Once upon a time, if you were rich, you flaunted your wealth by having a full-length life-size portrait painted and hung on your wall. It was a powerful statement. And yet it would often contain a skull, a memento mori – “Remember that you will die” – either as an item on a desk or as a distorted pattern that could only be recognised from a certain angle. A reminder that though you might have ‘arrived,’ you would also depart: and how, then, will you live?
For those without wealth, such skeletal reminders were to be found on the walls of churches – indeed, before Henry VIIIs purifying/desecration, churches contained vivid depictions of hell which inform the very cultural images associated with Halloween that some Christians are so uncomfortable about today. And, of course, people lived with death as a daily reality.
Today we live in a culture that is obsessed with denying death. We live as if we were immortal – with alcohol abuse in particular. When someone we know dies, in addition to the entirely right and proper grief, many express utter disbelief: something no previous generation would understand.
And so if for a month each autumn our shops and our pubs are decorated with memento mori, then that is perhaps a good thing. At the very least, it gives expression to something deep for which we might have no other vocabulary, which the Church might creatively engage with as opposed to condemn and distance ourselves.
Halloween has become associated with witches, zombies, vampires and werewolves. These types are increasingly important means by which teenagers can explore and make sense of their own identity. Though it is tempting to find such things bizarre, we need to understand why, and appreciate their value.
Witchcraft is considered very dark by the Church. And yet we should not forget what most witches were: women who ministered counsel and medicine and an engagement with our inbuilt appreciation of mystery, at a time when women were prohibited from exercising gifts of wisdom or from presiding over mystery within the Church. First exiled to the margins, many were later persecuted and even put to death. Fear of difference has at times been very powerful within the Church, and I wish it were different today.
Of course, there are some fundamentalist witches who gather and plot to target Christians – just as there are fundamentalist Muslims, and Christians. Yes, there is evil in the world, and people of all persuasions who side with darkness. But the person blessed/cursed with magical awareness is a powerful type for teenagers who are marginalised, whose gifts are not recognised, whose value is not appreciated.
Zombies are very zeitgeisty. Why? Because they express something very true about the human condition. Teenagers – who find themselves in changed bodies, all arms and legs, hard to control; faces bursting out in spots – fall in love, get together, break up – and when they break up, it is the End of the World. However hard they try, they fall out with their friends, their parents. However hard they run, however hard they fight back, everyone they allow to embrace them, that relationship results in death. Every relationship they turn to, they f*** up. And yet, there must be hope of a new dawn, of a time beyond the Apocalypse…
Isn’t the zombie story the ultimate documentary about going through – and surviving – your teens? And isn’t the best thing to do with a zombie to refuse to run, to let them embrace you when they do?
Vampires and werewolves are also blessed/cursed with difference. But vampire and werewolf stories are complex explorations of the struggle within each one of us between good and evil. We might be blessed/cursed in some way, but we are still responsible for our actions: fatalism is rejected – and that is extremely important in the face of apparent no hope…Here more than anywhere else teenagers get to wrestle with right and wrong. And to do so within a sense of belonging, of community that gives identity: recognising that within our own group or tribe there will be those who choose what is wrong and those who choose to do what is right, however costly. Here we even find the Romeo and Juliet story of love that crosses the divide between tribes and brings about albeit complex new alliances.
Without doubt, Halloween gives us the best opportunity in the whole year to engage with teens – for whom Christmas and Easter are both too child-oriented, in the Church and in our wider cultural context – and with pre-teens, who are about the enter the emotional maelstrom. What resources do we have?
Halloween – or, All Hallow’s Eve (October 31st) – is the doorway into All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Soul’s Day (November 2nd). And – like Christmas Eve and Easter Eve – these threshold moments are a gift.
All Saints’ Day is the invitation to remember those men and women to whom Jesus chose to give an anointing of grace sufficient to change the course of history. In other words, they are the heroes and heroines of our tribe, our tradition. The ones whose stories get written down and pass into folklore. [And yes, evangelical friends, there is a sense in which we are all saints: but Scripture also tell us that Jesus, in his freedom, distributes anointing in varying amounts and calls us to different levels of influence as much as different roles, so let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater…] We have some amazing and inspiring, not to mention a good few downright improbable, Saints’ stories to rival any mythology, whether classical or contemporary.
All Soul’s Day is the invitation to remember those closer to home, those we have known personally and who have touched our lives but who have been taken from us by death. Throughout the teenage years, we not only increasingly experience death – a grandparent, a parent, a friend – but are increasingly aware of the impact of those deaths on us. All Soul’s Day is an opportunity to acknowledge the reality of death; but also to experience healing where once we felt its sting: to respond to life from our scars, rather than our open wounds. To light a candle in memory of those we have loved, and to entrust them – and ourselves – to God’s care.
The Church collates resources for these days, but also provides flexibility for how we might mark them – separately, or combined. Halloween is a gift:
the opportunity to come, in all our blessedness and cursedness, our awkward sense of difference and of not understanding ourselves let alone anyone else;
of affirming that nothing in this frightening world can separate us from God’s love;
of committing ourselves afresh to resist evil by responding to evil with goodness, to hatred with love, to darkness with light;
of seeing death as redeemed from enemy who tears us away from God to friend who ushers us into his presence;
of finding our place within a tribe of heroes who tamed monsters and triumphed over tyrants by self-sacrificial love;
of taking inspiration from more local and immediate heroes and heroines, who loved us despite our being witches or zombies or vampires or werewolves, who loved us as we grew into ourselves…
Perhaps to eat flesh and drink blood and reflect upon being those who were dead in ourselves and have been raised with Christ: the living dead, animated by the Holy Spirit, on the one hand perishing and on the other passing gloriously from death into life.
And if you are very lucky, you might even get to do these things wearing a big black clerical cloak in a dark imposing building.