Some of you asked me this past week if I was talking about Halloween today.
My first response was to say no, of course not. Our last week’s speaker already told you about it, about the day of the dead and communing with the spirits. And besides, I don’t do Halloween anymore, deliberately dressing ugly and deliberately scaring myself.
Not me. I stay at home and pass out the Milky Ways until they are all gone and we have to scrounge around for last year’s bubble pops. And then we turn out the lights, by eight-thirty, we hope. And the meanest thing I do, and it is pretty mean, is that I have taken to telling oversized trick or treaters that if they can’t bother to put on a costume or at least make-up, they can’t reach in the bowl. If I can recognize who you are, I tell them, then you haven’t worked hard enough for your candy.
Now, in my neighborhood, believe me, that’s living dangerously.
Truth be told, even as a child, I never had what it took to wear witchy or monster costumes. I wanted desperately to be the pretty one, the one with a princess costume, most of the time.
Or, like girls can do with more permission than boys, I would cross-dress as it were: be Roy Rogers for the night with chaps and a cowboy hat, or a baseball star, or one year simply borrow my brother’s cub scout uniform. Nothing too daring, nothing too repulsive.
Truth be told also, I never wanted to go to a haunted house or watch a horror film on Halloween, or on any other night, really.
It wasn’t that Halloween wasn’t fun, or, in its own way, pretty frightening — without ghosts and goblins. Even before this year, before the big terror attacks and anthrax scares, there was the threat of deliberate harm in your own neighborhood. Walking around in the dark with just a flashlight.
Even back in the golden fifties and sixties, there were stories about poisoned candy apples, and the man up on the hill who shot at kids with his BB gun, and the bully around the corner who would come out and knock you flat, teenagers who drove about tossing eggs at the little kids, sometimes aiming at their eyes, and even stories about kidnapped children.
And all of these things, indeed, did happen at least once in the little neighborhood where my brothers and I went trick or treating. There were nasty tricks, even deadly tricks, for sure. But the danger wasn’t from other-worldly places, supernatural causes. The danger was from other human beings who were, if not completely evil, at least capable of some pretty evil acts.
This fear and reality of human mayhem — the prospect of dodging egg shells and ducking BB pellets — or worse — or biting into a chemically-altered piece of fruit or candy — was certainly a far cry from the tamer English tradition of trick or treating.
The All-Souls Day parades, when poor people would beg for food and wealthier families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in exchange for praying for the family’s dead relatives.
Which was itself a strategy used by the Christian church to replace the ancient Celtic “pagan” practice of leaving food and wine for roaming demons, or wearing masks when they left their home after dark in the cold and hungry winter months so that the ghosts would not mistake them for their fellow spirits.
In fact, the practice of wearing frightening or frightful masks or costumes, or, indeed, talking about things like ghosts and witchcraft on Halloween, was pretty much discouraged by the beginning of the 20th century in this country. But despite these efforts to de-mythologize, clean up, and contain Halloween, within a few years, the dark side, the demonic side was back: the costumes, the caldrons, and the deliberate shadowy chaos. In a world suddenly filled with uncontrollable violence like world wars, we needed to be deliberately, make-believe scared, we wanted to be scared, by those supernatural spirits we recreated ourselves. And could control.
Which has become, by all accounts, a multimillion dollar mini-industry — the production of heavy, hot, grotesque rubber masks and dark flowing capes and hideous fake noses and oversized fingertips. Ghostly recordings, and goop and slime.
The assumption this year, the media myth this year, has been that following the September 11th acts of terrorism, made-up spookiness and horror would be less popular.
A newspaper account earlier in October declared that amid the real terror, ghouls and gore would take a back seat for Halloween, replaced by the fanciful, the patriotic, or the heroic. One family, for example, who had traditionally constructed a small-scale spook house in their basement for the neighborhood children, complete with dry-ice fog, monsters, tombstones, and volunteer ghouls popping out from behind black curtains, said that they were not sure this was such a good idea this year, because the last few weeks have been scary enough.
Instead of gruesome costumes, one costume marketer claimed that they were switching their attention and their marketing efforts to Uncle Sam and Superman. A large national party-store chain announced it was going to downplay its monster and alien costumes, remove or hide its latex body parts, and promote the red, white, and blue.
Other stories reported that children were being encouraged to wear, in fact, voluntarily choosing, less gruesome, more noble, costumes. Costumes, as one article described, with a lower scare factor. Costumes like firefighters or policemen, or astronauts or American legends like Davy Crockett. Real heroes, not fake heroes. Or Good Guys over Bad Guys. Hans Solo and Yoda, in other words, over Darth Vader. Casper the Friendly Ghost. Wendy the Good Witch. Friendly beasts, fleece elephants and dogs, and yes, princesses.
