Several Sundays ago, our parish priest devoted his sermon to the subject of evil, which he argued has reached historic levels in the world today. A couple of weeks later, my local paper, The Laramie Boomerang, printed a front-page story about the forthcoming weeklong series of events preceding Hallowe’en (nowadays “Halloween” or “Holloween”) called “Scaramie,” which is a local tradition here. An acquaintance confided to my wife that Halloween is her “favorite holiday.” There clearly seems to be a connection between what amounted to a very good sermon on evil in the 21st century and the popularity of “Scaramie.”
When I was a small boy growing up in Manhattan, a group of us—dressed in costumes improvised by our mothers and clutching brown paper bags in our hands—were led through two or three apartment buildings by one of the parents while we explained in small, timid, nearly inaudible voices that, though baying for blood, we would settle for Candy Korn instead. Afterward we were taken home, put to bed, and our parents resumed reading books and listening to records. For adults, Halloween did not exist except as a brief parental duty.
Thirty years later, I became aware that October 31st had become something quite different. Small children dressed in expensive store-bought costumes and crowding along behind a parent or two were no longer much seen on the sidewalks of New York, perhaps because a few monsters had discovered that poisoning candy and inserting razor blades into candied apples was a sport. This did not augur well for the future of civilization but, as I had no children myself, I soon put it out of my mind. My forgetfulness did nothing to deter the further progress of Halloween, though its celebrants—I noticed idly—did appear to be growing older, bigger, grayer, and drunker. Halloween was now less of a children’s observance than an adult one. Halloween parties began springing up all over town, and the “Halloween season” extended itself nearly to the length of its successor, Yuletide. At about that time, I left New York and moved to Kemmerer, Wyoming, where October 31st is known as the last day to shoot an eight-point bull elk on a general license.
Goodness has never fascinated humans as much as evil has done, other than the saints, mystics, and young children expecting Santa Claus. That is understandable. We are all taught from childhood to be good (with greater or lesser success), and “normal” people are naturally awed by those who defy normality by embracing evil and its principalities and powers. Wicked mortals and other, supernatural, beings inevitably compel the imagination. What must it be like to be Satan, Judas, Nero, Bluebeard, Grendel, Dracula, Dr. Moriarty, Hitler, a werewolf, the Bogey, or Cruella DeVille? Evil, we suppose, is various, unknowable, and thrilling; Good is uniform, obvious, and boring. And Good will not hurt us, whereas Evil will—which seems thrilling too, as long as we are not really hurt. Perhaps part of the frisson is the illusion that we are cheating death, having courted it in our imagination. Yet we really can be hurt by evil, hurt unto death—and beyond. And we can use our evil impulses to injure other people.
People who are on easy terms with hatred and violence easily resort to the invocation of evil on behalf of a particular immediate end. Lady Macbeth, contemplating the murder of Duncan, cries:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty!
This is evil in service to utilitarian ends, evil in its most common human form. Far less common, but incalculably more dangerous, is the invocation of the powers of darkness to expand their presence and power in the world. “How am I then a villain,” Iago muses,
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course
Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows
As I do now…
Macbeth’s Lady invokes the dark spirits to gird her loins for an act of murder. Iago summons the “Divinity of hell” to aid him in an act of motiveless evil—evil for evil’s sake—having declared at the beginning of the play that he believes in a cruel God. In 21st-century America, he would be a sixteen-year-old school shooter.
Video games in which the players target human images and explode them like pumpkin heads with high-powered weapons are a type of satanic conjuration. Since the craze for Dungeons and Dragons more than three decades ago, medievalism has had a special appeal for juveniles. Yet it seems to be the darker side of medievalism, as they imagine it, that appeals to them—not Christian chivalry, feminine virtue, self-sacrifice, or martyrdom. The archangel St. Michael with his drawn sword are absent from popular neo-medievalism.
If the devil is enjoying a wider and stronger hold on human life today, we would do well to consider why. The most obvious reason is the drastic decline of faith in an age increasingly deformed by militant secularism and scientism, a growing hatred of Christianity, and a rebellion against God in the name of humanism and post-humanism. The second is the immediate juxtaposition of radically different faiths and cultures that nearly instantaneous electronic communications and rapid mass transport have allowed. Contrary to liberal sentimentality and naïveté, a close proximity to the Other does not ensure liking him or making peace with him, but more likely the opposite. Evil spreads faster than good, and a more widespread and intimate contact between civilizations is at least as apt to establish mutual hatred as it is mutual love. And out of hatred, more evil comes. Consequently, the nations, religions, and cultures of the world are now at one another’s throats.
Hallowe’en—though it originated in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain when people dressed in costume to hold off ghosts—was concerned with good spirits, not bad ones. Shortly after Gregory III designated November 1st as All Saints Day, the evening of October 31st became All Hallows Eve in the popular imagination. I suggest Christian families might make a modest protest against its secular appropriation by sending legions of children into the streets, dressed as Saint Michael and armed with swords or spears, as a subtle suggestion that a treat would be appreciated.
And do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
By the power of God,
Cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
Who roam throughout the world
Seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
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