I have pleasant memories of Halloween in the Upper Midwest of America growing up, most especially because I have a fondness for all things “Autumn.” A little dress-up here and there in the crisp weather, some decent candy bars from the neighbors- I would say my memories of it could be called “subtle” in the best sense, and harmless.
That was roughly 30 years ago. By comparison, today’s observances of Halloween in our culture I find to be less than subtle, I would say even disturbing. From a purely objective standpoint, two focal points of necessary discomfort with contemporary Halloween can be safely illustrated. Both of them might be best explained using some references to the thoughts of Charles Taylor in his very comprehensive book, A Secular Age.
Taylor’s project in this book is to trace the development throughout the centuries of a secular sphere of society that is distinct from institutional religion or piety. He shows in his book that our very parceled thinking today about religious versus non-religious zones of culture would have been unthinkable until very recently in the long sweep of history.
“Fun” is King
One important factor that Taylor identifies in the emergence of our contemporary, divided outlook is the prevailing mindset about the importance of personal satisfaction or wellness. He says that ours is the first culture in world history where the highest good is the maximum personal fulfillment in this life; there is nothing more important than this. Prior to our era, the prevailing understanding held that only in the next life could one achieve maximum fulfillment, which meant that in this life we settled for the reality of lack, of want, and of the inevitably-unfulfilled. One could say we settled for “less than great now” because we were sustained by the promise of “later,” whereas our current era is defined by the reversal of this: we want it all now, whereas later (whatever that is) is something like icing on the cake that we’ve already eaten.
What does this have to do with the objective problems of contemporary Halloween? Taylor’s articulation of our cultural inversion of priorities is one way among many of laying bare the modern problem of excess. Halloween has become in so many respects a grand display of sensory gluttony, fueled in large part by the prevailing Western attitude that this life is about fulfilling every emotional fantasy that we can dream up.
Contemporary Halloween is especially susceptible to the problem of excess. At the core of its current observance, if one goes in search of its existential purpose as a holiday, is really just one word: fun. It is fun, nothing more. There is no other religious, political, or higher meaning to anchor it in anything other than the pursuit of fun.
What is fun? In our current usage, it equates to whatever brings us pleasure, and in a worldview that is centered only on the maximum of the now, fun and pleasure is always going to reign supreme if there is nothing to reign it in. Contemporary Halloween is nothing more than celebration just for celebration’s sake, which gives rise to its stunning level of sensory overload in recent decades.
Moving From “Fun” to “Joy.”
“Fun” does not exactly exist in the Christian vocabulary in its current usage. There is, perhaps, “community,” and there is of course “family,” and we have a long tradition of “festivals,” to be sure. However, for the Christian all of those things were firmly tied to the deeper dogmas of the faith and to God-given patterns of human life: marriages, births, dedications of sacred spaces, etc. The pleasure and the fun of it all was not an enduring end in itself to be pursued to the limits of our credit card maximum balances.
The better word in the Christian tradition for what contemporary Halloween is chasing after, but cannot fully reach, is “joy.” Many in our commercialized culture make the mistake of thinking that greater excess will bring greater joy. More fright, more thrills, more enormous inflatable yard decorations, bigger bags of candy, longer and longer days of anticipation are all an attempt to catch joy and hang on to it tightly, savoring the emotional high that excess temporarily delivers. When that gets boring, then the contemporary answer is to get an even more elaborate set of inflatable goblins in the front yard next year. This is a chasing after the wind, to quote Qoheleth.
Joy cannot come, in our finite world, without temperance and moderation. If there is one major difference between the Halloween of today and that of my childhood, it can easily be summarized as one of scale: today it is way, way over the top. As a “holiday” that exists really only for the sake of celebration itself, totally unmoored from its earlier Catholic elements, in an age where we feel obliged to squeeze every drop of pleasure out of this life that we can, then it makes total sense that the subtle and relatively harmless Halloween of my childhood has mushroomed into a glorification of sensory gluttony.
