’t departed yet. 

Boo!

This got me thinking about what happens when you bury things improperly. 

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I’d like to suggest that the ritual function of Halloween is to help us mediate, mitigate, and endure the ghosts that arise when, by hook or by crook, we bury things improperly. That’s not something you want to screw up—and yet we do.

For practical purposes, there are two ways you can bury something improperly. The first is to fail to observe the appropriate rituals and protocols—designed to facilitate a transition from this life into the beyond—to help the spirit (or idea, or even a point of view, hint hint) recognize its own death, relinquish its ties to this world, and be put to rest where its components can recycle into the hamster wheel of life and death, Heaven or Hell, or ecosystem.

When you do that correctly, you don’t create a ghost problem. When a spirit (or idea or point of view) is acknowledged by all parties to be deceased, it can pass away happily without clinging to this world by, say, hiding under your bed, or in your closet, or in the back of your mind, where it will become a terrible nuisance.

The other way is way worse. 

The other way to improperly bury something is to bury something that isn’t quite dead yet—and now we’ll have real problems. When you bury something that isn’t dead, it inevitably takes exception. It wakes up in the coffin of its hopes, or even your hopes, and comes back as a zombie. Dr. Freud is well known for having pointed out that when you bury or repress something it comes back as a monster. 

It’s amazing this still happens, since zombies are well understood nowadays. They have their own movies and streaming franchises, and yet people keep making zombies. Every day. Deliberately. Perfectly alive bits of our psyche are buried by desire or fear and left to fester, just below the sodded field of consciousness, until they’re strong enough to claw their way to the surface where, given the chance, they will consume everything in their path—as zombies and ghouls are known to do.

Which brings us back to Halloween.

A lot of the ghosts haunting us today are the specters of a past we haven’t buried properly, generally because we can’t bear their loss and won’t let them go – as happens when nostalgia for the comfort of an imagined yesteryear, embodied in the metaphors and symbols of that earlier time, is raised like a Golden Calf to become both an object of devotion and a golem of revenge on the world that replaced it. Campbell alludes to this when he says, 

“We must remember, however, that the metaphors of one historically conditioned period, and the symbols they innervate, may not speak to the persons who are living long after that historical moment and whose consciousness has been formed through altogether different experiences.” (Thou Art That, 6) 

The world is filled, right now, with symbols and metaphors that belong to an earlier or dying era, but they continue to haunt us long after the world that grounded them and gave them flesh has faded away. These symbols, religious or political or social, have lurched from life support in the prayers of those unwilling to face the world as it is today, and have become the walking dead, claiming victims by contact and spiritual ingestion. More bluntly, consider the number of social ills we continue to face, sanctified by the intubation of historical nostalgia, kept alive out of fear, and out there walking around, scaring the living.

History, looked at through this lens, starts to look like a Stephen King novel. 

Boo!

Still, in a very real sense all humans, and all cultures, are haunted by the specters, demons, ghouls and ghosts of what was meaningful in the past, the death of which we fear to face. 

They need a funeral and an Irish wake. We’d all feel better afterwards.

In the meantime, you might check your car door for… “a bloody hook!”

 

BOO!!

 

Thanks for musing along.

Mark C.E. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.  He began his work at the University of Toronto focused primarily on Hegel’s natural philosophy and its links to the history of science and technology. These interests evolved to constellate around the larger questions of how humans are related – scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually – to nature. A practitioner of both taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years his academic research is currently engaged in a semiotic analysis of the relationship between explanatory and narrative/mythological accounts of nature and an Aristotelian re-examination of environmental ethics.

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