Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Christians and Halloween (So Far)

Bonfires burning bright
Pumpkin faces in the night
I remember Halloween

-Misfits, 'Halloween'

31st of October and there are some thrilling vibes in the crisp, pinched, darkening air around us.  On this night of costumes and candy and copious concatenations of fake blood, fake fangs, fake fur and so on, huge swathes of the population are having a good time with the ghoulies and ghosties – and, of course, with a number of less unsavoury and unsightly characters (although, I for one am a bit more frightened of a painted or plasticky Disney princess than bloody dripping Dracula and co.).  Yet a lot of other folks are perhaps feeling a bit more of a sinister atmosphere in these proceedings.  I have been one of this more dubious crowd for most of my adult life so far.  Lately, however, I’ve become less and less sure of my worrisome doubts and wholesale disapproval of Halloween.

For a good handful of years now, I’ve been meaning to do a whole big investigation and re-evaluation of the holiday in order to hammer out and communicate a fresh perspective on my take of whether and how Christians might observe good old All Hallow’s Eve in a way that glorifies the Holy One, who was once called ‘Isaac’s Dread’ (Genesis 31:42).  I still haven’t done so and this little article isn’t it either.  But I can’t put it off any longer.  I’ve got to at least start to say at least something about it.  Considering my very longstanding interests in a Christian perspective on horror and monsters, a number of people are starting to ask me if I’m going to come out with a public view on this holiday.  (Some of you will know I was the ‘singer’ in a 90s band that has been labelled as ‘Christian horror punk’, notable to some for the lyrics I wrote about monsters and redemption.)  As I sit here with deadlines crowding in on me for an article on a ‘theology of darkness’ for a magazine of horror fiction, for a short story submission to be considered for inclusion in a ‘ghost story’ anthology, and for a university English literature essay on apocalyptic monsters, it strikes me as rather ridiculous that I let yet another Halloween slip by with nary a word from my pen on the matter. 

Let’s try to get it started this way then:  my father was a pastor and our parents did send my sister and brother and I out on Halloween evening with the other neighbourhood kids, all dressed up as horror story characters as well as other fictional and non-fictional personages (I think I was everything from Frankenstein and Dracula to Spiderman and Hulk to a ‘punk rocker’, fireman, and astronaut).  We collected huge bags or buckets full of candy like everyone else, came home and poured out our respective piles, had each and every piece of candy carefully inspected by hand by our parents (hundreds of ‘em!) for safety, then bartered and battered and beguiled our way through trades, and finally re-bagged it all and went off to our bedrooms to begin a one by one consumption of delights that would take weeks to complete.  Our parents handed out yummy sweets to all who came to the door, often along with brightly wrapped ‘gospel tracts’ (the content of which I remember not at all).  But even more crucial to the question at hand, my parents played the Disney Halloween record over and over throughout the proceedings, flipping from side A to side B and back again for hours – 80s kids, you know the one:  sound effects of a guy sawing a branch, ‘Chinese water torture’, the scary winds, the terrifying barking dogs, etc.  And they decorated the house, windows, front door, and yard accordingly – cobwebs, ghosts, and the like.  We weren’t in any way obsessed or over the top with it, I’d say, but as a family we were right into it.  It was definitely one of my all-time favourite moments of each year. 

Both of our parents appreciated a movie or book with a healthy dose of horror or terror in it.  I mean, they weren’t reading Stephen King or anything – but chills and spills you could get from, say, the television and cinematic thrillers of Serling, Hitchcock, Lucas, and Spielberg were alright with them.  It was all part of an entertainment (and, deeper than that, storytelling and aesthetic) mosaic that also included comedy, drama, romance, action, heroic adventure, and so on.  When seen altogether, such a mosaic, of course, portrays human life as we know it – horror included.

So I would say, though I don’t recall a lot of strong discernment or critical engagement with Halloween, our parents rather implicitly contextualised the horror genre in general for us year in and year out and the holiday fit naturally into that rhythm.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean to practice parental hagiography here.  Our family definitely went unresistingly with the flow of culture far too often:  we watched (like most Americans in the 80s) way too much television, ate too much junk food, befuddled our feelings and bemuddled our minds in top 40 radio and TV sitcoms, wished we could buy too many clothes and home amenities (we were kind of poor, so we had to mostly settle for game show and catalogue window-lusting), and so on.  We fought, sure.  We weren’t mindless zombies.  But we often lost the battle.  So I’m not saying my parents have now shown the way for all of us, ‘look no further for how to celebrate Halloween as a Christian!’  No.  But I think I do find some intriguing hints and suggestions in their example.

