a spirit not of fear

Today is my favourite holiday, and I mean that sincerely. I’ve always loved Halloween and have looked forward to it for as long as I can remember. Carving pumpkins, putting up spooky decorations, searching for the best costume I could find (and we could afford), walking around the neighbourhood collecting candy, haunted houses, watching and laughing at terrible horror films marathoning on AMC, scaring children…so many of life’s greatest joys spread across the month of October and culminating in its final day.

I get a lot of pushback in Christian circles for my love of Halloween, and I understand why. Though Halloween as it exists today is a product of and is heavily influenced by Christian tradition, some of the practices associated with it, such as the carving of jack-o-lanterns, find their roots in ancient pagan customs. Where it differs from other Christian celebrations that usurp pagan holidays and traditions (Christmas trees, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the word “Easter” is literally derived from the name of an ancient Germanic goddess) is that it doesn’t directly incorporate reflection on any aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry; rather, it finds its roots in the commemoration of the dead in Christ and prayer for souls yet in Purgatory. Pair that with a very up-front stance on macabre imagery and a Protestant-influenced America that’s allowed the original intention of All Hallow’s Eve to drift far from memory, and you’ve got a recipe for a holiday that looks suspiciously like corporate devil worship.

But I’m not here to bring us all back to “the true meaning of Halloween.” Frankly, I don’t care all that much about the history of the holiday, as I feel it has extremely limited bearing on how it’s understood now. It’s what it is today that I love and care deeply about, and I believe it has an immensely valuable place in not only societal tradition but in Christian tradition in particular.

The thing that’s so immediately striking about Halloween to me is how subversive it is. Most holiday decorations involve festive ornaments meant to communicate warmth and joy in conjunction with the season, but for Halloween we dig deep into the untouchables of the human experience and put them on display. Effigies of witches, hanging corpses, creepy-crawlies, and all of the boogeymen of human history take their place on suburban front lawns. And it’s not just cartoonish, children’s television versions of such monstrosities – there’s an absurdity to not only how grotesque Halloween adornments can get but to the social acceptance of their exhibition during the month of October. I can walk into a department store and find dismembered arms stained with blood and bits of ripped muscle and bone sticking out across from the sporting goods or pop tarts. I love this, this eagerness to present death and darkness in all its horrors in our homes. Perhaps my depressive inclinations makes me more comfortable with it all, but it’s the sheer irreverence of it that makes me smile.

See, while critics declare this to be a celebration of evil, I see it as just the opposite. We’re facing our deepest fears, our darkest enemies, and we’re defying them by giving them manifestation in our safest places. We dress up as them to get candy and treats. We carve their shapes into vegetables and let them rot on our front porches. We create amusements based around them and laugh in their faces. Halloween is not a glorification of evil, but a mockery of it in the vein of Elijah’s defiance of the prophets of Baal. On Halloween, we do not give the devil a foothold, but we vociferously declare that not only does he have no power here, but we will derive fun at his and all of his minions’ expense. Halloween is not the empowerment of fear but a proclamation that we have been given a Spirit of power that will never succumb.

I think there’s something wonderful about an entire culture together directly addressing the darker side of the human experience, leaving it out in the open instead of hiding it and pretending it’s not there. The fact that we have almost a month dedicated to it is special and important, and it gives us an annual opportunity to discuss the things that hurt us, hold us back. In a way, I’d say that we as artists have a responsibility to seize this time and contribute to it, whether that’s through no-holds-barred horror or the simple taunting of horror itself. Join us as we make light of death and darkness and remind it and ourselves that it has been overcome – we need never be afraid again.

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hideously beautiful | a defence of horror

Nosferatu

October is here again, and along with it inevitably follows the classic debate amongst the Christian public on what to do with Halloween and, by proxy, horror. The holiday is often vilified for its suspected pagan roots, often (and I would say incorrectly) viewed as a celebration of the occult, and along with it the horror genre of art in general is accused of similar things, with horror cinema being a particularly ubiquitous recipient of criticism.

