Americans have a strange fascination with artificial fear. The Halloween industry is worth around $8 billion, an annual capitalistic ritual of predictable costumes and tacky decorations—fake limbs hanging from doorknobs, Styrofoam tombstones neatly arranged on front lawns, robotic spiders crawling up and down suburban walls. It’s an awful lot of effort to manufacture adrenaline! There’s even a growing market for extreme experiences that replicate not only torture but also kidnapping and isolation. A friend of mine just went to a godforsaken house in the middle of Los Angeles where he was subjected to half an hour of humiliation, profanities, and tableau after tableau that would have made Ed Gein proud. Faux-horror is big business in America.
But not only in America. Fake fear has proven to be a very successful cultural export. Kids from Spain to Colombia like to dress up and go out on the streets screaming “truco o trato.” In most places, the aesthetics and rituals adhere pretty closely to Halloween standards. In a few others, though, American tradition has merged with local folklore to create a unique and revealing blend—most notably in Mexico, where Halloween coincides almost exactly with Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Kids in Mexico also like to choose their favorite costume, wear makeup, and scare each other. But, where I grew up, trick or treating entails a different ritual. The children knocking on doors all around Mexico City don’t want M&M’s, and they don’t say “truco o trato.” Instead, they say "me da para mi calaverita"—“give me money for my little skull”—traditionally referring to the minuscule and lavishly decorated sugar skulls (with actual names written on their tiny foreheads, like foreboding labels) that one can buy in Mexico’s markets this time of year. The country’s bakeries, meanwhile, are filled with “pan de muerto,” a round, sweet bread decorated with smaller pieces of bread made out to resemble bones. A far cry from pumpkin pie…
Mexico’s familiarity with death is millenary. In his masterful Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz explained how, for ancient Mexicans, life and death were in a constant state of flux. There was no clean break, no before and after from which to build the idea of an afterlife. Death was present and imminent, sometimes even welcomed, but there was also a certain defiance of the definitive nature of death. This defiance is not, says Paz, merely a matter of courage. It’s more complicated—and painful. Mexican lack of concern with the weight of death is closely related to our indifference toward life. “La vida no vale nada," wrote José Alfredo Jiménez, one of Mexico’s most beloved and mournful songwriters, in the mid-20th century: “Life is worth nothing.” And Paz asks, “What is death? We haven’t come up with a new answer. And every time we ask this question, we shrug: what do I care about death if I don’t care about life?”
This striking indifference comes, sadly, from the constant presence of death in Mexican life. That has been especially true the last few years. The frailty of life in Mexico—and even its lack of worth—has become a matter of cold and cruel business, very far from lofty interpretations of pre-Hispanic rituals. It certainly is the saddest of paradoxes that, as this year’s Day of the Dead approaches, all eyes in Mexico are focused on the government’s desperate search for 43 students who were kidnapped by organized crime in the state of Guerrero and likely murdered. Every day, Mexican newscasts are filled with news (or the lack thereof) of the missing. Talk of the presumed deaths—the nature, location, and motive—is everywhere. Horror in Mexico has always been anything but artificial, but now even more so.
Still, if history proves anything, it is that even the harshest of realities will not preclude Mexicans from honoring and even celebrating death this weekend: talking about it, singing and dancing to it, and, yes, eating it as candy—dipping a delightful bread thighbone in hot chocolate, or wearing a deathly mask as if it really were another face. Because in Mexico, you see, it really is.