To rescue it we need to tone it down. A Christian family, trying desperately to raise decent children in our neo-pagan era, can do a great service by simply celebrating the day with sanity and moderation, in every possible aspect. Moderation is a great antidote, and it can only come from hope, which is the deep-seated viewpoint oriented to the world to come. Which is another way of saying that only the correct grasp of the purpose of this life, the next life, and the bridge of hope that unites them is strong enough to reign in contemporary Halloween. Without that, one’s credit card combined with the limitless supplies at the Halloween Store are going to destroy moderation every time.
A Lack of Vision
The second objective problem with contemporary Halloween besides its gross excess is perhaps more subtle. Again, Charles Taylor is helpful. In the same book, he articulates well that our modern era, in contrast to the Medieval world, is one that has stripped the mysterious from our everyday worldview. It has happened so thoroughly, that a modern person really cannot begin to grasp what it was like to see the world through the eyes of someone in Medieval Europe. For them, all of reality was mystical. Persons, places, things, and even ideas were all animated by their own type of spiritual light and darkness, either for, or in opposition to the Trinity. Problems and their solutions were entirely a function of turning the object in question over to the power of God who would in turn liberate it from the evil that possessed it. Headaches, for example, were viewed as the result of a harassment of the forces of evil. Today, by contrast, we simply take Advil. The current practice, while effective, is at the same time boring and not at all spiritual.
In the earlier world view, God’s power was highly concentrated in things: relics, Sacraments, rites, shrines, the presence of the Saints, etc, etc. Charles Taylor traces a development of the contemporary prevailing worldview in which, over time, God’s presence was gradually de-coupled from “things.” For us today God is essentially “everywhere.” God is also highly abstract, numinous, and as a result also not very pushy or demanding. God, or the “spiritual,” has taken on the same attributes as background music, soothing us as we drift through our days.
Such a modern world that takes sacred “things” so lightly also has a way of trivializing evil. If God has now become vague and “everywhere,” then it makes little sense for images or scenes of witches, ghosts, and goblins to be anything other than mere vague play things. Today many people intuitively believe that psychics, spells, Ouija boards, pentagrams, pagan symbols and ideas are really just empty entities that we can manipulate at will. In a de-sacralized worldview, this is a logical conclusion. Some today do still believe in and embrace the evil forces at work in such entities, which is of course its own dangerous reality.
A similar desacralized culture that lacks the vital tools of Christian revelation to navigate the realities of life, death, resurrection, and personhood in a dignified way is also going to fall prey to the glorification of gore, just for gore’s own entertaining, shock-value sake. Contemporary Halloween is marked by a heavier and heavier glorification of gore.
The Proper Way to View Evil, the Proper Way to Celebrate Halloween
For the Christian, our appropriate fear of the Lord cultivates in us at the same time and appropriate abhorrence over any glorification, as well as any trivialization, of evil and of gore. We do not dabble in things of darkness because we know that God is concrete, and God is real, and that his strongest desire for us is to free us from the powers of darkness. We do not celebrate gore.
It is abhorrent for a faithful Christian to encounter the elements of modern Halloween that glamorize the demonic. It is also deeply distressing to encounter elements that make light of it, NOT because they believe God is stronger (which is something akin to the earlier roots of Christian Halloween) but RATHER because they don’t believe there is such a thing as good versus evil in the first place. It is disturbing to witness such widespread indifference to the Christian understanding of the spiritual universe. Modern Halloween has elevated this indifference of our secular age to new heights.
What does a Christian do? Perhaps one avoids the pagan and gory trappings of the holiday entirely. Or, maybe one works on the careful catechetical balance of the Medieval mindset: God is real, God is powerful, God lives in His followers, and when one firmly believes in grace, then one can safely laugh in the face of the devil and death whose power has been crippled by the Savior. In our decidedly non-Medieval world, that is very difficult message to communicate well. If all one can pull off is simple avoidance, then maybe that is the safer route these days.
Simply put, Halloween is only rescued by households, communities, and societies that deeply believe in Christian revelation. Doing so does not necessarily eliminate the holiday, as its Catholic history clearly shows, but it does put all the excess, and all the spiritual indifference, into its proper place, correcting all that is flawed. In such a place of true faith, Halloween is appropriate. With its celebration is authentic fun, community, and maybe even…. Joy.