Is it good to feel scared? To not feel scared isn’t an option; we may wish to ignore scary things, but we can’t — not completely.
Christians are not excluded from this rule. “Be not afraid” is an exhortation, not a magic spell. In fact, Our Lord gives us a sub-textual tutorial on fear throughout the tenth chapter of Matthew, as in this passage: “And fear not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” That feeling of fear — something that we all experience — shouldn’t have mastery over us, of course, but it is something that our minds should attend to, reflect on, and use in service to Divine Providence.
Fear, therefore, is a tool. Tools, by definition, are useful, but as any guy who has ever used a cordless drill or gas-powered chainsaw can tell you, tools can also be fun. The question is, can fear, used as a tool in service to our own salvation, be . . . fun?
I say yes. We often play with our fears in ways that can be beneficial to our souls by establishing a proper context for them — otherwise known as theater. This can take the form of scary movies, murder mysteries, ghost stories . . . any artistic enactment that, with our permission, presents to us something frightening within a clearly delineated milieu. Under such circumstances, we then have the power to grab hold of our fears, to manipulate them, even laugh at them. It diffuses fear’s psychological and emotional hold over us: We vent bottled-up anxiety and are led to a better understanding of both ourselves and of the things that frighten us. Throw in the visceral thrill that comes with facing our fears, and you have yourself an all-around good time.
That’s why I love Halloween. I believe Halloween is good — not the way some people celebrate it today, as a borderline satanic ritual or a dive bomb into the depths of depravity, but in the way it has traditionally been celebrated in this country: a game designed to give the players a shiver (with a few sweets thrown into the bargain).
Because all of us — and especially little children — carry around so many fears, large and small, about everything from death to how the rent will be paid this month to (in the case of my oldest daughter) a sudden crack in the earth opening and swallowing us up, Halloween gives us a raucous stage for the free expression of our anxieties. It can serve as a dramatic, coordinated, and altogether delightful way to explore and express Catholic doctrines like Hell, the devil, Purgatory, and sin — doctrines that are among our faith’s most challenging beliefs. (If you’ve never shuddered even a little at the thought of damned souls spending an eternity in Hell . . . well, I respectfully suggest there might be something wrong with you.)
Some people worry about the idea of dressing up as scary things. But we are scary things. We are substantially good, because we are made by God — but then we all proceed to disfigure that goodness by our sins, making our spirits ugly. Halloween gives us a creative, theatrical way to express this: We are made ugly by sin and become participators with evil; consigned to a kind of purgatorial state, we go from house to house receiving the grace of God that will purify us, symbolized by treats. We bring the treats home, take off our masks, and enjoy the taste of Heaven.
That’s not a bad piece of catechesis, packaged in a thrilling game that — like all the best games — keeps you too busy having fun to realize its salutary benefits: The fears we all carry are at least temporarily diffused; their power is diminished, laughed at, toyed with. And that is a gift from God.
Maybe you don’t buy any of this. Maybe you’re bothered by Halloween’s pagan connections (which I don’t believe warrant any more concern than the pagan connections to Christmas trees). Heck, maybe Halloween just isn’t your thing. I know some people have had bad experiences with Halloween — I have, too. But I don’t like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We must remain on guard against evil, certainly, but we must also never give in to superstition.
So this Halloween, my family and I are going to watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, just like we do every year. I’ll construct my annual life-size Jack-o-Lantern Man and prop him up on my front porch. The kids will transform into Indiana Joneses or fairy princesses. We will find a fun, safe neighborhood (there are still plenty to be found) and endure the chill of the late October dusk and all the terrors of the night in search of candy — as if we were doing something dangerous. We’ll jump at shadows and at the canned witch’s laughter coming from the speakers hidden in a neighbor’s azalea bush. We’ll enjoy this little bit of controlled fear and let it work its strange magic.
And when we go to Mass for All Saints’ Day the morning after, I’ll thank God for all the gifts He gives us — including a healthy sense of fear.