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Dead Celebrities at Kings Island’s Dia de Los Estúpidos

September 25, 2009

I hate Halloween. There, I said it.

If that view discredits what I’m about to say as far as you’re concerned, then so be it. But it’s where I have to start when teasing out why I found Kings Island’s proposed celebrity skeleton display so vile.

Let me emphasize that I love going to Halloween parties and seeing the astounding creativity that some of my friends put into their costumes every year. You know who you are. You guys are amazing—much love to my homies.

But as a symbol of our culture and how shallow and unreflective it has become, I hate Halloween. Especially when I contrast it with the quite beautiful Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

I’m an outsider and certainly no expert, of course, but from everything I’ve read, the Day of the Dead is based on honoring deceased loved ones. Living family members do thoughtful things for their loved ones: building shrines and decorating them with the departed’s favorite trinkets, preparing their favorite foods, even leaving candles to guide the dead in their journeys through the next world. The living family members have picnics near gravestones and bring toys for children lost far too soon. They remember. They feel. They love.

There are celebrations and big parties, to be sure, but they’re grounded in solemn recognition of the inherent inseparability of life and death. Dia de los Muertos art reflects this duality, with explosions of color and movement (life) surrounding skulls and skeletons (death).

So what’s the difference between Dia de los Muertos iconography and the Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Steve McNair, and Farrah Fawcett skeletons that Kings Island was planning to feature in their celebrity graveyard? In addition to the complete lack of honor, respect, and dignity indicated by the latter, I’d also suggest that Kings Island’s “haunted red carpet” (and the commercial entity of Halloween itself) is grounded in a far different, and much less healthy, relationship with both the concept and the reality of death and dying. Whereas the Day of the Dead is based on honoring connections to the specific dead, Halloween is based on fear and denial of the general concept of death.

About Kings Island’s distasteful display itself, I’ll just say it’s hard to fathom how park officials wouldn’t understand that millions of people maintain very deep and meaningful connections to famous people, and they mourn when their favorites die. Especially when that death is perceived as having come too soon.

Kings Island ignored all that in a tawdry effort to score some shock points. If they’d been attempting to make an artistic or anthropological statement, I would support them. But I’ve been to Kings Island many times, and there’s nothing artistic about the place, except for the dazzling, Kandinsky-esque gift shop displays of multi-hued neon fanny packs. We all know the park’s management had no motivation other than to generate publicity and sell tickets, so I’m glad they’ve been shamed into removing the display that temporarily turned Halloween into Dia de los Estúpidos in suburban Cincinnati. [Of course, in terms of publicity, mission accomplished…]

Now if only we, as a culture, could be equally motivated to shun the general crassness of Halloween itself. I’m talking about the crappy haunted house sponsored by the local country radio station. The aisle of special, overpriced Halloween candy. The “slutty nurse” costumes (there’s a different rant altogether—why does the Halloween costume industry think all women should dress in “service worker gone wild” attire?). And so on.

And yes, I wish we could leave behind the strange need for shock and titillation grounded in the psychological avoidance of death. Why not combine the need to go crazy in the fall—I’m certainly not advocating fewer parties in late October—with events based on love rather than fear?

In other words, we gave Kings Island the chance to do what they did. Their display was a symptom of something bigger—that Halloween in America is an ugly, hollow, childish ritual, one made even more coarse by its gross commercialization.

Dia de los Muertos proves that the sublime is possible. Instead, we have the ridiculous.

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