Thoughts on Halloween

First, let’s lay out the landscape of the phenomenology of Halloween as it is experienced in America. Then, let’s analyze its propriety. There are two axes of analysis that I will highlight.


Children and young people dress up in costumes and go door-to-door to get a sweet, the password for obtaining this favor being to call out, “trick or treat.” The grammar of this expression is a command coupled with a threat: “give me a treat, or I’ll play a trick on you.” Today, the threat is mostly an idle one. Clearly the statement has become a linguistic formula deracinated from its original meaning.

It wasn’t always so. In my mother’s childhood, in 1920s North Dakota at least, boys did play tricks. The one that seemed to be etched most vividly in her memory was tipping over the outhouse. My mother was sweet and gentle, and she told of the boys’ escapades without any rancor or resentment; even, with a bit of a twinkle in her eye. It was narrative without moralizing. It reminds a bit of the hobo in That Hideous Strength, with his bemused descriptions of the connivances of wicked men: “a rum thing” he would say, with a slap on the knee.

I confess, that my instinctive reaction would probably be quite different. I’m inclined to think I would resent my outhouse being tipped over. But that German community took it in stride. “Boys will be boys,” I suppose. I assume it was understood that the boys would not burn the outhouses down. There was a tacit understanding of the limit on all sides. And within that limit, it was all in good fun.

The outhouse-tipping was not done, I think, in retaliation for failure to obtain a treat. Rather, the “tricks” were a kind of parallel activity that provided sense and meaning for the expression “trick or treat” called out by the more harmless children.

By the time of my childhood, the tricks were gone. We were interested in one thing only: maximizing the haul of candy. It continued well into teenage. We didn’t waste time. We hustled. We saturated a good mile radius, and filled more than one pillowcase with goodies. It was a serious, entrepreneurial business.

Today, it seems that the entrepreneurial spirit has also gone by the wayside. Now, timid little groups of very small and cute children, jealously looked over by mothers, visit a few houses, get some candy and maybe their pictures taken, and that is that.


The second axis is the costumes, along with the costume parties, emphasizing faux-scary props.

The costumes, in turn, can be divided into two basic classes: the scary and the romantic. The scary ones have to do with witches and goblins, demons, Dracula, skeletons, and other dark harbingers of death. The romantic have to do with fairies, princesses, Robin Hood, cowboys, Spiderman, and so forth.

Clearly, the scary costuming is the more primal and authentic to the Halloween tradition; just as clearly, the romantic costuming has nothing to do with the scary, and is simply a benign expansion of the abstract idea of putting on a costume into a region having nothing to do with the originary idea.

If there is a problem with Halloween, the focus of analysis must of course be the scary side. Then, if there is to be criticism of the romantic costuming, it must be in virtue of its opportunistic association with the other.


Criticism of the trick-or-treating tradition seems to come chiefly from libertarians that complain that it is a form of extortion.

I was once impressed by that line of critique. However, I no longer think that that is really what is going on. One participates as the giver only if one really wants to have an opportunity to give candy to neighborhood children. We did not waste time fretting at houses that did not answer the doorbell. We did not mark them as scrooges, to be held as eternal objects of resentment. We moved on, and were happy that so many were delighted to give.

Christian criticism seems to dwell on the scary costuming, and what that seems to imply. As a Puritan, for many years I concluded that even a light-hearted playing with dark symbolism was dangerous if not positively evil.

And indeed, if “playing with dark symbolism” is really what is going on, if it really were a dalliance with the Devil, then it is surely wrong. Hopefully, there is no need to rehearse the unequivocal Scripture forbidding such practice.

I am still a Puritan, but I am also getting more in touch with my intuitive German roots. It seems like Halloween, at least in its German-American manifestation, is a primal celebration of Christ’s defeat of the demonic realm. The silly masking is actually a raucous unmasking of the Devil and his pretensions. “One little word shall fell him,” as the Lutheran hymn taunts.

