Folklore Mondays (Post-Meltdown): On Halloween, Belief, and Ignorance

I’ve done you all a disservice. Up until now, I haven’t really lived up to the “angry” part of my sobriquet. But today I intend to rectify that. Strap in.

We had a nice makeshift Halloween in Colonia, a touristy town in Uruguay just across the water from Buenos Aires. I really mean it: the hotel was great, the food was great, the wine was great. We watched parts of The Fog and Dawn of the Dead and even of 30 Days of Night (the TV offerings were kind of a crapshoot, and all in Spanish). One or two shops had Halloween decorations in their windows, and there was one restaurant that went all-out, with cobwebs and costumed wait staff (though we couldn’t eat there because they wouldn’t take credit cards–es una lástima). We even saw one or two groups of children trick-or-treating with their parents. The costumes were pretty much just masks over regular clothes, but it’s the thought that counts. The point is, our weird little Halloween was nice.

But a couple of random encounters, which had little or nothing to do with the place per se (they could have happened anywhere), and nothing at all to do with me personally, nevertheless got me thinking about some of the same issues that I often return to here. First, there’s this:

Ignorance is omnilingual.

Halloween: when Satan is ostracized by lazy ghosts and Wednesday Addams. Truly a night of evil.

If it’s Greek to you, it goes something like this: “Halloween. While you decide how to disguise yourself… there are people getting together to plot against your life and that of your children. Don’t let yourself be fooled. Inform yourself BEFORE participating this year.”

This is relatively mild, in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know local history: maybe something happened on a previous Halloween to make people nervous. Certainly, the holiday has its share of contemporary legends that have had tremendous impact on the way people regard the approach of October 31st. [1] The point is, the reason for the anti-Halloween sentiment is vague. All we know is that the person with an inkjet and too much free time is convinced that somebody bad is planning something unpleasant that just has to happen on this one night (presumably because s/he already chose a fabulous black and orange murder suit that CANNOT be returned).

Then there’s this:

Ignorance speaks every language.

Ignorance, somewhat ironically, speaks every language.

Roughly, “No more Halloween. Occult party disguised and made up for publicity. Disappearances occur this night. For satanism it is the most important night of the year. Very close to you there will be black masses and spiritualist cults. You decide. Inform yourself BEFORE participating this year.”

I don’t know where to start with this one. There’s no substance here, nothing but paranoia bordering on hysteria. At the end of both fliers, they call for the reader to become informed. It’s painfully obvious that they didn’t bother to take their own advice. Whether people disappear on Halloween or not is really irrelevant, because people go missing all the time without bothering to check their calendars for upcoming holidays first. I don’t know much about it, but Satanism is not what people assume it is, and only reactionary Christians would invoke its potential nearness as a reason to avoid doing something. (See the article by Bill Ellis, cited below, for a discussion of alleged “Satanic” activities and public reactions to them.) And the last bit about spiritualist cults seems to totally misconstrue what Spiritualism is actually about. (Though it should be noted that evidently Spiritism, an offshoot of Spiritualism, has a strong presence in nearby Brazil–see the Wiki, or this article from the Rio Times.)

I’m no expert on Satanism or Spiritualism–I Wiki’d them both, same as you probably did–but I am a rabid lover of Halloween. I am also a staunch defender of not being a stupid ass and generalizing groups about whom you clearly know very little.

This shit happens everywhere, of course. I just happened to be in Uruguay when I caught a faceful of it. But closer to home, in a manner of speaking, is another thing that popped up during our Halloween trip. A Christian blogger linked to my Folklore Mondays post about the origins of Halloween (I won’t name him/her or link to the blog in question, for reasons that will become apparent).

The blogger who linked to my post wrote a short introductory paragraph discussing how difficult they believe it can be for Christians whose children are bombarded by Halloween images and practices during the holiday season. Immediately after, the blogger gave the text of Jack Santino’s article, which I included in my initial post. They then attributed the foregoing text to “Pastor Jack Santino” (Santino is not, to my knowledge, a pastor). After the text of Santino’s article, the blogger wrote a concluding sentence about how Halloween shouldn’t be celebrated by Christians because it is both “pagan” and “[glorifies] Satan, demons and death.” Following this the blogger included a list of related articles, among which was a link to my post.

When I saw the pingback from this link and learned the nature of this post, I left a comment politely asking the blogger to remove the link to my blog, and provided the link to Santino’s article on the Library of Congress’ website. (To the blogger’s credit, they removed the link to my post. Points for civility.)

There are several reasons why I asked this person to remove the link to my blog. On the simplest level, I don’t want to be (erroneously) cited in support of a religious/social agenda which I do not in fact endorse. People have the right to believe what they choose; others have the right to not be falsely associated with those beliefs.

On a more nuts-and-bolts level, this person did not do their homework. Blogging isn’t generally about real depth of research; usually we find stuff we like, comment on it a little bit, throw in a link and/or a photo, and we’re done. Blogging isn’t academia, nor should it be. But it helps to pay a little bit more attention to the material you’re referencing. It also helps not to shamelessly twist that material to serve the interpretation you already have of a particular thing. Sure, we were all young once. As an undergrad I didn’t know how to do research, and wrote some crappy, poorly-cited, opinion-based papers to prove it. But this person is an adult and an ordained minister (apparently). No excuse.

