As I recall, I was always a black cat—not so much because black cats were thought to be evil and witch’s familiars or anything. I just loved cats, and so thought black cats were cool. My neighbour usually dressed up as a hobo, but me—I was always a black cat. I would plan my costume weeks in advance, and help Mom make up the goody-bags of candy we distributed (including those horrible caramel “kisses” that could pull the fillings out of your teeth), and waited impatiently for the time when I could put on my costume and meet up with my friends. In our neighbourhood we never chanted, “Trick or treat!” Our chant was always, “Shell out, shell out, the witches are out!” Not that many of us dressed up as witches, but chanting, “Shell out, shell out, the blacks cats and the hobos are out” sounded lame. When it came to Hallowe’en, we were traditionalists.
The Hallowe’en of my childhood was a long time ago, and much has changed since then. In my day everyone knew that witches did not exist, and now we have covens of them, as Wiccans look to take their place in the spiritual markets of North America. Like I said, much has changed. But much continuity with the past exists also. My own children experienced Hallowe’en more or less like I did, as a time to dress up in costumes, go out after dark with the friends, and knock on neighbours’ doors to collect candy. Then came the time back at home of watching re-runs of The Simpsons Hallowe’en episodes and dividing up all the sugar-coated loot. One time I tried to light a candle and read them scary stories in the dark, but that bombed. They much preferred The Simpsons.
We are in a time of cultural shift in many different ways, as our society increasingly loses its traditional foundation in the Christian Faith and slides into a confusing and confused secularism, and the different ways of celebrating Hallowe’en form a part of this shift. For some, Hallowe’en remains a time for dress-up and after-dark cameraderie and collecting candy. Older persons of darker disposition, and Wiccans, will co-opt the day for their own purposes, making it respectively a celebration of counter-cultural violence, or of their pagan religion. In a way Hallowe’en in this time of cultural shift has suffered the same fate as Christmas, for it has become many different things to many different people. All of this makes it difficult to answer the question, “What should Orthodox Christians think of Hallowe’en?” For the question to be answered first is, “Which Hallowe’en?”—the dress-up Hallowe’en of the young candy-collectors, or the Hallowe’en of the Wiccans, or the Hallowe’en of those using the day to glorify gore in the service of counter-cultural protest? Hallowe’en is not one thing, but many things, and one size of answer does not fit all.
In a time of confusion, it is natural to cast about urgently for simple answers, and to feel threatened by the confusion. One wants to take refuge in certainties, labelling things as either black or white, and finding different shades of grey seems only to increase the confusion. Perhaps that is why some take such deadly aim at Hallowe’en, labelling it as simply the celebration of evil, violence, gore, and death, and renouncing it with passionate vituperation. Of course if Hallowe’en were simply the celebration of evil, violence, gore, and death, then renunciation would be the only right response. But it seems to me that Hallowe’en is a complex and multivalent phenomenon in our culture, and we run the risk of oversimplifying it if we fail to recognize this. Fundamentalists are among those who make such oversimplifications, for fundamentalists tend to reduce all things to either black or white, and do not do well when confronted with moral complexity, ambiguity, or shades of grey.
But, one might ask, what’s wrong with fundamentalism? Shouldn’t one err on the side of safety? I agree that if one has to err, one should err on the side of safety, but I am less sure that fundamentalism is all that safe. Every parent knows that raising children means finding the right balance of strictness and laxity, of prohibition and permission. One needs to hold the parental reins tightly enough to keep children safe, but not so tightly that they rebel, and finding the right balance is not always easy. If one equates Hallowe’en with a celebration of death and violence and forbids all involvement with it, one might one day have to pay the price if the children conclude that it was only really about dressing up and getting candy. There are many real dangers out there—dangers involving gangs, drugs, social diseases, bullying, and pornography. We can’t be always forbidding everything. Do we really want to expend that much ammo on Hallowe’en? Shouldn’t we save our fire for areas where we really need it?
But, one might ask, what about the fear? Is it right to scare children? Aren’t all those monsters and grave-yards, and Freddy Kruegers sick and ungodly? Here one needs to step away from our own culture for a bit and examine the larger question of scary stuff generally. All cultures have had their ghost stories. Everyone delights to sit by the fire and listen to a hair-raising tale, which is why such things have long been staples at Boy Scout camp-outs. Odd as it sounds, we love to be a bit scared—not traumatically terrified necessarily, but a bit scared. That is why roller-coasters exist—we ride them and scream in fright and get off them and feel great—and go on them again for another ride. That is why monster movies were so popular, along with amusement rides through the spook-house—after we are scared, we feel a release and all laugh together. (In my youth, the ride through the spook-house in the amusement park was called, significantly, “Laff in the Dark”.) We can delight and scream at Freddy Krueger brandishing something menacingly, because we know we are in no real danger—just as we are in no real danger on a roller-coaster. We get all the adrenaline rush that comes from Freddy Krueger or from careening down a roller-coaster hill with none of the danger. Most children can tell the difference between the thrills and chills of Hallowe’en, and things that are really dangerous. Growing up healthy does not mean avoiding everything scary, and never riding the roller-coaster or listening to a ghost-story. Once again, balanced parenting involves discerning the difference between the faux-dangers of October 31 and the real ones we meet beginning the morning of November 1.