Happy Halloween! To kick off the spooky festivities, here’s a passage from The Gothic, edited by Gilda Williams, in which Gianni Jetzer traces the symbolic development of one of the most popular Halloween icons: the skull.
The once unambiguous symbolism of the anatomical skull has clearly given way to the ambiguity of countless graphic variations within the framework of a completely new aesthetics. An early illustration of this new development in modern times is the flag flown by pirate ships – the Jolly Roger. Its most popular subject – the skull and crossbones – was a common memento mori on tombstones in Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For the first time, a symbol of death was transferred from a religious to a profane context in a singular act of piracy. Divorced from the ‘comforts’ of the Church and extreme unction, it morphed into a fearsome sign, the embodiment of a terrifying code of lawlessness and ungodliness. Pirates were ‘outlaws,’ dropouts from Christian society and its system of values and beliefs. Having since been appropriated by Hollywood and Disneyland, the sign has sacrificed much of its subversive appeal.
Folkert de Jong’s installation It All Began in the Sea, shown at the Centre for European Art in Xiamen, China (2003) can be seen as both a pirate monument and a memento mori. The skull and crossbones are depicted next to amphorae, starfish and finger-like steles, recalling the treasure islands of pirate-story renown. Despite the frightening symbolism, there is something genuinely romantic about the ‘monument’…Displaying an ambivalent form of beauty in the midst of bony skulls needs no explanation; death suddenly acquires an easy-going nonchalance.
Folkert de Jong rises above the level of the straightforward memento mori. He uses skulls to tell stories (of life); he turns them into freakish pop characters who seem to live life dangerously on the presumption of their immortality. They have transcended us and our dreams of eternal youth, for they have reached another stage of consciousness, a kind of stable condition while we, the living, have to deal day after day with the inexorable decay of our own bodies…
Rebel Yell and Halloween
Even so, the skull still owes its popularity more to tattooing than to the fine arts. Tattoos spoke a secret language long before primitivism became trendy, before every small town boasted a high-street tattoo parlour and every indie-rocker and office worker willingly submitted to the needle. They were the domain of a special society, the underworld of criminals and inmates. The skull has always been a popular motif in tattooing…Today tattoos are no longer signs of affiliation with the underworld, but purely a lifestyle accessory…The skull continues to enjoy great popularity, except that it now has precious little to do with vanitas symbolism or the memento mori. It merely serve to embellish the body, to demonstrate defiance in the face of death or simply to make a show of rebellion. The skull has become an ambivalent rhetorical figure in contemporary society, possibly through the influence of other cultures. In Mexico, the ‘Day of the Dead’ is celebrated with thousands of little skeletons. Death is seen as the ultimate liberation from all earthly burdens. No wonder then that skeletons and skulls play such a central role during this festival where, rather than symbolizing death, they are viewed as symbols of life and regeneration. In order to confront death and make light of it, people eat marzipan, sugar or chocolate skulls and stage scenes populated with skeletons. And in North America, where black suits printed with white skeletons enjoy great popularity, it looks as if Halloween will soon outshine Christmas.
 See David Cordingly, Under Black Flag, the Romance and the Reality of Life Amongst Pirates (Harvest Books, 1995).