Halloween: Exposing a Fault Line in American Culture

These are my kids' pumpkins this year.  The girls wanted to do pirate pumpkins.

These are my kids’ pumpkins this year. The girls wanted to do pirate pumpkins.

I work at a public school, so I can’t completely ignore the current divisions over Halloween.  We do not really have Halloween parties at schools anymore.  At our school we have a Harvest Party.  The kids don’t wear costumes and they play games that have little or nothing to do with Halloween.

The reason for this change is obvious: more and more parents object to Halloween.  They frown on the occult and Satanic associations they see in the holiday.  I cannot truly speak for them, but they seem to feel that the whole celebration of the day moves children (and adults) away from the healthy light of God.

At the same time, another segment of our culture embraces Halloween more and more tightly, constantly increasing the blood, the gore, the spookiness, and the scariness.  For them, Halloween has become more and more important.  Halloween was once a relatively minor day on the calendar for most people.  It is now one of the biggest holidays of the year, as people decorate for Halloween more than they do for any holiday besides Christmas, buying oversized decorations at Halloween stores that spring up and then vanish like dark flowers heralding the death of warm days.

Like most Mormons and many people of other faiths, I find myself in between the two groups.  I am wary of the darkest expressions of Halloween, but enjoy the tamer aspects of it and look forward to celebrating the day with my children.

From this vantage point, somewhere in the middle, I believe that the divergence between the two groups comes from two very different attitudes about human nature.  I believe that Halloween is or has become a reflection of the demons within each one of us.  I think it is a chance for us to display those demons on the outside, to let loose a little bit and not be afraid to be just a little wild and monstrous for a night.

A growing element in our culture feels that is a good thing.  Another segment of our culture feels that is a very bad thing, at least when taken to the extreme we see now.  The difference between the two groups seems to lie in what they think of the dark side of human nature and how to manage it best.

There is a clear attitude in part of our culture that we should embrace our human nature.  We should own our bad sides, not deny them or hide them or be ashamed of them.  In this view, it’s not necessarily a good thing to let your bad side take over, but it is definitely a bad thing to pretend it is not there.  People with this attitude seem to celebrate Halloween with gusto.

Another attitude says that we should overcome the darkness within us.  Or rather, we should transform the darkness so that it no longer has any place in us.  If we find darkness within ourselves, it is a signal that we have quick work to do.  People like this do not seem to embrace Halloween and often seem to turn away from it.

Both groups tend to criticize the other.  The “fight your darkness” group looks at the “accept your darkness” group and sees nothing but licentiousness and the justification of harming ourselves or others, along with a more or less defeatist attitude towards the darker side of humanity.  The “accept your darkness” group looks at the “fight your darkness” group and sees unhealthy repression and denial, along with an unrealistic depiction of human goodness.

Unsurprisingly, I think both sides have a point.  It is even less surprising because I have both defined the groups and expressed their arguments for them, which makes the debate rather hypothetical.  Even so, I am going to agree somewhat with both of these (hypothetical) arguments.

I would say that people do sometimes engage in repression and denial when they see themselves falling short of their ideals.  I would also say that people do sometimes justify doing things they believe are less than ideal, simply by citing their own humanity.  I don’t think that you should simply accept the darkness within you and go on with your life, nor do I believe that you should pretend you have no darkness within you or that you should be ashamed of that darkness.

Perhaps this comes from my religion.  Mormons believe that human nature is split.  We believe our spirits, what others might call souls, are the children of a perfectly loving Heavenly Father, sharing some of his attributes.  We also believe that man is fallen (or perhaps just our physical bodies), making the natural man “an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19 in the Book of Mormon).  Therefore, we see every person as having a divine and a fallen nature simultaneously.  We have no real reason to pretend we are not fallen, and we cannot ignore the inherently good center of all people unless we also ignore our religious doctrines.  That fact may well determine our position on the Halloween debate.

I think it is actually quite likely that it does determine our position, that people’s attitudes towards human nature more or less determine their attitude towards Halloween.  It seems to me that most Americans would agree that all people are both inherently good and inherently bad, that we all have a good side and a bad side, but that we should try to make the good side the dominant one.  That idea may well determine the attitude of the middle, that Halloween is just a fun holiday, especially if you don’t take it to extremes.

Boo!

These are the pirate parrot costumes my daughters made for a couple of their stuffed animals. You may have noticed a theme.

These are the pirate parrot costumes my daughters made for a couple of their stuffed animals. You may have noticed a theme.

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