Holiday Films and Discursive Celebrations: Exchange, Confluence, and The Book of Life

Book of Life Image

by Doug Valentine

Perhaps it’s the fact that I am a new dad (two weeks on the job), but I’ve paid far more attention to advertisements for children’s movies this fall. One film in particular has peaked my interest. The 20th Century Fox synopsis for the new film, The Book of Life, reads as follows:

From producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez comes an animated comedy with a unique visual style. The Book of Life is the journey of Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart. Before choosing which path to follow, he embarks on an incredible adventure that spans three fantastical worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

The film features to supernatural antagonists, La Muerte and Xibalba, two gods whose wagers effect the life of the protagonist, Manolo. Through the course of the film, Manolo is transformed into a catrina-esque skeletal figure, at which point he must journey through lands of the living and dead to reunite with his lost love. The film draws its inspiration from Mexican tradition, including Dias de Muertos and indigenous myth (the god Xibalba is a reference to the Mayan land of the dead).

The addition of a Days of the Dead-themed children’s movie for mainstream audiences is worthy of academic consideration. The film’s producer, Guillermo del Toro has expressed his excitement at the opportunity to showcase the unique imagery of Mexican culture to a new crowd, saying the film is “not just folklore memory. It’s punk, scat, rock ‘n roll modernity. It’s a colorful and playful celebration of the life of all those who came before us.” Despite this clear influence, an overwhelming majority of television advertisements for the film make no mention of the Days of the Dead (though admittedly, longer trailers available online do). Rather, the film has been billed as a “Halloween adventure” for which audiences should “grab their costumes.” The goal of my post is not to prescriptively claim 20th Century Fox should or shouldn’t bill The Book of Life as a Halloween or Days of the Dead movie, but to illustrate one more in a long history of exchanges between these two events.

Anthropologist Stanley Brandes has written extensively about Days of the Dead in Mexico and the United States (see Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: the Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond, 2007). As he notes, the northern border states of Mexico were no strangers to Halloween as early as the 1940s. However, the mass importation of Halloween merchandise following the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), coupled with a significant increase of U.S. citizens, both workers and tourists, led to the presence of the American holiday in the previously untapped regions of central and southern Mexico. This far more recent incursion, along with the rise in Mexican national identification with the Days of the Dead in northern states, has led to the mixed reception among various segments of the population toward carved pumpkins, trick-or-treaters, and costumed witches and devils on the streets of Oaxaca, Michoacán, and elsewhere.

Following a revival of Dias de Muertos symbolism during the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s (see Regina M. Marchi’s Day of the Dead in the USA: the Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon, 2009 for more on Dias de Muertos and social movements), elementary and secondary schools around the country began to include Days of the Dead lessons in their curricula. NAFTA eased this process, making children’s literature on the Days of the Dead in Mexico and the United States far more readily available. Despite the light-hearted intention, these activities in public schools were not met with a warm reception by some parents. Often, issue was raised with the religious implications of the activities. Concerned parents tended to overemphasize (or only emphasize) folk aspects and what they perceived to be elements of pre-Columbian cults of the dead, rejecting the notion that these practices conformed to perceived universal Christian celebrations. In response, schools around the country have tried to strip the lessons and activities of any religious meaning and symbolism, emphasizing rather the cultural dimensions of the holiday (this discursive categorization is interesting in its own right, but cannot be addressed here). These moves, in turn, have sparked outrage among certain segments of practicing communities, who feel Days of the Dead celebrations deprived of their religious significance are perversions without a purpose.

Echoed by David J. Skal (Death Makes a Holiday: a Cultural History of Halloween, 2002), the implementation of NAFTA increased the amount of goods traveling across the U.S.-Mexican border in both directions. At the same time American shoppers were introduced to colorful wall art of dancing skeletons and intricately carved emaciated figurines, residents of Mexico were likewise finding Halloween items in their local shops for the first time. Additionally, an increase in television programming from the United States further inundated Mexicans with images of apple bobbing and werewolves on October 31st. Despite this potential conflict, Brandes points out, “[F]or most Mexicans…there is one major holiday at the end of October and beginning of November. It [does not] occur to [them] to distinguish between Halloween and Day of the Dead [sic] traditions (Brandes 124).” Days of the Dead rituals and Halloween symbolism and activities have now come to represent one celebration to a majority of Mexicans, though those who see the presence of Halloween as a detriment to Mexican national identity are quite vocal, claiming the preservaiton of the Days of the Dead is only possible through the rejection of americanismos (Americanisms), including Halloween, viewed quite emphatically as a form of American cultural imperialism.

The last half-century has seen an increased exchange in Days of the Dead and Halloween symbolism on both sides of the border, resulting in periods of representational contestation and appropriation. It will be interesting to see how The Book of Life contributes this discourse. 20th Century Fox, perhaps anticipating similar parental anxiety toward the film, has downplayed the influence of Days of the Dead and instead invited audiences to an innocuous “Halloween adventure,” reminiscent of the devaluation of overtly “religious” signifiers in elementary and secondary education classroom activities across the country. Recent developments in international film markets makes it equally possible The Book of Life will have as great an effect in other parts of the globe as the importation of literature and decoration throughout the United States following NAFTA. The Book of Life will be released nationwide this Friday. Though my son is a bit too young to make the trip, I will follow reaction to the film with great interest.

Doug Valentine earned a BS in Religious Studies and Psychology from Bradley University in Peoria, IL and an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO, where he is currently pursuing his PhD in Sociology. His academic interests include cultural theory, contemporary death and remembrance rituals, transnational religion, and identity.

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