Halloween is nothing if not a complex witch’s brew of cross-cultural flavor—a recipe crowdsourced over centuries with contributions from Celts, Roman Catholics, Native Americans, Wes Craven, and the American consumer. Practices commemorating the dead and the harvest trickled from Europe into North America, where they simmered in sugary excess alongside pumpkins and horror films before flowing back across the pond with a vengeance. Given its provenance, the resulting vintage contains subtle notes of autumnal jollity and family fun, but I would argue that its most distinctive flavor is that of fear.
Halloween without a fright would simply not be Halloween. Its presence is indelibly stamped on the holiday, from fright houses in the US to haunted tours in Italy to ghoulish fancy dress across the United Kingdom. Sometimes the fear is palpable, as in the rash of horror films that breaks out each fall. Other times, it’s muted by humor, as with cherubic young trick-or-treaters dressed as ghosts, skeletons, and mummies. But whistle as we might, the low thrum of fear still sounds on All Hallows’ Eve.
Why, then, has the holiday persisted? Surely fear is a negative and unpleasant emotion that humans of every culture would prefer to avoid and repress. And why, moreover, does Halloween thrive particularly well in cultures that have largely discarded belief in the supernatural? Surely ghost stories should hold no interest for the secularized American or the post-Christian European. And yet, each year, these skeptical citizens spend their limited free time and hard-earned money getting good and scared of things they no longer believe in. Whatever for?
Why We Fear
Theologians are not the only ones baffled by our attraction to fear. Psychologists, philosophers, and literary critics have been scratching their heads for ages over why on earth perfectly sane humans would actually enjoy being frightened. Consider your own experience. Perhaps you’re not particularly drawn to slasher flicks (I’m not!), but you can probably still savor Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” or recall swapping spooky stories around a childhood campfire. Whether we’re driving a fast car or leaning over a canyon or shrieking our way through a haunted house with our friends, there is an element of what can only be described as fear, and we like it.
“Why do those who’ve abandoned the supernatural still seek out its unearthly thrill? Because the supernatural has not abandoned them.”
But this is not, I would argue, because we are mad, but because we are human. In The Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll concludes that “art-horror is the price we are willing to pay for the revelation of that which is impossible and unknown.” We are willing to be scared because we are desperate to be enlightened.
Humans were quite simply not made to function within the drab confines of a universe where every question is neatly answered. We long, not merely to know, but to continuously discover. We require the distant horizon, the ocean depths, the abyss of space, and even the spooky house on the corner. We require spaces shrouded in shadow, in mystery, and even in danger, for what other kind are worth exploring?
Secularized nations where Halloween thrives have so little left to discover. The daily lives of Americans and Europeans alike function in predictable accordance with the laws of nature, and it’s a rare day indeed that we experience what H. P. Lovecraft described as “a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening.”
But when the sun goes down and the jack-o’-lanterns light up, when the wind moans and the cats howl, we wonder. We wonder if, perhaps, our universe might contain things beyond our ken. And we as Christians wonder not in fear, but with hope, for we know it does.
What We Fear
Our minds will never fully comprehend God. We “cannot discover the work God has done from beginning to end” (Ecc. 3:11 HCSB) and praise him for it. In him are boundless marvels, everlasting depths, and limitless mystery, and that assurance should exhilarate us! But it should also scare us.
The “fear of the Lord” which is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7) is caught up in what Rudolf Otto called The Idea of the Holy. Otto explains that “to keep a thing holy in the heart means to mark it off by a feeling of peculiar dread, not to be mistaken for any ordinary dread.” To call something holy, he argues, is to associate it with deep emotions of “awefulness” and “overpoweringness,” to acknowledge that we’ve come into the presence of something “wholly other” than ourselves, inexplicable, and uncontrollable.
To fear the Lord is to stand in awe of him, to confess that he is wholly beyond our finite human selves, to admit ourselves overpowered by his might. He is the one whose approach shakes the earth (Ps. 97:4) and whose might melts mountains (Ps. 97:5). “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him” (Ps. 97:2 ESV), and to come before him is to slip off the shores of worldly illusion and into the eternal deep. To stand in God’s presence is more than mortal minds can bear, yet this is where we were made to stand, for “he has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc. 3:11 ESV), and its echoes will not be silenced.
Echoes of Eternity
Why do those who’ve abandoned the supernatural still seek out its unearthly thrill? Because the supernatural has not abandoned them. We were crafted to stand in awe of an awesome and glorious God. And no matter how closely we cage our desperate longing to live in that holy fear, on Halloween the staunchest bastions of post-Christianity let that longing, ever so slightly, out of its cage.
The ghost stories, the haunted houses, the shuddersome costumes, all the festive horror of Halloween, is but an echo of the eternity God has placed in our hearts, clattering in reckless hope down a dark alley. It’s a cry for something worth our worship, worth our awe, and truly worth our holy fear. How, church, will we answer that cry?
Jaclyn S. Parrish worked as a writer for IMB in South Asia. She currently serves in the US as a writer, editor, and social media associate for IMB. You can follow her on Twitter at @JaclynSParrish.