Halloween and its Discontents

What caused Halloween to become a fall holiday on par with Thanksgiving and Christmas? When did the memo go out? A hundred years ago, when I was a young tike growing up in South Jersey, you wore a thin vacuformed polystyrene spaceman mask that attached to your head with an elastic band, and wore your regular clothes under what seemed like a gray Hefty bag with a NASA logo that tied in the back like a hospital gown, which your parents bought for you at the local Woolworth’s for $4.99 or so. You scored a few tiny Hershey or Three Musketeers bars, and your parents worried about you getting an apple with a razor blade or a shot of LSD inside. You watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown every year on Channel 10, along with John Facenda’s TV reports about Camden going up in flames annually during the previous night, and worried that the mayhem wasn’t going to spread to your neighborhood. (This New York Times article on Camden and Mischief Night found at the top of a Google search on the topic was published in 1992, but could have ran verbatim for every year prior for a quarter of a century or so.)

And once the candy was gone later that night or the next day, that was about it. Today though, Halloween is a major industry, and plenty of families put as much work into decorating the house for Halloween as they do for Christmas. One of my neighbors has a giant pirate ship in their front lawn for Halloween; others have turned their front lawns into haunted houses and grave yards, with plenty of cobwebs, skeletons, and come the witching hour, lots of smokey dry ice. But not everybody is happy with the rapid growth of the holiday. Or as Mollie Hemingway writes at Ricochet, “Could We Tone Down the Halloween Mania a Smidge?”

My last neighborhood (Capitol Hill, DC) had such dramatic Halloween celebrations that people came in from miles around. One neighbor used to recreate scary movies or videos (e.g. Friday the 13th, Michael Jackson’s Thriller) with actual actors and dancers.

Truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of Halloween. But neither do I  forbid my children from taking part. The older one will be a cheeseburger this year, the younger an Octopus. I do forbid any dressing up as anything scary or demonic, but just can’t bring myself to ban a holiday where people give my kids candy and tell them how cute they are.

But I did pause after reading this column from Amity Shlaes, headlined “Halloween’s Pagan Themes Fill West’s Faith Vacuum.” She notes that consumers are expected to spend $6.86 billion on Halloween this fall. Here’s how her piece concludes:

There’s a reason for the pull of the pagan. In the U.S., we’ve been vigorously scrubbing our schools and other public spaces of traces of monotheistic religion for many decades now. Such scrubbing leaves a vacuum. The great self-deception of modern life is that nothing will be pulled into that vacuum. Half a century ago, the psychologist Carl Jung noted the heightened interest in UFOs, and concluded that the paranormal was “modern myth,” a replacement for religion.

Children or adults who today relish every detail of zombie culture or know every bit of wizarding minutiae are seeking something to believe in. That church, mosque and synagogue are so controversial that everyone prefers the paranormal as neutral ground is disconcerting. There’s something unsettling about the education of a child who comfortably enumerates the rules for surviving zombie apocalypse but finds it uncomfortable to enumerate the rules of his grandparents’ faith, if he knows them.

Perhaps when walking down your street this Oct. 31, you’ll see a child in an Aslan costume, or one dressed as Caspian, C.S. Lewis’s prince. The “Narnia” series was Lewis’s premeditated effort to lure kids to Jesus Christ through myth. The manipulative Lewis was on to something: Parents can keep children away from religion, but they can’t stop children from believing in something.

Fans of the orange holiday may want to pause for a moment to look at the empty spaces between its rituals, as with the pumpkin’s smile. Some of us forgo it to dedicate ourselves to one faith or another. But you don’t have to reject Halloween to ask what it may be replacing.

Exactly. It’s worth at least being intentional in how we celebrate this holiday and it’s worth thinking about what we say by how we celebrate it.

So what are your thoughts on Halloween? Do you make a big deal about it? If so, why? What will you — and/or your kids — be trick or treating as?

Me? I’ll probably go out as Mick Jagger. Or at least his CPA.

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