An opinion piece by Amity Shlaes on the significance of Halloween being popular was published a couple of days ago. It’s not the best laid-out article, but here’s her thesis in a nutshell:
There’s a reason for the pull of the pagan. In the U.S., we’ve been vigorously scrubbing our schools and other public spaces of traces of monotheistic religion for many decades now. Such scrubbing leaves a vacuum. The great self-deception of modern life is that nothing will be pulled into that vacuum. Half a century ago, the psychologist Carl Jung noted the heightened interest in UFOs, and concluded that the paranormal was “modern myth,” a replacement for religion.
Children or adults who today relish every detail of zombie culture or know every bit of wizarding minutiae are seeking something to believe in. That church, mosque and synagogue are so controversial that everyone prefers the paranormal as neutral ground is disconcerting. There’s something unsettling about the education of a child who comfortably enumerates the rules for surviving zombie apocalypse but finds it uncomfortable to enumerate the rules of his grandparents’ faith, if he knows them.
Tl;dr: Halloween is popular now because there isn’t as much god in our lives. And this is a bad thing.
You understand that I can’t just leave this alone.
Let me start with the bit Shlaes gets more or less right. It is, of course, the part where she paraphrases someone else. UFOs are indeed more popular these days than they were in the days when people believed in demons, and the two are related. That relationship, however, doesn’t have anything to do with an inherent need to believe in anything.
It has to do with the fact that weird things happen, and explanations aren’t always immediately forthcoming. In the absence of easy answers, humans tend to fill in with handy memes. As Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan pointed out, sleep paralysis used to result in demons standing over you in the night; now people see aliens. Shlaes–or rather, Jung–is right, but Shleas’s conclusions about belief don’t follow.
One thing I like about discussing religion with atheists is that they generally understand religion and can tease apart its important aspects. They understand things like the difference between myth and belief. That isn’t all Shlaes gets wrong about religion, either. She exhibits many of the biases of people who think there is one true creed. Take her definition of pagan:
But as much as we’d like it to be, Halloween isn’t secular. It is Pagan. There’s nothing else to call a set of ceremonies in which people utter magical phrases, flirt with the night and evoke the dead.
Oh, I dunno. How about midnight mass?
One of my family’s favorite Halloween props was a hand that moved, as though from the netherworld, when you reached to collect a few pieces of candy corn. Necromancy is a regular part of Halloween games. Zombie masks are one of this year’s top- sellers.
Yes, creatures that rise from the dead are so…pagan. Never find any of them in those urbane monotheistic religions.
Still, if Shlaes’s misunderstandings about paganism are blatant, her characterization of Halloween is worse. She notes that zombies are a popular costume, but she leaves out the rest of the list: superheroes, period costumes related to the current glut of near-historical television programming, pop icons and other newsmakers, and the perennial princesses, cats, and soldiers. She also leaves out the fact that, like many of the rest of these costumes, the popularity of zombie costumes is attributed, not to a desire to flirt with death, but to yet another television show.
Yes, Halloween is popular. However, the more popular it becomes, the further it gets from being a holiday of death. We no longer carve soul-lanterns from turnips. These days, we frequently don’t even carve faces into our pumpkins, and the ones we do put on are more often realistic portraits of living people. Halloween allows the majority of us to step outside our own lives, but into another persona or into our own creativity, not into death.
As for that child who knows how to survive the zombies? He (or she) gives me a great deal of hope. Not only has this child picked up knowledge that is much more practical than the number of cubits of boat required to survive a worldwide flood, but living in geek culture s/he is that much more likely to contribute knowledge or art to the world when all grown up. If these are what fill that “void” that religion is supposed to leave, I’ll be well content.