First, my blog is pretty much literally all about “Satan, demons and death,” and also ghosts and horror movies and a lot of other stuff that this person plainly feels are out of keeping with their beliefs. If the “Halloween Meltdown” title of my post didn’t clue them in, if all the related posts I’ve been doing for the past two months didn’t ring any bells, if the entire theme of this blog didn’t strike them as against their limited interpretation of belief, then I can only scratch my head and wonder if they actually bothered to read any of what they were referencing.

Let me be clear: I am in no way against Christianity or any other faith. That, in fact, is the whole point: I celebrate all beliefs as expressions of people’s varying interpretations of reality. What angers me is that in this instance my blog was used, sloppily, to support a limiting interpretation of Christian belief that wrongly connects a contemporary celebration, which happens to draw on ancient traditions, with a fundamentalist Christian conception of spiritual evil. It seems clear to me that the blogger didn’t even really read Santino’s article very thoroughly, as nowhere does Santino suggest that Halloween is a “glorification of Satan,” and in fact he ends on a sentence which very firmly denies the kinds of claims this blogger is making: he notes that adults are again participating in Halloween, and “In so doing they are reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.” [2] He is explicitly validating the tradition of Halloween, not condemning it on spiritual grounds.

This is the kind of selective ignorance that has made many great thinkers and writers (and just normal, reasonable people) suspicious of organized religion. The blogger does not deign to note, for example, that Christmas as most Christians celebrate it is an amalgamation of Northern European pagan practices [3]–yet these are precisely the grounds on which they object to Halloween.

I haven’t linked to this person’s blog for the simple reason that I don’t want to start a fight. On this level of discourse, belief and history are essentially incompatible. Arguing, for either side, becomes like trying to light a match in a thunderstorm. But I’m not criticizing faith. Doctrine and praxis–the outward practice of religion–are very different things. I’m reacting to a line of reasoning that leads, quite easily, to intolerance, hatred, and oppression.

I am also not attacking the individual. That’s important to note. I’m sure the author of the blog in question is a nice person. Their immediate removal of the link to my blog reinforces this. What I’m criticizing is the thought process (and the editorial process) that led them to use me to support their beliefs in the first place, which is, at the most basic level, a deep misapprehension of what I’m trying to do here.

There are numerous points of contact between the fliers from Uruguay and this blog post from a conservative Christian. In all cases there is a generic fear of evil forces surrounding Halloween, a holiday which, again in all cases, is obviously badly misunderstood.

There is also a deep misunderstanding of the deliberate social processes by which holidays are constructed. Your belief system, whatever it may be, should not–cannot–blind you to the fact that there are people in the world and they do things for very specific reasons. In the distant past, some groups of people living in what are now Ireland and Britain observed some calendrical feast-days that included, probably, a reverence for the dead, and practices designed to express this reverence. Some of those traditions were maintained through the centuries, albeit with important changes, and influenced the development of contemporary Halloween. This is not a magical process that happens on its ownPeople do it. They choose what to believe, how to behave, what to do and when to do it.

This is the basic premise of the modern social sciences. It does not refute belief in any way, nor should it. It is not about the content of belief. The idea is simply that humans do shit, and that shit has consequences. Humans decided to adopt pagan practices into their celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. That statement does not refute the earlier pagan practices, nor does it refute the belief in the divinity of Jesus. It does not comment on either. It is about the social processes that give rise to concerted expressive acts.

Halloween for most people (at least in the United States) is neither pagan nor Satanic. Nor, indeed, is it religious or even “spiritual” (broadly construed) at all. It may borrow imagery and themes from earlier traditions, but it does not endorse those traditions for the average person who participates in the holiday. My sense is that the average American doesn’t know (or particularly care) about the pagan underpinnings of the holiday. And why should they? Those underpinnings are not a part of their contemporary celebration. (On the other hand, some people are aware of the pagan background, and do care about it–and that is, of course, also brilliant.)

At the end, my point is simply this: believe what you want. But for the love of whatever god you worship (or don’t), pay attention to the fact that humans have their own motivations, and those motivations can’t be discounted as long as we live in society with other humans. If you don’t accept a complex of beliefs and practices, that’s fine. You don’t have to. But before you launch a campaign of intolerant, ignorant, alarmist propaganda, consider learning not only about the traditions you’re attempting to dismantle, but also about your own. A little more knowledge on both sides of the equation will go a long way to improving the world in which all of us stupid humans have to live.

[1] For a discussion of some ways Halloween legends and current events have interacted–including attitudes toward the presumed activity of Satanic cults–see Ellis, Bill. “Death by Folklore: Ostension, Contemporary Legend, and Murder.” Western Folklore 48, no. 3 (July 1989): 201–220.

[2] Santino, Jack. “Halloween: The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows.” The American Folklife Center, 1982.

[3] Watts, Linda S. “Christmas.” Encyclopedia of American Folklore. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2006: 70-72.

2 thoughts on “Folklore Mondays (Post-Meltdown): On Halloween, Belief, and Ignorance

  1. Here here! There seems to be and increase in mis-informed anti-halloween propagada from the anti-fun brigade. I mean you don’t hear pagans complaining because Xmas gets rammed down everyone’s throats from October onwards now do you? Mind you, maybe that’s because they know it’s based on pagan festivals anyway LOL. To my mind, everyone should be allowed to believe/not believe in what ever they like and should try and accept that other people might just enjoy things that they don’t – and that doesn’t necessarily make they evil!!

    • I agree completely. There are certain interpretations of religions, though, that insist on their own correctness. If this is how the universe really IS, the reasoning seems to go, then anybody who does differently is at best stupid, and at worst, Da Devil. The problem is that those folks don’t realize that their own position is just as untenable as everyone else’s.

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