It occurred to me the other day that, although I have been posting at SpecFaith for a few months now, I’ve yet to say anything really controversial. Then I remembered that Halloween is coming up, and that’s always a prime opportunity, what with some Christians getting agitated about the holiday, and other Christians getting agitated with them for getting agitated.
At the risk of defusing the controversy, I want to make clear that this post is not about whether Christians can or should celebrate Halloween. I regard the observance of all “special days” as a matter of Christian liberty, in which Christians may without condemnation do as they please. My position, roughly summed up, is that everybody can celebrate Halloween and nobody has to, and whether anybody should is based on personal factors, i.e. stuff about your life I don’t know. So I want to talk about something else.
I bring up Halloween because there is one aspect of the holiday that leads me out to a broader and more important issue. As October rolls by, I can’t help noticing, and thinking about, the part of Halloween I really dislike. And it’s not the costumes, or the trick-or-treating, or the origins of the holiday.
It’s the decorations. Cobwebs, spiders, skeletons, ghosts, tombstones, bloodstains, skulls, hearses. It is an ugly holiday. Nor is this entirely accidental. Nobody ever set up cardboard tombstones in the pursuit of beauty; the macabre trimmings of Halloween are chosen because they repulse, not because they attract.
For many people (by no means all), Halloween is an opportunity to indulge in the darker side, to deliberately evoke that shudder that all humans feel at ghosts and cemeteries, and many enjoy. It seems wrong, somehow, to make the emblems of Death, in his ghoulish glory, symbols of a holiday.
Death is, of course, a fact and an exceedingly stubborn one at that; we all have to face up to it sooner or later. But here is the question, and one that applies far beyond Halloween and even death: At what point does a necessary attention to sober facts degenerate into an unhealthy fascination with darkness?
This temptation to wallow is, I think, a fairly common one, and it takes different forms. Horror and other forms of dark fiction can indulge the unhealthy interest, but so can other genres – including romance, which is not quite the opposite of speculative fiction it is sometimes taken to be.
Ordinary gossip, the gossip rags, various fiction, and even respectable nonfiction can satisfy another sort of morbidity: an inordinate interest in other people’s sins and tragedies, in all their sicknesses, physical or emotional. To this kind of curiosity, it’s not the people who are interesting, just their mess.
Christians have had their own versions of this problem, although that is mostly in the past. (These days, churches are more often guilty of shallowness than they are of morbidity.) Teachers’ attempts to detail the exact horrors of hell were inevitably flights of human imagination, going far beyond the scant imagery in the Bible, and it could get rather gruesome. I wonder if even the Puritan fixation with one’s own sins could become morbid – if, instead of remembering that they were meant to rise up from the mud and walk, they sometimes rubbed their faces in it to feel how bad it really was.
Of course, our sin is another of those sober facts we need to face up to. And that brings me back to the question: Where is the line between facing the darkness and simply roving unwholesomely in it?
I suspect that, for different people, the line is drawn in different places; a news report, for instance, could be read with honest concern by one person and with morbid curiosity by another. But we have to remember to try and stay on the right side of that line, and not only on Halloween.