Two skeletons facing each other against a purple and orange backdrop

Mary Douglas and the Ritual of Halloween

Halloween typifies the kinds of symbolic rituals present in our fragmented experience of modern life.

By Russell P. Johnson|October 31, 2022

Many Christian churches in America opt not to celebrate Halloween because of its seemingly occult connotations. As an alternative, they host Harvest Festivals. This is ironic, though, since Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve) originated as a medieval Christian holiday, while “Harvest Festival” is the most pagan-sounding thing ever.

Yet despite the fact that it began as the vigil before All Saints’ Day, it feels wrong to characterize Halloween in America as a religious holiday. It, admittedly, defies easy explanation. A careless anthropologist, encountering American culture for the first time, would probably explain that Halloween is a carnivalesque Catholic ritual in which we sacralize the inevitability of death by putting skeletons everywhere and then—surely to hasten death—we eat handfuls of fun-size Butterfingers. If that anthropologist visited my neighborhood on Halloween, they would reasonably conclude that the rituals are meant to honor a princess named Elsa.

As fun as Halloween in America is, it is rather difficult to make sense of. Unlike, say, a harvest festival, Halloween cannot be accounted for by the changes of the seasons or the movement of the sun. And yet, as anthropologist Mary Douglas explained in her 1966 classic Purity and Danger, Halloween is an “institution” just like witchcraft or mana, and it plays a similar role in American culture as annual rituals performed in primitive cultures. Despite these similarities, Douglas argues that primitive cultures and modern cultures have one defining difference. That difference deserves deeper exploration.

“As a social animal,” Douglas writes, “man is a ritual animal. If ritual is suppressed in one form it crops up in others, more strongly the more intense the social interaction.” From everyday rituals like greeting coworkers and serving dinner to more exceptional rituals like bachelorette parties and presidential inaugurations, our lives together are made up of ritualized behavior. Friendships are maintained by birthday phone calls and holiday postcards, life events are marked by graduation ceremonies and retirement parties, and social norms are reinforced by handshakes and dress codes. Rituals tell us who we are, where we are, and when we are. Douglas argues, “It is not too much to say that ritual is more important to society than words are to thought.”

Rituals, she explains, help us connect the present with the past. They show us what to pay attention to and help us remember what actually matters. They help us navigate that which cannot be fully comprehended, either because it is too close to our understanding or too far away. Just as the use of a calendar structures our experience of time, so we cannot help but think in terms of weeks, months, and years, so the rituals of our society structure our experience of the social world and the world in general. Throughout the book, Douglas insists that modern societies like the United States are every bit as dependent upon ritual as primitive societies. If we read descriptions of “savage” sacrificial ceremonies and fertility rites in books like The Golden Bough and conclude that these are categorically different from Halloween, we delude ourselves. (I dare you to explain the sexy hamburger costume using objective rationality.)

For Douglas, however, there is an important difference between the rituals of primitive societies and the rituals of modern societies. For her, it is this difference that defines what is a “primitive” culture (not a derogatory term for Douglas) and what is a “modern” culture (not a term of praise for Douglas). The difference is that primitive rituals hold together in a relatively unified way, while modern cultures are made up of a disparate and disconnected set of rituals. She writes, “We moderns operate in many different fields of symbolic action. For the Bushmen, Dinka, and many primitive cultures, the field of symbolic action is one. The unity which they create by their separating and tidying is not just a little home, but a total universe in which all experience is ordered.” She continues, “The difference between us is not that our behavior is grounded in science and theirs on symbolism. Our behavior also carries symbolic meaning. The real difference is that we do not bring forward from one context to the next the same set of ever more powerful symbols: our experience is fragmented. Our rituals create a lot of little sub-worlds, unrelated. Their rituals create one single, symbolically consistent universe.”

People in modern cultures experience their world through multiple frameworks sustained by disparate rituals, some of which are religious, some of which are national, some of which are ethnocultural, and so on. To return to an earlier example, my own experience of time is filtered through a number of different calendars. According to the Gregorian calendar my new year begins on January 1, but according to the Christian liturgical calendar my new year begins in November. Meteorologically, my new year begins in spring; academically, my new year begins in late fall; fiscally, my new year begins on April 15. I take a sabbath once a week, normally on Saturdays, except during the football season when it happens on Sundays. All this is to say, I could not explain my year to an anthropologist without describing a range of unconnected rituals that are rooted in different traditions and reinforce different systems of value.

For Douglas, this is how Halloween differs from the solstice celebrations and hunting rites she observes in more cohesive cultures. Halloween is conceptually independent from Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s; they do not work together to make a “symbolically consistent universe.” Halloween is not any less ritualistic than primitive holidays, but it occupies one among many symbolic sub-worlds that make up the fragmented experience of modern life. In modern cultures, we make sense of our lives through narratives, but these narratives do not add up to a unified mythology. We mediate our interactions through rituals, but these rituals do not reflect a cohesive worldview.

The negative connotations of the word “primitive” make it seem like the cosmopolitanism of modern cultures is an advancement, and the negative connotations of the word “fragmented” make it seem like the incoherence of modern cultures is a loss to be mourned. But Douglas is—rightly, in my view—keen to refrain from making either of these sweeping judgments. She lets readers wrestle with the implications of living in a society of multiple overlapping symbolisms. Perhaps the disparateness of our rituals is, much like Halloween, simultaneously something to be afraid of and something to celebrate.

Featured image by Kenny Eliason via Unsplash


Russell P. Johnson

Columnist, Russell Johnson (PhD’19), is Assistant Director of the Undergraduate Religious Studies Program at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His research focuses on antagonism, nonviolence, and the philosophy of communication.