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Halloween and the Loss of Fear

What is Halloween really about? The Atlantic‘s Megan Garber notes that, while it “used to revolve around, and revel in, familiarized fear—as the night before All Souls’ Day, it was historically celebrated as a time of communion between the living and the dead,” the holiday has increasingly changed as it’s become secularized (and commercialized):

[Halloween is] primarily about fun. Spectacle long ago replaced scariness as the core driver of Halloween festivities among both kids and adults, aided by the Costume Industrial Complex and the assorted quirks of the “one night stand” and the “Freudian slip” and the “cereal killer,” and also of the “9 Clever Costumes for Punny Procrastinators” and the “21 Insanely Clever Costume Ideas for You and Your Friends” and the “29 Halloween Costumes That Will Make You Nostalgic” and the “67 Awesome Halloween Costume Ideas.”

…Costumes, by their nature, are about thwarting social norms (the word stems from the Latinconsuetudinem, or “custom, habit, usage”); when they collide with the current culture’s emphasis on creativity, however, they transform Halloween from a holiday into an excuse. For experimentation, for crossing lines, for dabbling with otherness. Our forebears may have spent All Hallows’ Eve fighting against goblins and ghosts; we, for our part, battle our Ids.

This reminded me of the consideration of identity Wesley Morris wrote for the New York Times a few weeks ago—he writes of a world obsessed with image, and with the flexibility/translatability of that image in a modern era. He writes of a people who, detached from spirituality and tradition, are able to build their own definitions of the self and the good life. Could it be that Halloween, too, has become less about “the other” and more about our selves and how we want to define them—be it as a “sexy librarian” or a Superman?

Mark Tapson writes for Acculturated that people have traditionally liked Halloween—and the accompanying horror stories, haunted mazes, and creepy houses that come with it—because they like to be scared: because they like to consider the fact that there might still be something “else” out there, something besides our selves:

We are drawn to tales of ghosts and vampires and other creepy mysteries that point beyond human nature because we crave a direct experience of the supernatural, especially in a world in which the ascendance of atheism and the hostility of some prominent scientists to the supernatural has diminished that experience. … On one level, movies like The Sixth Sense and The Others are just Hollywood entertainment, but they affect us at least in part because on a deeper level they are also a chilling reminder of the ineffable veil that separates the living from the dead, the tangible from the intangible, the known from the unknown. We don’t know for certain what lies beyond that veil, but deep down we know it is there and the thought of breaking through that otherworldly plane and glimpsing “the sublime” simultaneously terrifies and thrills us.

As Rod Dreher has writtenin the past, many people—secular and religious—continue to have metaphysical, mystical experiences. The author of The Exorcist, according to a story recently published in The Washingtonian, believes his story was “an argument for God. I intended it to be an apostolic work, to help people in their faith. Because I thoroughly believed in the authenticity and validity of that particular event.”

Evidences of the supernatural are not easy to explain, yet they cannot easily be excused from human life. They’re something that we, regardless of our religion, will be forced to confront—and attempt to explain—at some point in our lives. Traditionally, Halloween forced us to consider such things: the things that frighten us, the things that seem inexplicable. Halloween asked us the question, “Are you all that exists? Could there be something else out there—and are you prepared to confront it?” Halloween forced us to consider the evil that paints our world: it reminded us of the darker sides of human nature, of the poisonous sins and errors that plague our world.

So what do we lose when Halloween becomes simply “fun”? What we lose whenever we take a holiday with spiritual roots and secularize it: we turn it into a time of buying things and gorging on food, reveling in the silly and taking lots of pictures—but it becomes a time without mystery or meaning.

This isn’t to equate Halloween with other religious holidays—by no means. It has pretty pagan roots, and I think a lot of Christians are right to be cautious of it: as Tapson notes, fear should be a reminder of what we can’t control or explain, and it’s far too easy to trivialize the spiritual—to a dangerous degree—during times such as Halloween. Of course, as a Christian, I also believe we should not be too frightened, because we don’t believe that evil has the upper hand in this world. We believe that light conquers darkness.

Yet this year, I’m also considering the ways in which the traditional Halloween has its meanings and purposes. I do think that Tapson is right: there’s something important about “our fearful fascination with the forbidden unknown, our yearning to be embraced by the sublime.” Halloween reminds us of the darkness that surrounds us, as well as of the fact that we are not alone in this world. In a month, Thanksgiving will arrive, reminding us of the people and blessings that comfort us, that bring us through trials and difficulties. And then—most importantly—Christmas will remind us that God is with us, that light can still shine through that darkness. It’s important not to forget the value of fear—especially when that fear can point us to the source of all comfort.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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