Make no mistake, Halloween is here to stay.
It’s popularity as a holiday in the U.S. is second only to Christmas. Polls show a majority of Millennials actually put Halloween in the number one spot. In 2018 American expenditures on Halloween apparel surpassed $9 billion. A recent article noted that 48% of millennials bought costumes worn just for posting on social media.
An assessment of the holiday in contemporary America presents the temptation to make too much or too little of its fame. Some Christians have opted for the absolute rejection of the holiday for its association with death and demons. Others take a path of “redeeming” the holiday by offering evangelistic or outreach-oriented events. Both perspectives (and mediating positions) have merit and can be biblically-justified. But no matter where you land, you’ll have to reckon with Halloween.
This being said, I want to make three observations about Halloween’s popularity, particularly among younger Americans. A brief caveat: the amusement and novelty of wearing a costume one night a year, receiving free candy, and carving a Jack-O-Lantern is one of those innocent and memorable delights of childhood. My four-year old son, who will be Buzz Light Year on October 31st has been Buzz Light Year since his costume’s delivery in September. I have a fair degree of confidence, however, that a four-year old loves Halloween for very different reasons than a 24-year old. What has changed about Halloween in the last several decades is its acclaim among adolescents and young adults. Though there is no single reason for this shift, I believe it gives insight about the spiritual condition of our nation which I consider under the following headings.
- Identity and Images
The unending discussion(s) on the nature of human identity in popular culture and academia deeply affect our worldview. There is placed on many young people the impossible task of creating their own identity in psychological and spiritual isolation. Halloween may be an appropriate symbol of the modern soul that is compelled to act and dress as someone or something else other than their true selves. To play a part, to be “masked” before family and friends in traditional holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas is no easy feat. Halloween provides both literal and metaphorical veiling.
- Dancing around Death
The very attention given to death belies western culture’s aversion to it. Halloween’s celebration of death resembles pagan festivities that in a sense, strive to overcome death by making light of it. But like nervous laughter, fear lurks beneath. Helen Tseng, an astrologer in San Francisco conceded this in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle when she said, “A lot of my curiosity comes from fear, and wanting to be in control of a situation that I know I can’t control.” Centuries ago, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) asked why humans are curious about those things they would never actually want to experience. In his Confessions (bk. 10) he writes,
What pleasure is to be found in looking at a mangled corpse, an experience which evokes revulsion? Yet wherever one is lying, people crowd around to be made sad and to turn pale. They even dread seeing this in their dreams, as if someone had compelled them to look at it when awake or as if some report about the beauty of the sight persuaded them to see it.
This desire, which Augustine considers “a diseased craving” comes when knowledge is pursued for its own end, or simply for a thrill rather than salvation. Pursuit of the thrill can be an attempt at deification. To be close to death yet not die gives an illusion of immortality.
- Eyeing the Occult
If you aren’t convinced Halloween’s increasing popularity is connected to the Occult, note the number of films in the horror genre at your local Red Box. The word “Occult” derives in part from the Latin verb “to conceal” and in modern usage denotes accessing supernormal or supernatural powers. It may be surprising that a higher percentage of persons in the U.S. who identify as having no religion—“Nones”—love a holiday that is predicated on the existence of a spiritual realm. It begs the question about the genuineness of their secularism.
As many have taken religious interest in what is dark, the grotesque, even evil, the most pressing question is to answer what is evil and how can it be recognized? No better answer has been given than this: that evil is a privation (lack) of what is good. It is corruption and distortion—something is evil that does not achieve its Creator’s purpose. Evil only makes sense if a supreme good, God exists.
The curse of sin drives men and women to love what is terrifying, dreadful, and destructive. If such things are corruptions by definition, something must be wrong with us. Jesus said of himself in John 3:19–20 that “light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
This may be the unifying theme of contemporary fascination with Halloween: the desire to be concealed and fear of being exposed. But the longing of every human heart is to be known fully and to be fully loved. And this is what Christ offers when he says, (v. 21) “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” In the same Gospel to “do” the truth is to believe in the one who said, “I am the truth.” (John 14:6)
Halloween is not going away but neither is spiritual hunger. The God who said “let light shine out of darkness” (2 Cor. 4:4) graciously calls out “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.” (Isaiah 50:10)