It’s an annual must-read. The CliffsNotes version is that Halloween is not some vestige of ancient paganism or even a Christian subversion of demonic shenanigans (as a lot of Christian writers have claimed over the years). The truth is actually pretty boring. Halloween as we know it is little more than a 20th century invention designed to sell stuff.
After I posted Wedgeworth’s piece, some friends of mine raised the somewhat different objection that no matter what the origin of Halloween, it’s still “dark,” which violates 1 Corinthians 6:14-18.
“Witches, ghosts, demons, and death–” remarked one friend–“why would I want anything to do with it?”
It’s a common question, so let me take a stab at answering it.
First, “darkness” in such criticisms is ill-defined. What does it mean, exactly? I’m inclined to think from the context that my friends and many others who use the word this way mean something like “menacing,” “fearful,” or “sinister.” Perhaps their intended meaning is just “ugly.” Halloween can be ugly, certainly. I don’t know anyone who would be flattered if you told them they had a smile like a jack-o’-lantern, or a zombie-like complexion. But what’s wrong with ugliness, if used in the right way?
I know people who don’t watch or read The Lord of the Rings because it has too much “darkness” and “ugliness” in it. They don’t like the look of orcs and Nazgul, and think these baddies must have something to do with Satan. Well, they do. That’s the point! Tolkien’s story is rooted in a mytho-poetic battle between good and evil—one that makes it clear we each have varying amounts of both in us. And by placing appearances over storytelling, critics who balk at “darkness” or “ugliness” miss out on the best Christian fantasy of the 20th century, among many other wholesome, worldview-shaping works of art.
Christians who object to Halloween often confuse aesthetics with morality.
This is why I think that Christians who object to Halloween often confuse aesthetics with morality. It looks evil, therefore it actually be evil. There’s no way to redeem the spooky or the dark. Contra Frodo, they think that if it looks foul, it must really be foul, and if it looks fair, it must really be fair.
This is part of a more pervasive evangelical failure to appreciate the full scope of human experience, and the grand sweep of God’s redemptive story. I think of the New Testament’s vivid pictures of Hell as well as its rapturous portrayals of the New Jerusalem—of its hair-raising bestiary of symbolic evil as well as its awestruck glimpses at the transfigured Lord. You can see the result of this one-sided aesthetic in many churches. “Dark” imagery, such as that found in some of Christianity’s greatest works of literature, is no longer allowed, and neither is mournful or sorrowful music, which has historically played a key role in the Church’s worship and liturgical life.
The evangelical reaction against the sugar-saturated, commercialized shindig we call Halloween displays the tendency of many modern Christians (I’m going to say it—particularly moms) to mistake the aesthetic of evil for actual evil. In this way of thinking, spiderwebs and paper witches stand in as signs of moral corruption and rebellion against God. The outward tokens of the sinister, the predatory, and the ugly proclaim allegiance to the author of the fall and the father of lies.
But the Bible seems to hint at rather the opposite arrangement. While the Son of God “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him,”2 “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”3 If the New Testament’s warnings are taken at face value, there’s more spiritual danger in the radiant smile of a false prophet than there is in all the latex werewolf masks Spirit Halloween supply can sell. The forces of the enemy present themselves as lovely, successful, happy, and holy precisely because such things are appealing. We buy products from beautiful people, after all. The homely seldom show up on billboards.
Certainly, if Satan had a physical form, it would be terrible. He is figuratively described by John as a dragon. If there is a lesson in Genesis 3, it is that moral corruption inevitably corrupts creation. All ugliness as we know it is ultimately a consequence of sin, and the damned are, as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Weight of Glory, “immortal horrors”—to themselves, no doubt, most of all.
Some may argue from this fact that Halloween still “celebrates” evil by encouraging us to revel in decorations, costumes, and entertainment that look like they were chosen by Hell’s interior designer. I don’t buy this. Aside from the change of seasons, tasty treats, and (as happens at every holiday) overindulgence in alcohol—it seems to me that what most people are actually celebrating on Halloween is fear. More precisely, they are taking pleasure in being afraid, just as people who ride roller coasters or watch suspenseful movies are doing the rest of the year. It feels good to be afraid. It triggers adrenaline and dopamine rushes. It makes you feel alive to fear for your life (even if it is only a game). It can even be kind of romantic.
Celebrating fear is a far cry from celebrating evil. Indeed, it strongly suggests that the things we fear really are dangerous, and need to be subdued or destroyed.
Celebrating fear is a far cry from celebrating evil. Indeed, it strongly suggests that the things we fear really are dangerous, and need to be subdued or destroyed. Almost all good stories trade in fear, because a plot requires a villain, and a villain not worth fearing is not worth writing or reading about. Fear is the spark that gets the engine of every epic turning, and makes us turn the pages, too, if I may be permitted to mix metaphors. Sauron is scary. Lord Voldemort is scary. Jaws, the walking dead, and the creature from the black lagoon all trigger fear. They also inspire us to root all the harder for the hero of the story. And therein, I think, lies the real value of fear, and of days like Halloween.
As with all things, the rules of prudence and good taste apply. Placing re-creations of bloody chainsaw massacres and replicas of bodies in sundry states of decay in your yard is not very charitable to your neighbors. And fixating on the spooky, without acknowledging the story of redemption which gives it meaning, is not healthy either. But it’s clear to me that in rejecting Halloween on aesthetic grounds, Christians are making a category error. Darkness is not evil. And confusing the two can do more than blind us to real spiritual danger. It can keep us from appreciating the victory of our Savior over all that we fear.
- This article is based on the original version at G. Shane Morris’s personal page, “Halloween and the Aesthetic of Evil,” Troubler of Israel, Patheos, Oct. 24, 2016. ↩
- Isaiah 53:2. ↩
- 2 Corinthians 11:14. ↩