With my little girl 8 years old this year, I’ve wanted to sit and think through my objections to Halloween, as a cultural thing, as a psychological thing.
Halloween as we see it today is a more recent thing, within the last century. I think it is largely obsessed over in the first world west, not as much in other countries. That points to a very interesting reality. It may have Christian and pagan origins, but I don’t care about that.
I’m more interested in what we can learn about it and ourselves as we subconsciously act out its great rituals today.
Halloween certainly had its origins in a Hallowed Eve, a festival of lights, and the prayerful observance of the remembered dead. Plus many other things. I try very hard not to throw everything out, but find the pearl hidden in the field.
Today, many have fled Christianity. They are convinced that her holy mysteries are the haunts of jackals. I can’t blame them – we’ve done a poor job of encountering and evangelizing.
In our exodus, we have worked out new rituals. Halloween is one of them.
So here are the three points I’m thinking through:
- The human need for ritual
- Integrating evil
- Overcoming risk with reward
At the end, my thoughts so far on how to live with it all, as a practicing Catholic.
Humans and rituals
Ritual is a fancy word, perhaps. It means the ‘intentional acting out’ of a belief. Rituals are things we do even when we don’t believe them. Some of them are even sacramental – the mere act of doing them creates an effect, whether we like it or not.
Perhaps in that sense, it’s like magic. But what’s even more important, is that ritual is part of being human. We do it all the time. We create simple ones – repeatable processes to get us through our days – to month-long elaborate ones. They define human interaction, and how humans interact with greater realities, like virtue, the future, the gods, and God.
The more we’ve sanitized ourselves from ‘religion’, the more religiously we throw ourselves into the great rituals like Christmas, Easter, and Halloween.
In religion, rituals are the acting out of belief, done together in the sight of others. It hits multiple points for us as human beings – mutual reinforcement, body-based expression, unified mind-body-soul integration. We are spiritual beings oriented to relationship, and that relationship to friend and cosmos is mediated through matter.
But in the materialist lifestyle, man is returned to the prison of his skull, fundamentally isolated from every other. Death is the great ending, the ultimate point of loneliness. So as much as we struggle with meaning, we act as if it is so important we will cancel the heck out of everyone who challenges it.
That’s why companies will offer to us the price of admission into the rituals – buying stuff – and we do it fast and furiously.
We are hungry to show that we are good worshippers and ritualists. We compete to out-decorate, out-celebrate each other.
Most of us believe that at least children should be told the great ritual half-truths of life, before they get too old and stuck in their heads and dismiss them, rather than grow into them.
And on the great ritual nights, we all celebrate as a culture. Together we feast and drink and act out our beliefs in things, whatever our heads might be thinking. And with Halloween, we celebrate the victory of life over death.
Not in the externalized sense of Christ and his resurrection. But in our own daily death and resurrections.
If anything, humans are a resurrecting thing. We die constantly, and are reborn. Who you were in the past is no longer who you are. You have changed. At some point, you were reborn. Usually through the thousand little deaths that come from dying to self, integrating new truths, and remaking yourself into a new reality.
Now that’s a ritual worth living out.
The first world west is wrestling with the myth of ‘scientism’, where the scientific method is elevated above other forms of study and inquiry. It is generally seen as the only method of finding ‘rock-solid’ truth.
With that, we’ve bypassed the million anecdotes and experiences of the common folk. We’ve ignored millennia of paranormal hauntings and stories. We have become fanatical and fundamentalist about our theory that the cosmos is purely matter.
Is it any wonder that ‘fringe’ interests continue to irk and fascinate us? We surround ourselves with a virtual supernatural zoo, a spiritist museum to taunt and thrill us with movies and series like Ghost Hunters, aliens, visitations, demons.
The reality of evil continues to taunt us. We don’t need movies to delude us. Lonely places are haunted. Old homes are inhabited. Demons appear in mirrors. Animals change attitude and challenge us. We feel the brush of the numinous, the non-material. Some activities allow us to travel outside our bodies and engage with unearthly intelligences. Obsession and possession happen as a consequence of interaction with demons.
It’s not a pretty sight. But the price we pay for closing the book on all that research, and sniffing it away as ‘weak minds’ has a result. The result is that our children grow with a starved and stunted awareness of the world. An emaciated sense of self. And an inability to handle the great realities that undergird the religious mind.
