Slightly out-of-sync, because I was away for a few days at the end of last week, but this weekend just past saw All Saints’ Day – when the Church remembers the saints and martyrs whose stories of costly faith in their own day inspire us – and All Souls’ Day, or the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed – when we remember, with thanksgiving, those we have known personally who have gone ahead of us into God’s presence.
The shops have been stripped of their Halloween merchandise, to make (more) room for Christmas. But for the Church, from All Saints to the start of Advent is a four-week Season to help us engage with death well.
My observation is that churches up and down the land are engaging with Halloween by offering very young children a ‘Light Night’ alternative to a night that has become increasingly commercialised and Americanised [there is nothing wrong with American festivals, but we aren’t in America], and inappropriately frightening for the very young. But on the whole we are doing less with our teenagers, and with the junior-school age-group who aspire towards the next stage. And this Season is a gift for them.
First we should note that fantasy horror is one of the defining genres for teens (e.g. the Twilight series). This is not just coincidence, or good marketing. The zombie is the ultimate type for adolescence: a creature whose face is erupting; whose limbs are gangly and not under the full control of their owner; whose brain is experiencing a re-wiring; whose language descends into groans and grunts; who reaches out for acceptance, but seems only capable of hurting those who don’t run away. In the transition from death to childhood but not yet restoration as a healthy adult, teens identify with zombies. In the experience of feeling different, of wanting to express themselves differently, and of needing to be part of a gang or pack other than their human family, teens also identify with vampires and werewolves, and other stories of ‘ordinary’ teenagers thrown into battle against elemental forces in parallel dimensions.
And in the same way that TV dramas with a teen-life focus (e.g. The Next Step) are actually pitched at younger children, giving them an image to aspire to, so the teen genre of fantasy horror is also – and quite sensitively – being pitched at younger audiences (e.g. Wolfblood, Nowhere Boys).
Starting with Halloween, we have an opportunity to tell stories, with a high fantasy horror content (that is to say, martyrdom is real and gory, but can be told at the level that Horrible Histories pitches itself at). Stories such as St Francis embracing lepers, the zombies of their day. Or Christians hiding in the catacombs of Rome, facing death in the gladiatorial arena. To tell stories that don’t make disfigurement an object of fun or an incarnation of evil, and don’t portray violence as attractive, but that point to the disarming strength of a community of love, a community that cannot be destroyed, even by death.