Coming to this conclusion should not be to deliver a blank check to the wicked that really do serve the Devil. Just as my mother took Halloween in stride as harmless and fun, she would have been horrified to learn of the doings at the Bohemian Grove and Skull and Bones. We are ruled by men that are truly wicked; a child giggling behind a witch’s mask and hoping for a candy bar is something else again.

(And does not the mask teach: witchery is ugly.)

If then the scary costuming is not evil, a miniori the romantic.

A third Halloween theme is seeking out a scary thrill. It seems to be in human nature to take delight in a good scare. At this time of year, it manifests itself in funhouses, skeletons with recorded sound effects, and so forth. I would tend to put these things as a sub-class of general thrill-seeking, which would include riding roller coasters, advanced skiing, and watching balloon rides in an IMAX theatre.

This class of desired experience calls for a more extended treatment. Briefly, however: the thrill-seeking seems to be a desire for standing-outside-oneself — literally, ecstasy — which is perhaps a symbolic acting out of simulated death, and overcoming death. The thrilling experience is a pretend near-death experience, by which we sublimate the fear of death. This too can be put into theological context.

In a word, I’m closer now to my childhood view. Sometimes it takes many years to ratiocinate a perspective that our mothers grasped in a single intuition.

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on Halloween

  1. Tim ~

    Oh, goodie! This mother can still take her kids out trick-or-treating tonight without a bit of guilt!


  2. Having spent some time at a super well-known hospital today and having seen all manner of nurses, aids, etc. dressed up for the holiday, makes me wonder if Oct. 31 is just a day of utter silliness–as far as adults are concerned. Wear a wig to work, don a “diaper”, harbor horns on your head–all this and more was done at this hospital. Silliness isn’t a sin, but I won’t be participating…

  3. Eliza — no, I’m with you. At my place of employment, the antics were yesterday. I think a complete catalog of the modes of having the holiday would be quite extensive. Very young girls seem to love getting painted up; and I suspect the boundary between makeup proper and masking is blurry for some of them. Having watched the situation carefully, I am going to cautiously hypothesize that for many of the older young girls (say, in their 20s) it is a way to experiment boldly with ways of self-presentation where plausible deniability can be made if the new look flops. For many of the fellows, I wouldn’t be surprised if faggotry is the theme.

    Then, for many of both sexes, it is undoubtedly just a way to have fun. I can understand that motive even if I am dispositionally unable to participate in that way. It is a day for sanguines, not mels.

  4. Our friend T-fan has weighed in against.

    And I’m open to being persuaded; I just would like to see the argument done in recognition of the needed distinctions, some of which I outlined.

  5. Tim,

    Stick to your guns. Notice that T-fan didn’t bother to cite a single Scripture in support of his position; instead, he gives props to the Russian Orthodox for banning Halloween! :roll eyes:

    I’m a Puritan, too, but I tire of this constant “I’m-more-Reformed-than-you-are” game of one-upmanship. One of the things I have come to lament as a Reformed Christian is the ability of so many of my brethren to recite chapter and verse of Calvin, Gill, Owen, even Rushdoony and Van Til, but who don’t know very much about Holy Scripture.

    Have we forgotten that God gave us these lesser lights to illuminate that greater light, His Word? And that, while none of these men are infallible, the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and inspired?

    As for me and my house, we will continue to celebrate Halloween and its light-hearted traditions!

  6. Perhaps in due time…would ya mind hittin’ Christmas too? I certainly identified with your return to your childhood view. I used to think that we had to Christianize these holidays in order to legitimize them but eventually realized the deficiencies of that view. Aside from any of the various abuses that can attend the holidays (ex. materialism at Christmas and plenty of others), I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that it’s okay just to enjoy the traditions we’ve established and probably best not to try and Christianize them. In other words, just enjoy Christmas (or halloween or whatever) as Christmas without unbiblically trying to turn it into a religious celebration at all. What do you think?

