Next Sunday is Halloween, a holiday that professionally, religiously, and personally intrigues me. In light of that, this week I'll be reposting some content from my archives to create a Halloween-themed week.
In defense of Halloween, below is an article I wrote for ACU's student newspaper The Optimist a few years ago:
In Defense of HalloweenAssociated with Halloween, on November 1st and 2nd, are the Christian celebrations of the departed, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In Latin American culture All Souls Day is also called The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) where deceased loved ones are remembered by visits to their grave sites and/or preparing altars in the home to their memory. Often these altars are decorated with festively decorated sugar skulls. Our link of the week (H/T to Bill) at the top of the sidebar will show you how to make your own sugar skulls this year, a fun addition to any pumpkin carving you might do this week.
It’s October. And that means I face the yearly question from students: “How should Christians respond to Halloween?” There’s an interesting conversation to be had about Halloween. A place to explore the intersection of faith and culture. To add my voice to that conversation I’d like to offer some psychological observations in defense of Halloween.
Psychologically, I think Halloween performs two important functions. First, Halloween allows us to collectively process our eventual death and mortality. The graveyards, corpses, blood, skeletons, and coffins of Halloween allow us, on a yearly basis, to confront our physicality and work through our largely repressed fear of death. In this, Halloween serves an important existential function. Second, Halloween allows us to work through our fears of the uncanny, the things that go bump in the night. This is the second major theme of Halloween, which manifests itself in Halloween’s evening and monster motifs, the bats, owls, ghosts and goblins. The world is a scary place at times, a strange and mysterious place, and we tend to fill its dark corners with “monsters.” Halloween, particularly for children, allows us to roam a night filled with ghosts and ghouls to find only friends and neighbors (and candy!). Again, vague fears are collectively confronted and processed.
Thus, two of the great themes of Halloween—death and the uncanny—are healthy confrontations with our collective anxieties concerning our frailness and mortality. In this, I believe Halloween is empowering to children, giving them a sense of control in a spooky and scary world. (I should also mention the third great theme of Halloween: Harvest.)
What I think has happened in some Christian communities is that the Halloween motifs of death and the uncanny get linked to the occult and from the occult to demonic/Satanic influences. I think this link is a bit of a stretch (largely made by linking that symbol of the uncanny—witches—to spells and black magic and from there to occult and demonic forces). Death is not demonic. We should not associate the graveyards, blood, and skeletons of Halloween with Satan. Graveyards are about our bodies and their frailty, and most of Halloween is as well. Further, the uncanny is the unknown and the mysterious. The night isn’t demonic, it’s just mysterious and, as a consequence, spooky. And it is good at times to confront the spookiness to see that there really isn’t a monster in your closet.
So I defend Halloween to my students. I think Halloween’s motifs of death and the uncanny are not about the demonic. They are about our children and us collectively confronting the scary things in life. And that, speaking as a psychologist, seems to me a good thing.