While I am not saying this is all hype, or wishful optimistic thinking, I can report to you that my personal investigative visit to our local costume outlet indicated otherwise.
When I asked the sales associate what the most popular costumes are this year, he gave me the politic party line — everything and anything, whatever you like, ma’am.
But when I looked at the chart for what costumes had already sold out, the clear winners were the grim reaper and green skullzor, and anything having to do with the devil at all.
And if the week’s television offerings are any indication, there seems to be no slow down at all in our appetite for rerun classic horror films, from the real Frankenstein to Young Frankenstein, with comic actor Gene Wilder.
And there is a series of real-life TV horror shows where families have to survive especially scary places, including the one I watched (part of), a night in Count Dracula’s 15th-century castle in Transylvania (birthplace of Unitarianism), where we are told that 100,000 people were impaled in six years.
Before the multi-generational family begins their solitary exploration of this medieval torture chamber, the mock-serious host asked the father of the clan why and how he could subject his wife and children to such a revolting and frightening experience, with bodies buried everywhere and blood stains on the dank walls.
Why indeed, I wanted to know myself. Because I can’t imagine wanting to spend my vacation in this kind of place, nor their desire to commune with the possible evil spirits still lurking there.
What’s all this fascination with demons, anyway? Either imaginary or real ones?
A very recent Gallup survey found that the percentage of people in this country who believe that houses can be haunted is now 42%, compared to 29% a decade ago. The percentage of people who believe in a real heaven and a real hell, complete with Satan, has also increased from a 60% belief in the fiery depths in 1990 to more than 70% in 2001.
It’s not only accepted today, this interest and belief in the paranormal, but the majority of the world’s people have always believed, for example, that there are personal supernatural spirits who invade our body from the outside, and for either good or evil, replace or jostle for a place with our own personalities, says John Dominic Crossan, a biblical historian.
While he does not believe himself in demonic possession, he has come to accept that Jesus, at least, was believed by his followers to have the gift of expelling demons, a common practice in the first-century world.
In fact, he points out that there were an extraordinary number of reports of demon-tortured people in Roman-occupied Israel at the time of Jesus, with the power this might have given people to say and do things in their bedevilment that they were unable to say or do in other ways.
Which may be one way of understanding in which places and times demons seem to have more credibility and more power over lives and minds.
One of the books given to me as I entered the UU ministry, in an effort to help me remember our fifth source of faith, Humanist teachings, which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science and warn us against idolatries of mind and spirit, was Carl Sagan’s series of essays on The Demon-Haunted World.
He may not have, in fact, did not, follow demons or give them credence in his own life, but he did understand their influence over much of the world’s people. And worried about the resulting illogical and irrational persecution of people who either believe in demons or who are thought to be demonized themselves.
Belief in demons, he learned through his research, was widespread in the ancient world, thought of as natural, not supernatural beings at all. And neither good nor evil. Philosophers like Plato were convinced that humans needed these intermediaries between mortals and the supreme power. Without them, we could not reap the rewards of greater wisdom.
It was only later and under the influence of dualistic Babylonian religious traditions that, first, the Jews in exile, and later, Christians began to formulate a view of demons as unambiguously hostile and evil — and began demonizing demons, as it were, with the common belief, for example, that demons or “powers of the air” came down from the skies and had, what was called, “unlawful congress” with women.
Augustine believed that witches were the offspring of these forbidden unions, a belief that led to the torture and murders of suspected witches, females in particular, by 15th-century Popes and 17th-century Puritans, alike.
Men whose views were considered blasphemous and, especially if they were dangerously popular, were then said to have been products of the union of fallen angels with these wanton women and, therefore, discredited: including Merlin, Alexander the Great, and Martin Luther.
Whether demons exist — literally — in the air, or are the product of changed brain chemistry, or abuse-based multiple personality, or the power of suggestion, they have endured and thrived over the centuries. They don’t seem to be disappearing from the human landscape.
Mine is, admittedly, a practical theology, and the question for me is — whatever their genesis — do demons block or further human growth and transformation?
Are they the absolute and dangerous threat to Christian belief that some argue, and need to be met with official exorcism? Or are they, as Joseph Campbell believed, powerful symbols of the limitations that stop people from realizing their true nature and must be conquered before people can progress?
Or are they, as my next-door neighbor and horror role-playing game creator tells me, simply what we need to have in order to survive the dastardly acts performed by, what seem to be, a lot of evil people over time — creating something outside of ourselves, other than ourselves, to avoid accepting the hardest fact in the world, that is, the inevitable mixture of evil with good in all things.
To avoid, he says, even toying with the notion, as Franz Kafka wrote, that there is infinite hope, but not for us.
If this is so, then thank God for demons. We still need them, at least for a little human while longer.
Until the wild things in us really are left behind.