Breaking the Binary Between Life and Death

This post is for the naysayers, the Halloween-haters, the snobs. For anyone who thinks Halloween is for children, and horror strictly relegated to poorly-written paperbacks. Why, you might ask, do people care about this junk?

I’ve already explored the cultural significance of Halloween around the world, finding that most celebrations of the holiday center around one thing: the return of the dead to the world of the living. In every incarnation of the holiday, from Hong Kong to Berlin, the essence remains the same: lifting the veil that separates life from death.

What this produces is a vital shock to our everyday lives: a holiday that, on its surface, is about children and costumes and candy, but in reality provides one day a year in which humanity is forced to dissolve their mental separation between life and death, and the potential fluidity between the two.


What is a binary? You’ve probably come across it before, especially in literature: good vs. evil, north vs. south, male vs. female, fire vs. water. They are, in theory, two things that are mutually exclusive and in opposition to one another. And the biggest binary of them all? Live vs. death.

life vs death

If life and death are mutually exclusive—which we all agree upon, for the most part—then I suppose that’s the end of the story. Case dismissed. But then we near the end of October, and we start hearing stories about ghosts haunting their old homes, the dead roaming the night among the costumed living. So… what about those ghosts? What about zombies? What about all manner of things that go bump in the night, which seem to exist simultaneously in both the world of the living and the world of the dead? Though ghosts and zombies may not be real, shouldn’t there still be a theoretical place for them somewhere along the timeline of life and death?


In case you hadn’t noticed, life is not all black and white. We live immersed in gray areas, in confusion, never quite knowing what is good and what is evil aside from our gut feelings and our learned notions. We accept binaries because they are easy; they reduce the perpetual confusion of the human race. But the only way we can expand our minds and think deeply about the complexities of reality is by shattering these binaries and thinking within the gray areas.

You may think you know the difference between life and death, but do you? What of that residual spirit still lingering in the abandoned mental asylum? Is it alive, or is it dead?

Can the dead Trick-or-Treat?

Can the dead Trick-or-Treat?

Or is it undead? A thing that can only exist inside of the very line separating life from death?

Without Halloween, when would we be pressed to consider such ideas? Halloween gives us the perfect chance to consider these matters by forcing us to let go of the biggest binary of them all, if only for one night. A night of revelry, mischief, and allowing yourself to believe in the comingling of the living and dead. The literary possibilities of this tend to come out in the horror genre: a genre that not only explores our deepest fears about the world, but also forces us to face things that we don’t understand, things that unnerve us by their inexplicable nature, by their ability to defy our preconceived notions of reality.

That’s why Halloween is so awesome. You know, aside from the changing leaves, macabre décor, costumes, candy, jack-o-lanterns, haunted houses, parties, pumpkin-flavored everything, corn mazes, hayrides, Styrofoam gravestones, fake spiderwebs, and, of course, Halloween Mad Libs! (Have you voted on your favorite story? They turned out pretty great. Go vote now!)

Not sure where to hop next? Check out GirlZombieAuthors’ post on the history of mummies used as horror monsters. The keep hopping!

Categories: Coffin Hop


  1. I think I’ve found a blog I’d like to live at.

  2. Great post Joanna!
    Happy Hopping!
    – KimK

  3. Great read and very appropriate for my state of mind and work today. While photographing a historic naval cemetery for a photography project and art exploration, I was “searching” for binaries of life and death and the gray area in between. It is something to meditate on…literally.

    Life + Death are one even as the River and Sea are one. (Gibran).

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