*Halloween is upon us – a holiday beloved by millions, especially sugar-crazed children. A recent entry into CNN’s Belief Blog meagerly addressed a debate that rages regarding whether Christians should celebrate the holiday. This post concerns the overarching question of that debate, but is in no way intended as an end-all answer on how exactly to respond. Just a reflection of my own experience. As always, I would appreciate feedback in the comments section – this is just another angle of the Great Conversation I mentioned in my last post.
When I was a kid, I was moderately into Halloween. I enjoyed the store-bought costumes despite the terribly uncomfortable masks. I liked visiting houses with spooky decorations. And, of course, I loved that there was a calendar day dedicated to the free acquisition of candy. My parents would drive me and some friends to a nearby neighborhood (ours was too secluded and rustic for proper trick-or-treating) and we would run the street, filling our bags with empty calories. Then we would hop in the back of the pickup truck to be ferried to the next street. We would celebrate our hauls, laugh and point at friends we recognized, and gather in packs to advance upon houses we knew, from experience, contained an overly enthusiastic grownup poised to leap out at us from the shadows or come alive from beneath a seemingly innocent white sheet.
It was a sad day when I found myself too old for trick-or-treating. Had I lived in a more populated neighborhood, I think I might have tried to do what some of those grownups did – become a figure of fright that gave the kids a story to tell for the rest of the night. But this didn’t happen. I went the way of uneventful boredom, hanging around with my friends at one of their houses, maybe stepping out a little later in the evening to see if any candy had gone unclaimed on people’s porches and doorsteps.
There is a line in First Corinthians that reads, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (13:11). I’ve always found this a depressing verse. I’m never nostalgic for the way I spoke or reasoned as a child, but I do miss some of those “ways of childhood.” Things were simpler, then. For one thing, Halloween was a tame holiday focused on how much candy one could acquire while wearing silly costumes – it was like some bizarre 70′s game show. When I became older, however, the whimsy of childhood sugar rushes faded, and I was faced with the darker side to this holiday.
Growing up in the Church, I was told a lot of things about Halloween. That it was evil, that it wasn’t really evil but I should still “be careful,” that trick-or-treating was innocent fun but monster and psycho-killer costumes were not, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I eventually learned that Halloween is descendent from All-Hallows E’en, or the eve of All Hallows Day (November 1st), also known as All Saints Day. However, being part of a conservative, small-town Baptist church, All Saints Day was considered a Catholic holiday, and those Catholics might as well have been Freddy Krueger the way some folks talked about them. Thus, whether Halloween was pagan or religious, it wasn’t for responsible, committed Christians. Enjoy the “Harvest Fest” pumpkin-carving (no scary faces, please) and bilking suburbanites out of some mini-Nestle Crunch’s, and then go home.
Here’s the problem. All that scary stuff intrigued me. Ghost stories and tales of monsters gave me a rush. Fear is an extremely potent emotion, but I often felt that if I were to indulge in a little terror, I would be sinning against Almighty God. Luckily for me, I was a bona-fide wuss when it came to horror. I was the kid who had to run out to the bathroom during a preview for Gremlins 2. Believe it or not, my first horror movie experience was Scream in 1996 – I was a senior in high school.
However, just because I remained a virgin to horror movies for so long didn’t mean I wasn’t a fan of being scared. It was easier for me to read scary stories than to watch them. I was really into werewolves and haunted house stories and graveyard trespassing. I even wrote a few of my own stories with friends (think of a PG-rated The Exorcist).
Scream (of all the films out there, it had to be one that was a half-parody of horror movies) sucked me in. By the time I was out of college, I wasn’t dangling my toes in the waters of Crystal Lake anymore; I had waded in up to my waist. And, boy, did I feel rotten. A good Christian would never be caught dead watching movies or reading books that seemingly revel in violence and death … right?
Narrative theology (a way of viewing God and his purpose for humanity in terms of a living, breathing story) utilizes the situational archetype that underscores practically every story in our world: good vs. evil. Now, a Christian who has moved beyond folk-religion stereotypes understands that the “good” in our story far exceeds the “evil.” Nowhere is this truth clearer than in the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Ultimate Good triumphs over evil. Good wins. Good has to win. Even when it seems to lose, it still wins. This is the bedrock reason for a Christian’s joy in Christ. This is what the Book of Revelation’s message was chiefly concerned with: Good wins. Sure, there is evil now, and tough times are a-comin’, but take heart, Christians, because Good wins.
Several years after I succumbed to the sins of watching horror movies and indulging in such sordid merriment, it occurred to me that the reason I was so intrigued by stories of terror is that what is at stake is the triumph of good over evil. Some people might enjoy cheering Michael Myers on as he slashes his way through Babysitterland, but I always found myself rooting for the heroes and heroines, hoping they could outsmart the killers, outrun the monsters, or outshine the perilous situations in which they found themselves. I wanted to witness redemption, not condemnation. The dark, grim and fiendish characters and environments only served to make the battle between good and evil more dramatic, more appreciable. If a man escapes the clutches of an annoying and selfish girl and finds his true love, I suppose that’s a satisfying story (*yawn*). If a man escapes the clutches of a horde of zombies and rescues his true love in the process, even better! Often, when horror movies amp up the chills, they also amp up the “good” that is at stake.
One of my favorite blogs is spending October examining the merits of various horror movies, both well known and obscure. I enjoyed what one of the reviewers had to say regarding why he contextually enjoys exorcism films (as well as other horror films):
“As a believer in Jesus and the things He did and showed us to do, I find these films exciting and faith boosting. Exorcism cinema offers a rare meeting ground between film and what I believe (or want to believe) in my Christian faith. While some horror films tinker with ideas of good and evil, faith and religion, Christian and anti-Christian, exorcism films blatantly pitch God and Satan in the boxing ring and then ring the bell. For this reason … I find them to be hopeful and emblematic of a greater (truer) metaphor: God the Father literally loving the Hell out of us.”
There will always be the naysayer who argues for purity of behavior over purity of spirit, throwing out scriptural gems like Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is good, whatever is true, … think on these things.” I don’t deny that they have a valid argument. However, indulging in fear isn’t always detrimental to a person’s outlook. Some psychologists believe that being able to identify villains and monsters, however irrational or outlandish, help young people work out their anxieties and emotions regarding the ambiguity of death and the sanctity of life.
Halloween is a prime example. Co-opted from an ancient druidic belief that the onset of dark winter energized vindictive evil spirits to rise at night and terrorize people, it was originally a specific observance of how to thwart the spirits by dressing up as them and passing undetected in their midst. It was trickery to avoid evil, not to indulge in it. It was beating the demons at their own game. It was, once again, the triumph of Good.
What a way to precede the celebration of all the courageous, faithful departed who have passed from life to death to life again! Let us take Halloween at face value, embracing the prickling of fear it brings while learning how to muster our courage, remembering that courageously holding fast to the Good in face of the evil is one of the fundamental components of a saint.
What’s a Christian to do with Halloween? It’s really each person’s individual call, but as for me, I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to wear my ridiculous costume, eat my mini-Nestle Crunch, and let whatever darkness I encounter stimulate a persevering love for the light.
What about you?