Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The cultural problem of Halloween for Catholics

By DAVID KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published October 27, 2021

You know their names, particularly if you are a Generation-X person as I am.

You know Michael Myers. You know Freddie Krueger. You know Jason. You know Chucky. And you know the maniacs from the “Scream” franchise, and the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” franchise, and all the other assorted lunatics and deranged characters that we watched on dollar movie screens in the 80s and 90s.

You know them, and if you’re like me, you probably tried to forget them. But we don’t live in an age of dollar movies and cable TV anymore. We live now in a time of instant, on-demand, and streaming internet garbage dumps that have completely revived all of these characters, and the audience who most wants to revisit them isn’t you or me; it’s our children.

The proliferation of pop-up Halloween stores that market mass murder and psychotic rampages as innocent “fun” has become increasingly troubling to me. Our children have mythologized serial killers as pop-culture heroes. In a world where mass shootings are all too real, that’s a problem.

Make no mistake; I’m no prude. I have written frequently in this space about the merits of genuinely Catholic horror films such as “The Exorcist” and the masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock.  Those films were made by artists with a Catholic conscience and an understanding of a moral code of universal ethics and justice. Further, as a professor of literature and film, I know that John Carpenter’s original 1978 independent film of “Halloween” was a nearly bloodless masterpiece of low-budget cinema. And to be fair, there are recent horror films such as “The Conjuring” movies that if not fully Catholic, at least respect the perspective and authority of the church on matters pertaining to the paranormal and the demonic.

Still, I am horrified that maniacs and killers have become icons that fascinate our children. Repeatedly, Christ cast demons out; this generation seems to be inviting them in.

If I look at the issue from a Freudian perspective, it’s easy to understand. Our children of this global pandemic have gone through an emotional nightmare. They’ve seen people get sick. They’ve seen people die. They’ve been on a seesaw of masking and unmasking, vaccing and not vaccing. They’ve not been able to put a visage, a face, on the invisible virus that has caused this horror. So, I think that they’ve borrowed an image—literally a mask, in the case of Michael Myers of the “Halloween” franchise—to personify the terror that they cannot see. From a Freudian perspective, that’s perhaps a healthy defense mechanism. Yet it invites all sorts of other problems.

The night in proper context

Halloween is an ancient, and uniquely Catholic, observance. I don’t call it a holiday, because in spite of what the secular world might have us believe, it’s really not. It is, however, a moment that precedes two high holy days in the Catholic Church—the solemn occasions of All Saints and All Souls.  Halloween means literally, “All Hallows Eve,” the night before the great solemnity of the Communion of Saints. Further, All Souls’ Day—the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed—follows the next day on Nov. 2.

In Latin America, this day has profound significance, and yet even this memorial has become corrupted in the United States. The Día de los Muertos has become the Day of the Dead, and in spite of the literal translation, it is descending among many Anglos into another kind of Cinco de Mayo. In short, we have corrupted the original intention of these feasts into secular observations that lose all sight of their religious connections.

First-grader Nicholas Moscherra, dressed as St. Nicholas, processes with classmates at St. Patrick School in Smithtown, N.Y., from the school to an All Saints’ Day Mass Nov. 1, 2019. More parishes and schools are using the days leading up to Halloween to have events focused on saints.

Happily, in many Catholic dioceses of the United States, a movement has gathered momentum to restore Halloween to its proper place in the liturgical calendar. Many parishes, my own included, have embraced the night as an opportunity to teach the importance of the Communion of Saints. Rather than the Protestant “Trunk or Treat” approach, the Catholic response has been less polarizing, and at the same time more instructive. In my own parish, for example, children can take a tour of “Catacombs” and observe adults in Saint costumes. It’s still a little spooky, and it’s fun, and they get plenty of treats, but they get to put the night into its proper context.

Such an approach also keeps the fun in Halloween, and the night should be fun, connected as it is for most of us with the fall season, candy, costumes and childhood memories. Yet if you’re a thoughtful Catholic, you can see the slippery slope we are on. Christmas, particularly in the 21st century, has been almost completely disconnected from the Nativity, at least in the popular culture. Never mind Santa Claus (bless him); Christmas is now reduced to a problematic consequence of the lapses in the global supply chain. For more than a month, as I’ve watched the network television morning shows, I’ve been subjected to appeals to “buy early for the holiday shopping season.” 

We have lived through a horrifying and terrible time. In this country alone, nearly 800,000 people have died of a frightening disease. The politicization of this virus and its intended antidote have divided our nation. I have been proud of our universal, and local, Catholic response to the pandemic. I have been dismayed by the larger public response.

Beyond the pragmatic and even heroic public health response, however, we have failed our children in many ways. We have led them through a corn maze of public opinion and policy and behavior that has often confused, frightened, and bewildered them. So they turn, I think, to characters who—behind masks—maim, destroy, and kill. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, a great hero of Flannery O’Connor (whose own often gothic horror tales are perfect for this time of year), once wrote that “the fiend is less hideous in its own shape than when it rages in the breast of men.”

I’m not so sure that I agree with Hawthorne now. Our children are glorifying lunatics and murderers. These aren’t friendly ghosts, or wicked witches on broomsticks, or even atomically generated monsters. These figures are evil, and they represent a greater evil that is becoming more pervasive in the culture. While many children look at these figures solely for catharsis, there are those who might misunderstand.

This Halloween, we’ll light up the jack o’ lantern. We’ll welcome trick-or-treaters at the door this year, rather than with an unattended bowl left on the walkway. We’ll watch a scary movie, I know—maybe a classic Universal film from the 30s. We’ll be more afraid of the Wolfman than germs.

But we won’t be celebrating evil. O’Connor wrote that “evil is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured.” Our own Halloween, therefore, doesn’t celebrate evil, but rather anticipates the promise that we will be delivered from it.  

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.