Honors College to Treat Guests to TED Talk on History and Culture of Halloween

By Tom McLaughlin

The Honors College at Rutgers University–Camden will treat guests to a free, public “TED talk”-style presentation highlighting various aspects of the history and culture of Halloween.

The talk, featuring three Rutgers–Camden faculty experts, will be held from 11:20 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, in the West ABC conference rooms located on the lower level of the Campus Center.

“It is our hope that students and guests of all identities will gain a deeper understanding of a traditional American holiday which, for many, is treated – no pun intended – as a night of costumes and candy, but actually has greater cultural implications in its roots,” says Brian Everett, assistant dean of the Honors College.

Stuart Charmé, a professor of religion and director of the graduate program in liberal studies, will talk about the impact of Halloween costumes in reinforcing gender roles in children and the increasing sexualization of women in commercial costumes for teens and adult women.

“If children don’t choose the costumes according to these rigid gender norms, they become aware at an early age that they are doing something inappropriate and different from their peers,” says Charmé. “The idea is that there is a neutral territory where boys and girls can be comfortable and spontaneous with their choices, but this latitude isn’t as wide as you’d think.”

Rick Demirjian, an assistant teaching professor and undergraduate program coordinator for the Department of History, will discuss “Witches and the Problem of Property in 17th-Century Salem.”

According to Demirjian, the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 are notable in American history and folklore as a cultural aberration that pitted hysterical neighbors against one another due to superstitious or even psychedelic influences. Less well known, he says, are the social circumstances of 17th-century Salem that shaped the relationships among those neighbors – circumstances that presaged the land rights issues that remain with us today.

“Instead of looking at Salem and asking, ‘Which witch is which?,’ we might ask, ‘Whose woods were whose?,’” he says.

John Wall – a professor and chair of the Departments of Philosophy and Religion, and Childhood Studies – will discuss “Children as Embodiments of Evil.”

Wall asks why Halloween often involves children dressing up as evil characters, such as witches, ghouls, slashers, and monsters – and why this is thought to be cute.

“This presentation will explore how, for both children and adults, children embodying evil is bound up with notions of children as innocent and good,” says Wall.

Everett notes that Honors College student-leaders proposed the Halloween-related discussion and identified the faculty members participating, each of whom have taught for the Honors College at some time. These events, part of an ongoing series that aims to engage students in discussions beyond the classroom, says Everett, are made possible by the willingness of Rutgers–Camden’s expert faculty to collaborate with the Honors College.

Beyond these engaging discussions, he notes, it is the hope that the content and access to faculty members outside of the classroom may inspire greater research interests in their undergraduate populations.

The Honors College will collaborate with several offices on campus during the first week of December for a weeklong series of events to commemorate World AIDS Day.

For more information, visit the Honors College at Rutgers–Camden.

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