Thursday, November 1, 2012

Halloween Reflections in November

             I have just been listening to an old song from 1962 by Bobby Pickett called “Monster Mash”.  It reminds me of all the old monster films I so delighted in when I was a child—re-runs on Friday “Fright Night” at 11.30 p.m. when channel seven in Buffalo, New York broadcast the old films from the 1930s—films like “Dracula”, “Frankenstein” and the “The Wolf-man”.  Were they cheesy?  Oh yeah.  Did I and my generation love them?  Oh yeah.  Documentary proof of our love can be found in old copies of the then-popular magazine “Famous Monsters of Filmland”, by Forrest Ackerman.  Monsters were the best.  We loved monsters and ghost stories and being scared.  Like all children, we could discern the difference between artificially-induced fear that was safe (things like monster movies and the roller-coaster), and things that made one afraid that were truly unsafe (like violence in the home, and bullies in the school-yard).  Kids are not stupid; they know that monsters are safe and bullies are not.
            This delight in being scared is not new.  Delight in ghost stories is an old delight, and such tales are often told around the camp-fire.  Children delight in being thrilled by such things, for the same reason that they delight in being thrilled (that is, terrified) by the roller-coaster—because they know the thrill will not last, and will not harm them, and thus is not real.  They return to real life more energized from having received a quick shot of childish adrenaline.  Monsters and ghost stories are fun and energizing.  If anyone denies this, I have nothing more to say to them here; I am speaking only to people who truly remember what it was like to be a child.
            This delight in monsters was the main component in my childhood experience of Halloween.  My dad, who in some ways remembers my childhood more accurately than I do, tells me that I thought Halloween was The Best.  It beat Christmas.  It was a time to delight in spookiness, to dress up in a costume, having laboured long and lovingly on deciding what this costume would be.  It was a time to go out after dark with one’s friends (a rare treat in itself), friends who were similarly dressed up, and to admire each other’s costumes.  It was a time to go from door to door and accumulate an immense stash of candy, which was then to be sorted, admired, boasted about, complained about (apples? really?), stared at, shared, and consumed for days afterward.  The trick was to make the stash last as long as possible.  And possibly (I was an only child) to trade with one’s siblings to make a bargain, trading one’s inferior candy for a better prize, assuming that one could con one’s brother or sister into swapping their chocolate bar for your apple.  Like I said, Halloween was The Best.
            I am told that a number of people today attempt to co-opt this day as their own special religious day—Wiccans have claimed the day for example, absurdly equating the ancient western Christian “All Hallows’ Eve” (i.e. eve of All Saints’ Day) with their own long-dead feast of Samhain.  Nice try:  pagan Samhain has been gone for a LONG time, but I suppose if one is desperate enough to mine ancient western history for long extinct festivals, anything will do.  In fact there is no actual historical continuity between the two feasts of the actual historical Samhain and what the Wiccans currently do on October 31.  But I suppose, like they say, “whatever gets you through the night”.  Candidly, I find it hard to take Wiccans too seriously, since modern Wicca is so obviously a made-up, self-invented religion.  It reminds me of Scientology, except that the Scientologists always keep their clothes on.
            Anyway, the historical disconnect between Halloween as presently practised in North America by children in 2012 and the historical pagan festival of Samhain is one reason why I think Halloween culturally harmless at the present time.  The fact that the visual iconography of the day includes pumpkins, and ugly old witches with long noses (i.e. women quite unlike real live Wiccans), and black cats, and spooks, and gravestones, and an assortment of other scary stuff does not trouble me, because I well remember my own dalliance with such scary stuff.  It did not mean that I was flirting with actual evil or The Dark Side.  It just meant that I loved scary ghost stories and monsters.  Boo!
            The pastoral challenge for the Church today is to discern what the various things in our culture mean, and to respond appropriately to each one in turn.  If we fail to denounce things that are genuinely evil and worthy of denunciation, we will justly deserve censure.  (I think here of such genuine evils as abortion, pornography, torture of prisoners, and child abuse.)  If we denounce things that are essentially harmless (like Christmas trees and Halloween) we will lose our credibility with the world we want to convert.  Some Christians denounced “rock and roll” when it first appeared and now justly appear silly—such as the Christians in the 1960s who denounced the Beatles for their long hair, or Elvis Presley for his gyrations.  Such things now seem harmless and benign, and no one now denounces the Beatles for wearing bangs, or Elvis singing “Blue Suede Shoes”.  In the same way, if the Church denounces children for wearing costumes and pretending to be fairies or Spider-Man, and going door to door collecting candy, this will result in the Church losing credibility in the eyes of the world.  And it’s not like we have any credibility to spare. 
            Now that Halloween 2012 has come and gone, it is time to let it go, to bless the children with all their delight in scary stories, and to lead them by our loving example into the Kingdom.  There are many battle-grounds in which the Church is called to fight for the eternal truth of Christ.  Children’s Halloween is not one of them.


  1. A long time ago, when I was an Anglican, an American lady came to be secretary to the Anglican bishop in Namibia. She brought her two daughters, and the one thing that made them feel homesick for America was the absence of the American Halloween tradition. They realised that there was no point in doing the "trick or treat" thing because it would be culturally alien. In America householders are aware of the tradition and stock up with goodies to give to kids who come calling, but in Africa people would be completely unprepared.

    I was aware of Halloween because of Nancy and Slugg comics that I'd read as a child, but until I saw the gap that those kids felt, I wasn't aware of how seriously it was taken.

    There was another American family there, with a younger kid (about 2 years old), and they filled the gap by teaching him his culture and doing Halloween with him.

  2. Steve: thank you for the broader cultural perspective. You are quite right: my own experience of Halloween and that of my children and grandchildren is intensely North American. It reflected not only North American affluence (with tons of candy for children), but also the abiding popularity of the American horror films of the 1930s and after. Even ghost stories, a more universal genre, took on a more American flavour. The lasting documentary testimony to such a Halloween may be found in the cartoon "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"--now supplemented by Halloween episodes of "The Simpsons"--all very North American.


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