So it’s ironic, really, that the more advanced and scientific we become, the greater our exasperation and effort as a culture to keep it all alive. It’s more than a fad. It’s primal. It’s terrifying, but it feels right, somehow.
For one day a year, the world flips into the Upside Down, and out of the woodwork crawls every evil and ugly thing, bloodsucking, rending, sickly, and dead.
I get the strong sense that other cultures, where evil is a real and present stranger, don’t invest themselves so deeply like we do. It’s because we don’t take the reality of evil seriously that we are serious about the rituals of evil.
In that sense, the Catholic/Christian expression of Halloween can be a quiet teaching moment. Instead of innoculating ourselves and decrying the terror, we could show that we live a greater hope. And are capable of seeing why others value where they are, and the catharsis of fear.
It’s a reminder that part of the human condition is to live through these terrors, to overcome the flaws in our being, to die and resurrect.
Overcoming risk with reward
This is what strikes me as one of the really valuable parts of this holiday. Overcoming fear with the promise of reward.
In dressing up our homes with the webs and threads of the dead, muttering beasts and clawed horrors, we are doing our best to signal ‘stay away.’
In the development of the human body, through millions of years of human evolution across all forms of species, animals survived by avoiding these things. Teeth, viruses, fear… these were death.
Today, we try to celebrate man’s victory over nature with all of the progress we’ve made. And the only thing that keeps us moving is the promise of reward.
Every culture before modern day prized the way their children faced risk, and overcame it. They deliberately did not shield them from it. By modern standards, they were positively brutal.
Perhaps, even by their own standards too, they were. But they were mean to be. Live was incredibly difficult for almost every member of human society.
Today, we live nothing like children a hundred years ago. We are adapted to different circumstances. And sadly, we’re terrified of risk. We don’t have the capacity to handle it.
And that’s a very serious problem.
Because without enough motivation to run a risk and earn a reward, we stand still and rot. That’s not a healthy outlook for the first world, where our call is to pioneer the good life, the well-lived life, and ‘export’ that to the rest of the world.
So reinforcing a ritual for our children to face their fears, facing every evil and horror imaginable, to earn the gift of candy, makes sense. I think Jordan Peterson and Carl Jung would agree. This is primal stuff we’re talking about. Not integrating the fear and reality of evil doesn’t mean those urges go away. It means they resurface in other ways.
And I think we see the results when things go wrong in our lives. Badly wrong. Because we chose the easy path, instead of the right one.
How to live with Halloween, as a Catholic
So having said all that, I’m not ready for my little girl to face that amount of ugliness.
I think, as Catholics, the formative years for children are extremely important. And perhaps, up till age 10 or 11, are lived within the unconditional love and relationship of a healthy family system.
Within that is plenty of opportunity to face fears. Like squashing real spiders, picking up dog poop, keeping your room clean, and sweeping under your bed. Any one of those is a terrifying Leviathan of a fear for a 6-8 year old.
But they can overcome them, learn to be articulate, kind, responsible. To be integrated.
Halloween for Catholics should be celebrated differently. We aren’t like the rest of the world, who work out their fear with fear and trembling.
We work out our faith, with fear and trembling and hope.
So build awareness of the saints, the foregone dead, the living, and the beauty of harvest festivals is needed.
Encouraging them to robe themselves in the ritual identities of future careers and personalities is good too. It helps them begin to understand how to play a role, modulate their identity, express themselves in specific ways. That’s all a healthy part of human development.
I’m going to avoid all the ugly and evil, not because it’s all unhealthy and bad. But because I think there’s something better.
If others choose too, that’s up to them. For a while, I’m keeping my little one away from it, until she’s old enough to start understanding things. She’s still forming her own sense of identity, so her inner life is a slowly-forming pattern of shadows and inner work. No need to overwhelm that with terror. Parents are the bulwark against that. I think children should feel like mommy and daddy are the greatest safety.
These rituals come later, because they represent the child interacting with the rest of the world.
By that time, they should be filled with a healthy diet of a million stories and myths. They should be capable of handling the world on their own. We can’t protect them forever. We can’t protect them from dying.
The best we can too is teach them to rise again. To fall, learn, integrate, and resurrect.
And hope that they get it right to live a good, meaningful life, and keep it going well after their personal Halloween moment at life’s end.