Yesterday, I made the long drive from Morris to Duluth, made longer because I took a back-country route through the north country forest. I was a few days too late for the peak of the fall foliage; there was an occasional burst of brilliant yellow-gold, but for the most part the yellows had faded to parchment and the reds had clotted to a dull brown. Many of the birch trees were naked, pale, and skeletal, clawing bleakly at the cloudy sky. I’d missed the splendor and driven straight into Ray Bradbury time, where the atmosphere was all about the fading of the light and the dread of the dark.
And I was thinking all the way…man, but I love Halloween. It’s my favorite time of the year, and it’s also a great atheist holiday.
Growing up, I was definitely into Halloween. I would warm up by tuning in to all the horror movies that would appear on TV that month; late-night creature features and cheesy B-movie matinees; there would be radio retellings of classic horror stories; I’d read Bradbury (of course) and Poe and du Maurier. I’d thrill to those black & white stories where the gullible fool would pull the stake out of the corpse of Dracula, and the body would regrow guts and muscles and blood vessels and skin, and then the monster would resume its callous depradations. I didn’t care that the stop-motion animation of the transformation of the wolfman was jerky and static, it was a lovely terror. I’d work myself up to the point where I’d check under the bed before going to sleep, and avoid the creepy attic, and I vividly recall being absolutely certain there was something lurking in the darkness beneath the bench seat of my uncle’s ’57 Ford as we drove back from a late night showing of Die, Monster, Die at the Vale Theater.
Halloween itself was night of solitary exploration. I could go out on my own and stay out late, until the night was deep and dark; trick-or-treating was just an excuse to wander through dark neighborhoods, shuffling through damp leaves lit by jack-o’-lanterns. It was usually raining. I didn’t care. I’d find an excuse to stroll through the cemetery in the gloom, dreaming of Night of the Living Dead. Goddamn, but I could have been a Goth kid if this hadn’t been before Goth became a thing.
When I was older, and supposedly outgrew all that stuff, I found a necromantic resurrection with my kids — a new excuse to rent horror movies on videotape and take tours of the Haunted Mansion, the Haunted Woods, the House of Terror. Every year in Utah I’d take my boys to the Haunted Forest, and they’d skitter through the trails jumping in alarm at every creature that leapt out at them, and worst of all was the outhouse with the fanged, chomping toilet inside (I think it set back toilet training of my youngest by at least 6 months). Those were great times.
But wait, you’re thinking — atheists don’t believe in ghosts and ghoulies. How can I reconcile being a rational, materialistic, hard-nosed scientist and atheist with an appreciation of a holiday dedicated to the supernatural? How can I go even further and claim that not only is it compatible with naturalism, but is a great atheist holiday?
Simple: it’s not real, and we all know it. No one in my circle takes it seriously; sure, there are far right wing religious kooks who make claims of satanism and demons, but we know none of that is true. Do you realize how different that is from most religious holidays?
Think about it. Your Christian parents don’t tell you that Jesus isn’t real on Christmas; they don’t encourage you to make a joke of the supernatural manifestations of the holiday; you don’t usually dress up as Sexy Mary or a gore-splattered zombie Jesus for Easter. On Halloween, though, no one takes the magic myth seriously. We laugh at demons and monsters. We watch intentionally campy movies about supernatural creatures. Those haunted houses we tour in the month of October? Every one is trying to give you a scare because the relief when we discover it was all a goof feels good.
Recall the old Scooby Doo cartoon? Every spook was revealed at the end to be an entirely ordinary bad guy who was exposed as a liar, their mask pulled off, the expected “Curses, I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those pesky kids!” Imagine if religious holidays culminated in the pastor cheerfully yanking off the mask of myth and announcing that Hell wasn’t real, Satan was a legend, and no magical invisible beings would ever harm you.
That’s Halloween: an exercise in imagination and a guiltless celebration of old superstitions in which, for the most part, the dominant culture reassures everyone that it’s all a game, a day of just-pretend for the kids in which the final reward is a bag full of candy. At its most extreme, it’s a jolt of adrenaline and a startle as we indulge in a little titillation with scary stories…which all end with the release of realization that it was all imaginary.
I think I’d be able to enjoy every religious holiday if it were merely a celebration of cultural history and traditions, if instead of being burdened with the weight of supernatural significance, it was recognized as nothing but a fantasy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone saw Christmas the same way atheists do, as completely comparable to Halloween, where the freight of myth was seen as irrelevant to the fun of the celebration?
Unfortunately, Jesus just doesn’t have the charisma of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, or the tragedy of Lon Chaney Jr’s hangdog Wolfman. Christmas will just never be as cool as Halloween.