My thoughts towards Halloween are divided. There is, on one hand, the fact that, as those who know me can testify, I have a very stringent “No Tolerance” policy towards death. In my reading of the bible and what I understand of Christian theology, the view of death presented is one in which death is the enemy. There is no “It was just their time,” no “Everything happens for a reason,” no “they are in a better place,” no “God was just calling home his child,” no “rest in peace.” Death is an enemy. Death is the last foe of humanity being destroyed. Death is the sinister reminder that the work of Christ in the world is not yet fully complete. Death is the enemy and every person succumbing to it, every victim it takes, ever human being it insnares in its power, every individual falling into its trap is a tragic lost. Death is the mocking voice, the haunting laugh, the sinister punch line reminding us that we are not quite free.
And given all that, how can there be anything positive to say of Halloween? For all intents and purposes it is a holiday which glorifies death, gore and the morbid macabre. I should be firmly on the side of the enemy. As celebration of the ultimate enemy, death, certainly there cannot be anything positive to come from it.
I use to think this way.
The problem I discovered, following through some of the thoughts of one of my favorite bloggers, Richard Beck, was that perhaps I was missing a larger role which Halloween might serve in our culture. The issue lies in our culture’s odd relationship with the problem of death. In one sense we glorify it, idolize it, glamorize it; our music, movies, skull and crossbones graphic tees all say we are a culture fascinated with death, locked in its grip. Maybe Halloween is just another manifestation of this doom griped culture salivating over the dark seduction of death.
But there is another factor at work which goes something like this; When was the last time you touched a corpse? Sat by a dying person? Walked through a graveyard? Read an obituary? For most of us it has been a long time. Many of us spend as little time as possible dealing with the effects of death in the real flesh and blood world. We might see it in a movie, listen to song about it, even have its logo printed on our apparel, but when it comes to real people dying we try to stay as far away as possible. Our glam-death obsessive culture blinds us to our real-death avoidance. As a collective culture we have sought to expunge the idea of death. We have Hollywoodized death but we have not addressed it. Our culture has slowly moved death off of center stage into some back room with spotless white walls so that we might not have to face it.
This is where the observations of Richard Beck proved so helpful. It use to be that a person lived and died in their home, the wake was in their house, and the body was buried there on the homestead, or in the cemetery. And the cemetery, it was right beside the heart of the town, the Church, which served as school, town hall, and religious sanctuary. Children grew up playing among tombstones, homes centered around rooms called parlors, by they time a person was an adult they had seen, handled, and buried a corpse, they has helped dig a graved, and the rhythm of death and life was a regular part of a person’s life. Yet the influx of funeral homes moved wakes outside the house, cemeteries were relocated to the edges of town, with tombstones replaced with flat plaques to disguise the ground’s true contents from passer-byers, people increasingly died in hospitals, and the parlor was renamed the “living room.” Death has been successfully exorcised from our lives.
The problem with a culture exorcised of death is that is has no context to face death as an enemy. If death is an enemy then it must be one that is faced, and enemy who is never confronted is no longer an enemy, but a victor. Living in a culture which has cleverly removed any contact with the dead has created a society where we can no longer face death. We can no longer subvert the powers claiming sway over reality because our denial of their existence abdicates our authority to confront them. A culture which has exorcised death has left itself defenseless against its onslaught. As long as death is hidden away, out of sight, forgotten, we remain bound up in it, subjugated to its demands, overruled by it. A culture without a language for death is one enslaved to death.
And so Halloween stands caught between glam-death and real-death and invites us to look at death with honesty once more. This night the dead come and walk our streets, come to our doors, haunt our porches, and give us a chance to see death for what it is. Halloween allows us to use the language our death avoidant culture has stripped us of. The grim and gore let us confront the real enemy again. Halloween affords us the opportunity to be reminded of the nearness of death once more. It lets us converse with the dead that we might not forget the haunting tragedy of our own mortality.
Certainly the Hollywoodizes stylized show of glam-death will be on display Halloween night. Our immaturity towards death and destruction will parade down our streets. We will try to cover up, distract, mask, the dark, painful, truly haunting realities of death which we long to avoid. Halloween will probably always be a mixed bag. But that does not mean it cannot serve a purpose, that is cannot be a time for necessary thoughtful reflection, even theological refection. Halloween night death will walk the streets and when we welcome him in we are afforded the unique opportunity to be reminded who the true enemy is. We get to speak the language of the dead.