Now I have to take the story in a more singular and less familial direction.  I, from a young age, was outright fascinated and besotted with horror and monsters (found not only in the ‘scary’ movies and stories I took in, but also in all the science fiction and heroic fantasy I consumed as well).  The contextualised place of horror and monsters in the overall mosaic of Story wasn’t enough for me.  I specialised in them.  The same way some other child might have ‘specialised’ in Westerns or detectives or romantic comedies or what have you.  Most of us probably tend to magnify certain pieces of the mosaic, and I think that’s perfectly healthy, part of our diversity and community.  Anyway, I’m one of the Monster People.  Pleased to meet you.  Apologies if I scratch you with my claws when we shake hands or I scare your children when I smile my fangy smile. 

A couple from church actually introduced me to the Friday night horror movie double feature on our local TV station, hosted by the wonderful Sammy Terry.  I watched it faithfully for years, encountering both old and new films, both classics and B-movies, all creature-featuring the whole gamut of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, giant Japanese monsters, Victorian slashers, mad scientists, alien blobs, giant tarantulas, and so on.  My juvenile reading consisted mostly of epic heroic fantasy novels, but you may have noticed that books like Lord of the Rings are densely populated with a rich variety of awe-inspiring monsters and horrors.  Reading some of the macabre tales of Edgar Allen Poe also made its impression on me and C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters also pleasurably introduced my young mind to the beginnings of a distinctly Christian sense of horror, even though it is mainly a work of satire.

Well, with my young imagination thus formed, when it came to starting to write songs for a punk rock band around age 18, the lyrical pictures that immediately sprang to my mind had to do with horror and science fiction.  But I was also a zealous young Christian, so I tried to ‘preach the gospel’ through these strange and ghoulish metaphors.  The horrifying curse of sin and damnation loped and lurched in the monstrous characters of the songs.  And redemption from death and judgment through the bloody beautiful horror that is the cross of Christ was splattered all over the band’s lyrical landscape.  It was a joy, to be honest.  All the vampires, werewolves, out of control robots, man-made creatures, giant monsters and so on were suddenly a terrifying and gruesome gospel choir in my imagination singing (roaring, growling, howling) the praises of Jesus.  Hey, it worked for me. 

So I guess you could say I was sort of just naturally exhibiting a ‘Christian view and celebration of Halloween’.  But here’s the trick.  Around the same time that the band was getting started, I came to a new awareness of Halloween as a cultural phenomenon.  I remember just kind of looking round me one year at what was being promoted commercially – and it seemed to me that all these little kids were being introduced to bloody axes, hideous masks, devil horns, mass murderers and horrifying beasts – gore and evil, gore and evil, all over the place.  I was shocked and sickened and feeling some ‘righteous anger’ coming on.  And, as was my wont at that point in life, I overreacted.  I renounced the celebration of Halloween forthwith as my Christian duty.  I didn’t go on a crusade about it, but I was pretty adamant.  My soon-to-be-wife felt exactly the same way as me.  And yet she too was a long time appreciator and producer of the creepy and grotesque in her own artwork.

So there we were, committed Christians who were monster fans and creators but who didn’t celebrate Halloween at all.  We, of course, raised our kids this way, taking them to ‘alternative’ events put on by churches on Halloween nights.  So they still got candy, games and playtime with other kids, and even some costumes sometimes.  And they got horror and monsters in their lives too because that aesthetic influenced our d├ęcor at home and our intake of entertainment. 

But in recent years the idea of an ‘alternative’ to Halloween, where Christians just drop right out of a national holiday and in no way seek to sanctify and redeem it has been less and less satisfying as a stance and practice for me.  The Dutch prime minister, Abraham Kuyper, famously said that there is not one square inch of all creation over which Christ does not declare ‘Mine!’  That is, biblical theology proclaims that Jesus is Lord over all the earth.  Not just the ‘pretty’ and ‘safe’ bits.  All of it.  From freakish deep sea creatures to never-ending mega-storms on the planet Jupiter, all creation glorifies and praises the Creator, even in a Fallen and sin-broken universe such as ours – and Christ shed his priceless blood to redeem every last bit of it.  That seems like more than robust enough of a context in which to situate the darker, stranger shades of a holiday like Halloween, in which to actually celebrate that Holiday in holiness and truth and goodness and beauty. 

I think a critical, discerning, cautious, and exploratory approach is warranted.  But approach it we must I feel!  In addition to the children participating in trick or treating, I’ve thought of having wee parties in our home where we do traditional games like dunking for apples and so on, but where we also do kind of ‘spooky’ readings from various classic, contemporary, and biblical texts (plenty material in the latter).  But I don’t know!  It’s a work in progress.  I welcome your input.

There.  Finally.  It’s a start at least.