Steven Winn: Halloween's roots run deep in S.F.

2022-08-19 22:28:12 By : Mr. Jack L

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Be happy and be haunting. Slip into that perfect disguise that will advertise who you really are. Get sexy and be sure to set out plenty of Kit Kats for the kids. Take a break from the war on terror and terrify someone to death. Go on, have another mojito and a Mars Bar chaser. Party hard but stay out of the party-central Castro.

It's Halloween, the most dizzily dissonant holiday of the year.

In San Francisco, the capital of self-conscious contradictions, Oct. 31 has been a special date on the calendar for decades. Both casual observers and autumnal authorities like David J. Skal, author of "Death Makes a Holiday," are quick to point to the holiday's identification with the city's gay population and politics. "Halloween is widely celebrated as a gay high holy day," Skal writes in his book, "but perhaps nowhere as passionately as in San Francisco, where the historic tensions between the gay community and the authorities gave and continue to give the proceedings a special, feverish intensity."

The city's official cancellation of the unofficial Halloween bash in the Castro this year renews an old tradition. It was Halloween night in 1963, as Skal recounts, that the city's police department chose to shut down the Black Cat Cafe, a North Beach bar that openly flouted a state law forbidding the sale of alcohol to homosexuals. In classic San Francisco fashion, some 2,000 people showed up at the Black Cat to drink soft drinks and cider that night and bid fond farewell to an era that was about to end anyway.

By the end of the decade, marked by the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, gay liberation was under way and gaining momentum, with Halloween as its symbolic center of frivolous gravity. The Castro was destined to become both its spiritual headquarters and gay-gawking tourist attraction. It was only a matter of time before Halloween as a gay "chapter from a Cinderella story," as Randy Shilts put it in "The Mayor of Castro Street," morphed into a crowd-control nightmare, complete with brawls, shootings and a swarm of rubber-necking one-nighters.

The Castro revels, however corrupted and problematic they've become, are an inevitable component of the city's Oct. 31 identity. But seeing Halloween in San Francisco as some inexorable crime-and-banishment saga offers only a partial view of the holiday's particularly strong grip on our collective self-image. The love of outrageous display and sybaritic ritual, of multi-layered masquerade and playful boundary-blurring don't constitute some exclusively gay franchise. They're a widely shared set of cultural values and markers, a way of seeing ourselves, in the crisp October moonlight, with a particular kind of clarity.

Where else could an extravagantly silly dress-up show like "Beach Blanket Babylon" enjoy a 30-plus-year run with no end in sight? For further confirmation, note the success of "Teatro ZinZanni," which turns dining out into a sustained stunt of environmental theater. What other city would turn both the Black and White Ball and Exotic Erotic Ball into stable institutions? And never mind the music on opening night of the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony seasons. What matters are the gowns and kilts, tuxes and feather boas, torn jeans and tattoos that people in the audience flaunt.

Dressing the part has a long and storied history here, from the earnestly ecstatic garb of the Summer of Love to the street theater traditions of the Angels of Light and the San Francisco Mime Troupe to the Art Deco Society and the Dickens Fair. We adore disguise and dissembling in this fog-laced city, instinctively grasping its power to reveal by concealing, to suggest one thing and mean another.

The potential to simultaneously be someone and become someone else is deeply grounded here. The miracle of overnight transformation stretches back to the Gold Rush days and thrives today in Silicon Valley, where young men and women just a few years removed from their trick-or-treating days are routinely minted into multi-millionaire moguls. Maybe they're as mystified by it all as the rest of us.

Halloween's pagan roots play into a local fondness for refashioning belief systems outside the boundaries of organized religion. Everything from Esalen to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to the conflation of Halloween and the Day of the Dead may owe a certain debt to the expansive ethos of Oct. 31. The harvest festival associations invoke our fixation on food in this dining-mad place. Even the ominous fact of our fault-line geography carries a certain seasonal charge. It was an October night 18 years ago that turned the city into a blacked-out house of pre-Halloween horrors when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck.

We come by all these multiple associations for good reason. No holiday has a more tangled set of roots than Halloween. Originally derived from the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, what we now call Halloween picked up aspects of the Roman Saturnalian festival before it was squared with Christian traditions and aligned with a Nov. 1 All Saints Day by Pope Gregory IV in the ninth century. Skal, in "Death Makes a Holiday," finds something-for-everyone traces of Guy Fawkes Day, fortune-telling practices and the courting customs of apple-bobbing in Halloween.

The holiday was a slow, tame starter in America, characterized by genteel costume parties and mild-mannered witches on greeting cards. Trick-or-treating didn't emerge until the 1920s, and it wasn't until the turbulent 1970s that Halloween took on its heavier freight of rubber-jowled Nixon masks and the perverse, sexually charged morality plays of slasher films like the original "Halloween" (1978). Thirty years later, the changes are largely cosmetic. We're still using Halloween to leer at politics, violence and sex. Bush and Cheney masks will be out in force tonight. Last weekend's movie box-office leader, at $32.1 million, was "Saw IV," the latest sequel in the current October bloodbath series.

Halloween took a short breather in 2001, with the authentic horrors of 9/11 still too close for comfort. But a holiday that's estimated to represent a $6 billion annual market in consumer goods and services wasn't about to be stopped. Nothing about the selling of Halloween is shocking or even mildly surprising anymore. I took a stroll through the Halloween Superstore at Geary and Masonic the other day and found a "You Sexy Vampire" costume for girls, baby bottles and giant diapers for adults, pregnant nun outfits and a 60-inch molded ammunition belt with "realistic bullets to add a finishing touch to any costume."

Now, wouldn't that be just the thing for anyone venturing into the Castro tonight? For one night only, we could all play our own Blackwater security force.