This particular year, my daughter has been rather vocal about the impact of Halloween decoration she sees all around us.
She’s young and understandably narrates most of her day, what she’s seen, what she’s done. But the manner in which she carries on about witches, glowing red eyes, and all the particularly dark ornamentation comes across as being grossly perturbed. Even at a fall festival kids costume party my family saw a child, not even a teenager, dressed in a some pop culture killer costume that neither of us could identify but nonetheless unmistakably knew belonged to the slasher genre. My wife and I reassure her that the decoration is just that and not real, that these things cannot harm her. Nonetheless, it’s given me pause this year to wonder about American fascination for everything gruesome and evil.
Why the devils? Why the witches? Why the serial killers?
The temptation to call all these figures and manifestations as meaningless is unsatisfactory. These fascinations are remarkable and noteworthy, and beg for some analysis much as a dream or pathological behavior would require analysis from psychotherapy.
Another temptation would write off our celebration of Halloween as humanity’s outlet for death. Still, I think this is inadequate. While the Latin American celebration of Day of the Dead, as far as I can see, provides some cultural merit and de-sterilizes a culture on the stigma of death while reminding families to pray for their loved ones. It may be in part true that America attempts to get over its hang up on the uncomfortable idea of death through our morbid scenes and costumes–such cases have been made why the zombie genre was so popular in our country for so long. Still, it doesn’t account for the aforementioned costumes and figures of Halloween that are deeply satanic.
We don’t seem to be portraying monsters and demons in a cautionary or benign manner. We seem to be glorifying them, out terrifying one another by conceiving of more horrific figures. Halloween is not some lived out ritual wherein a repulsive krampus is brought out to scare the population just before St. Nicholas comes in to defeat the evil. No. Rather, it is a procession of evil without good, a long minor chord without any resolve. It’s the terrible horror movie where all the main characters die, the monster wins, and somehow we are ok with this.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have dark taste. I see value in books and movies that capture humanity’s capacity for evil. I listen to music that speaks about pain and sorrow. I am not one to sterilize all media and myth to be only bright and happy fairy tales. Ancient cultures, including those from our own Western myths, have not relented to speak about abusive gods and horrific monsters. Even Holy Scripture does not withhold painful details of humanity’s dark heart and the gore that we can conceive of. Dark media–just like all media–has its place so long as it is purposeful.
But glorifying the dark or the evil just for the sake of it isn’t purposeful. That’s just patronage.
What I have gathered about this glorification of evil is an unaligned attempt to convey one’s own inner dissonance. We prop up these figures beyond the margin of society, perhaps, because some of us feel ourselves on the margin of society. Perhaps we have a personal disconnection from our own family. Perhaps we couldn’t find our healthy niche in school. An inner exile occurs while still living within our communities. With that, we convey our own inner dissonance through an acting out, through the portrayal of the figures cast off into he margins: expelled demons, witches left to live in the wilderness, etc.
I believe most of this to be attention seeking behavior, an acting out as an attempt to address the unacknowledged pain of disenfranchisement and loneliness.
It is perhaps equally true–or even more true–that none of us have been shown or conveyed true beauty by our closest confidants and therefore we reach for the low-hanging fruit of shock, ugliness, and darkness. Let’s be honest, walking through America’s oldest and greatest cities is nothing like walking through the oldest and greatest cities of Europe. Our architecture is bland and sterile, and our iconoclastic roots of puritanism meant that America’s inception came without a great deal of beauty or art. While our country did have the foundations of Scripture as its rudder and moral compass, I believe we are seeing centuries later the consequence of the sterility that comes from a solo-Scriptura tradition that endeavors little to create, to convey beauty in new and wholesome ways. As a side note, perhaps it is only too ironic that the celebrated Reformation Day should fall on a day that has ached for art and beauty.
This is not a call to action to stop dressing up for Halloween, and stopping all together–even sheltering–I don’t think addresses our country’s real need.
Instead, I believe the answer to this malady comes from noticing those of us who are on the margins and showing them something beautiful. This could be literal in sharing with them a truly beautiful composition of music or piece of art or story. But the beauty could be just as simple as one’s own kindness and curiosity of their life. Perhaps the easiest answer of this is–in borrowing from Fr Josiah Trenham–the adopting of the beautiful life, the transformed life of truly lived and imitated Christianity that is unmistakably beautiful and bright. And within that Christianity, we ourselves have to understand what is beautiful, what we can adore and share. Yes Scripture is beautiful, and God gives us more than Scripture to rejoice about, to celebrate as beautiful: iconography, architecture, hymnography, the lies of saints, and so much more.
Let us take a moment this Halloween to recognize the catalysts of this mania, to analyze this sick hunger for the darkness. Let us stare in the face of our own sterility and mediocrity, and let us be intentional in both prayer and compassion for those around us who are on the margins that they do not adopt monsters on the margins as their heroes to celebrate.
Let us behold beauty. Let us adopt beauty. Let us be changed by it. Let us infuse it in all we do and recreate it in our works and in our living.
Happy Eve of All Saints.