The paradox of Halloween

(Photo: Unsplash/Bekir Dönmez)

Halloween presents us with a paradox that verges on a contradiction. When so many people want just comfort and pleasure in life, why engage with a public festival at the end of October that courts horror and death?

Is it in part because the decay, despair and decadence of Halloween is experienced primarily as distraction and entertainment, and so becomes a way of inoculating us to avoid taking it seriously?

At the end of October, two cultures clash as All Hallows Eve (followed by All Saints) and Halloween fight for our attention and the public space. In one, Christendom sets out to make sense of death, to manage it and incorporate it into the direction and values of the lives we lead. In the other, secular consumerism tries to neuter it by laughing more with, than at death - inviting it to give a little frissance of fear, just enough to titillate but not enough to really scare.

In reality, in hard-nosed theological terms, what we are seeing is the clash of good and evil, life and death, hope and horror, but dressed up as something different – boredom versus entertainment.

But to allow the drama of All Hallows and Halloween to be recast as boredom versus entertainment is a mistake, both for the Church and for the society we are part of.

In All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day, Christianity faces death full-on. On All Hallows Eve it reaches out in loving prayer on behalf of the souls who have died. And on All Saints it celebrates a new and wonderful model of living the human life – the pursuit of holiness instead of pleasure.

The meaning implicit in life but threatened by death is restored through the promise of resurrection and a vision of heaven; and the missing of people we loved which has wounded our hearts, starts being healed.

On the other hand, in Halloween, secular culture is doing what it has done for a long time - trying to divert itself from the shock and horror of death by neutering it with frolic and fun.

The strategy of the Church was changed at and by the Reformation. The splitting of the Church led to two different expressions of the faith – with two very different approaches to death and our relationship with the souls of the dead.

There were a number of consequences to public life brought about by the radical changes. The monasteries were an important part of social, psychological and theological fabric. As well as being laboratories of science and discovery, and guardians of literature and culture, they were primarily communities of prayer that interceded for the living and the dead. In his book 'Albion' the historian and author Peter Ackroyd notes, "It has been calculated that the vast majority of ghost stories, around 98%, are written in English and roughly seventy percent are written by English men and women."

Ackroyd wonders if this has something to do with the sudden and (in his view) disastrous sudden closure of the monasteries in England under Henry VIII. He questions whether this caused a traumatic rupture in the English psyche which led to a displacement of some sort. No longer able to mourn, love and connect with the familial dead through prayer, the popular and literary imagination took refuge in ghost stories.

If it was a form of displacement following the loss of contact through prayer and intercession, it may be that the loss of faith in the Christian West more generally has had a similar effect and produced by another form of displacement the secular delight in ghouls, skeletons and ghosts of Halloween.

In looking for its origins too much is claimed by the supporters of indigenous Celtic paganism. Most of the claims of the renewal of pagan practices are revisionist imagination, based on some residual folk practices. The Celtic pagans wrote nothing down, so their practices were all oral and no literary evidence remains. We rely on the Romans to tell us what very little we know about the Druids.

The residual folk practices in the Celtic parts of the United Kingdom provided a foundation for the development of Halloween in America. In Scotland and Ireland the practice of 'guising' - children wandering round in disguise - goes back to the sixteenth century, but was revived in the late nineteenth century. Children would tell a joke, sing a song or perform for a small reward. The transition to America involved an element of threat - the 'trick' - completely absent from the original folk practices .

The explosion of interest in America where Halloween was relaunched provokes two questions.

The first is the origin of the introduction of threat in trick or treating, and the second, the role of entertainment in engaging or more realistically dis-engaging with death.

To look at the aspect of entertainment first, it seems that the American version of Halloween appears to have caught a public post-Christian imagination that was itching for entertainment and felt the need to do something about a fear of death it suppressed and repressed.

The Christian philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (who was converted by the most vivid experience of God in a vision in 1654) commented: "Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things."

One of the best ways of avoiding thinking about such things is to trivialise them. Halloween seems to have become a means of trivialising death and our fear of our mortality. The prospect of being held morally accountable to standards we cannot deliver on which would otherwise provoke despair in the face of moral judgement has been hidden and smothered by titillating our senses with slight but anaesthetising thrills.

Being diverted by entertainment may turn out to be a more serious temptation than we guessed. C.S. Lewis explained why diversion was so dangerous: "Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

The second question about the underlying threat that drives trick or treating raises the whole question of the extent to which secular Halloween taps into real evil. For those with more developed metaphysical antennae the infusion of threat in what was originally the providing of simple rewards for innocent childlike performances, rings alarm bells.

The two ways in which societies have set out to deal with death have involved either striking a deal with occult forces and energies who claim death as their domain in order to buy them off; or the Christian prescription which is to acknowledge that any price that might be demanded by the dominion of death to which our mortality subjects us, cannot be paid or discharged by us. It is and can only be in the crucifixion that the price is paid by the only agency who could satisfy it without being destroyed - the Son of God.

Whether evil exercises more potency in distracting us from our moral accountability at the end of our lives by distracting entertainment or teasing us to engage with another alternative narrative of ghoulish preoccupation may be beyond our powers of discernment.

What ought to be clear to Christians is that secular Halloween poses a direct theological and cultural threat to the Gospel and the Church, and is no ally to Jesus.

Whether we respond to this as the Church has throughout the ages of praying our way through death and dying, and reclaiming the communion of saints, or simply renouncing the abhorrence of threat and disinformation that secular Halloween poses, will be a matter for our own Christian allegiance.

Either way, the celebration of holiness, the promise of eternal life and the potency of prayer should not easily give way to making a social bargain with horror and the macabre.

However we do it, the Church should not cede the space at the end of October to the combined forces of paganism and secularism. We owe as much not only to our Christian ancestors, but also to Jesus.

Dr Gavin Ashenden is a former chaplain to the Queen. He blogs at