There are a number of complaints I hear about horror films, some of the wider ones typically being the genre’s transfixion with blood and gore, the very fact that it instills fear in people, and the perception that it celebrates or glorifies evil, thereby empowering it. I’d argue that a lot of these criticisms stem from wider human behaviours and entertainment issues, such as the thrill-seeking adrenaline addiction that fuels the love of things like roller coasters or people finding joy in wanton destruction (which rears its head in more socially acceptable fashion in films like Transformers and 2012), nor are they things of which the filmmakers and critics working within the genre are not aware. Let’s be honest here: most of the population thinks Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Jason Goes to Hell are trash, not cultural cornerstones or works of art that will stand for eternity.

Rather than simply refute the common reasons Christians cite to condemn it, all of which could be the basis for their own entire posts, I want to speak about horror from the positive. This is an extremely misunderstood genre for the sole reason that it is deliberately off-putting, an unadulterated examination of humanity’s demons. Horror is beautifully ugly, and it speaks to me in a way that nothing else can begin to emulate. Perhaps it’s because it appeals to my affinity toward pessimism and nihilism; my natural inclination is to see the worst in the world and fall into a downward spiral questioning whether there’s any point to any of this, and I carry any hope with me only by the grace of God. Not that all horror is an inherently hopeless affair, but it explores those darker undertones of reality in a way that often removes any of the gloss and sugar coating that make other presentations so easily digested. The macabre is often a painfully difficult pill to swallow.

Modern-day American evangelicals have been raised and nurtured in a culture that shuns the negative, the dark, the depressing, endlessly suckling at positivity’s breast. Certainly it’s problematic to overly dwell on the gloomy and bleak, but refusing to acknowledge it and let it simmer and exist is a recipe for emotional immaturity. The human experience is a broad, all-enveloping wave of chaos, and every piece is essential and will be known in some capacity by the end of one’s life. Sadness, pain, and evil need to be understood just as much as hope, joy, and goodness.

Art, then, is the voice by which we express and begin to understand our lives, giving words, images, and sounds to those feelings and circumstances that shape us and everyone around us, and I am of the opinion that no aspect of the human experience should be exempt from this process. Every piece needs to be expressed and to be understood, even the most unsavoury or dour or grotesque elements. Drama is capable of conveying feelings of sorrow and despair in a way that is potent and palpable as well as palatable, but where horror demonstrates its value is its ability to look at all that is wrong with the world with an undiluted gaze. Drama will help us grapple with our hurts, and horror will reveal them for the monsters they truly are.

When the blinds are pulled back and evil is unfiltered through the eyes of horror, there’s a uniquely powerful opportunity to engage with darkness in a way that isn’t normally afforded along a wide breadth of subjects. In fact, horror can often be particularly incisive and effective when exploring abstract concepts due to the often fantastical natures of the film and story premises, a variation of Tolkien’s philosophy of using fairy stories to reveal truths about reality. While there are certainly those that simply seek to thrill (and are quite justified in their desires to do so in the most general sense), I’ve seen horror films that are far more affecting that tackle subjects such as grief and loss (The Babadook); loneliness, bullying, and unrequited love (Let the Right One In); and the inevitability of death (It Follows).  In addition, The Exorcist is one of the most thoughtful and compelling explorations of spiritual warfare I’ve seen in any medium.

I’m not saying that we should replace our positivity bubbles with total immersion in sadness and morbidity. And I’m not saying that you should force yourself to watch horror anyway if you don’t appreciate being scared or made to feel extremely uncomfortable. What I want is for people to simply acknowledge the genre for the value it presents to human expression (and even worship) rather than writing it off entirely due to its shortcomings, often more pronounced due to its nature and often merely the result of misunderstanding. The world is wonderful but twisted by sin, and we ought to cease demonising horror for shedding its piercing light on what our true demons are.