Halloween’s Pagan Themes Fill West’s Faith Vacuum: Amity ShlaesAmity Shlaes
Oct. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Seems like Americans just want it to be Halloween all year. The holiday just keeps getting more popular. Seven in 10 expect to celebrate it in some way this Oct. 31, up from about six in 10 last year, according to a National Retail Federation report.
This is the most in the nine years the NRF has been tracking. In 2011, Americans are also planning to spend more than other years, an average of $72 each. Total outlays by consumers are expected to reach $6.86 billion this fall.
Why the surge in popularity for an ancient harvest ritual? Some of the factors that account for it are as harmless and loveable as a new 12-pound pumpkin from the farm. Others have the capacity to spook.
Start with the good that the holiday now demonstrates. Thirty or 40 years ago, Halloween seemed to offer only more evidence of the failures of our cities. There were plenty of neighborhoods -- Kenwood on Chicago’s South Side, Adams Morgan in Washington, and Midwood in New York spring to mind like ghouls -- where the night was best known for the opportunities it provided for muggers or for teen gangs to hurl those pumpkins against someone’s front door. “Newark Braces for Halloween,” read a 1967 New York Times headline over a nervous article describing riot-prevention measures, including street patrols by clergymen.
Go farther back, before the 1940s, and Halloween had lethal connotations. In the Old South, “Mischief Night,” on Oct. 30, offered the Ku Klux Klan cover to put on their own costumes and wreak some of their worst damage. A mild example shows up in the 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” when on Halloween night a local gets revenge for lawyer Atticus Finch’s representation of a black man in court by attacking his son Jem and breaking his arm.
Today the same sidewalks and roads where the eggs were once thrown are often packed with cheerful trick-or-treaters. No doubt about it, in many places Halloween reflects urban revival. It also reflects a cultural coming together; there’s something comforting in knowing that, no matter what their background, kids will be equally terrified by a deluxe “predator mask with helmet” or a “whispers hooded mask,” to name two items on sale at Halloween websites this year. A child once told me he and his friends didn’t look at the mask; they looked at the eyeholes and wondered what was in there. There’s something unifying in the ghoulishness of the spaces between the teeth in the carved pumpkin’s grin.
Unmask Halloween, however, and you’ll also find some disconcerting features. Christmas and Easter may be secularized these days, relative to their past, but they remain Christian holidays. People value Halloween, like Valentine’s Day, because they can tell themselves that it’s not merely secularized but actually secular, which is to say, not Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim.
The Living Dead
But as much as we’d like it to be, Halloween isn’t secular. It is pagan. There’s nothing else to call a set of ceremonies in which people utter magical phrases, flirt with the night and evoke the dead. One of my family’s favorite Halloween props was a hand that moved, as though from the netherworld, when you reached to collect a few pieces of candy corn. Necromancy is a regular part of Halloween games. Zombie masks are one of this year’s top-sellers. As grouchy theologians used to point out, the origin of Halloween was most likely Samhain, an ancient Celtic holiday on which the dead, in some accounts, supposedly returned to visit.
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.
The Spaces Between
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.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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