  7. What do you think of Halloween, Harry Potter, certain occult-themed RPG’s (or some other activity that more “conservative” Christians find offensive) in light of 2 Cor. 10:5? Or 1 Thess. 5:22? Eph. 5:11?

    Do we justify such activities by saying that we understand them in their proper place, as being fake (as opposed to the thing they may have stemmed from, such as true witchcraft and demonic activity), and thus they are of no threat to us?

    Looking forward to your thoughts, if you have time. Thanks.

  8. Keith — 2 Cor 10:5 means that our thinking about Halloween should be captive to Christ, which I trust we are all doing.

    1 Thes 5:22 (Abstain from all appearance of evil) — The force of eidos is given by Gingrich as “kind” and this is ratified by RSV for example. So it is “appearance” in the sense of manifestation, occurrance — every kind of evil –, not as mirage, “false but plausible interpretation” as many of us were taught.

    Of course realizing this doesn’t mean it’s now okay to simulate robbery!

    Eph 5:11 (And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them). The question is whether halloween as manifested in a life form is “fellowship with darkness.” If it is, then we should reject it. My thesis is that to the extent that Halloween had any “meaning” beyond giggles and chocolate, it was indeed a reproving of the works of darkness — in our life form.

    The Orthodox priests cited by T-fan may be right in their prohibition. It may be that the celebration does have demonic form there. Or, it may be that the priests’ own superstitions or theological problems are causing them confusion. I simply don’t know enough about that situation to say. But in any case, it can’t be transfered to us in a simple way.

    re Harry Potter, I’ll confess that I have never been drawn in to read even one page. So I can’t say much. From what I heard about it, my spidey-sense told me from the beginning it was probably perverted; but I also know good and trustworthy people that think it is fine. At this point I’m inclined to think that as the culture becomes debased, the works of fantasy like Potter when produced by mediocre and corrupt minds can’t help but being badly tainted, and the people forming the debased culture cannot help but receive it as a ratification of their evil.

    It could be that Halloween will reach that point also, and if it does, we should throw it overboard. I would hang my defense on it that (1) the thing we inherited was clean and (2) there are at least pockets of continuation where it still is.

  9. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with your interpretation of those verses, although I also take 1 Thess. 5:22 to mean “appearance” literally. Look at Christian girls who dress like the world in such a way that you can’t distinguish them from prostitutes or any other woman of loose virtue, eager to pick up a man with her body. That’s wicked, no doubt.

    I think Paul’s point about meat being sacrificed to idols is huge. Its actually a reflection of the genetic fallacy… something is not wrong merely due to its origin. Halloween, even if it it had wicked roots, may not be celebrated in a form that is wicked any more. Whether it is wicked these days is what you were arguing in your post, I guess.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!


  10. Keith — I agree about the slutty girls, but we can argue that without I Thess 5:22. So I think we should stick to the exegetical meaning of that verse.

  11. GV (#6) — yes, I think your proposal is worthy of exploring. Right now, I’m a bit schizophrenic — I still reject Christmas as a holyday, yet I’ll fly to Germany to hang out at the town squares glowing red, and drink Glühwein.

    My colleague has thought this one through more profoundly than I so I’ll join you in urging him to weigh in on the subject some time in the next 49 days.

  12. TH,

    That’s what I’m getting at. I don’t see it as a holyday either, but I do enjoy giving gifts and having a “jolly good time” (food, football, food, and food, not necessarily in that order). I’ve read a number of others’ “well thought out comments” and I’d love to hear MRB’s (and yours as they develop any further).

  13. I really appreciated this particular blog, especially because I always liked the “thrill” we got when listening to ghost stories around the campfire.

    Does anyone know if someone out there has done a study on how different cultures celebrate this particular “thrill?”

  14. A woman who lives in Lancaster city said they had 500 (!!) children come to their house last year. Think of it! She said they are preparing an immigrant family they are helping get settled in with the Halloween tradition in America. That is a major major commitment. I was trying to drive through the little town of Lititz the night they were celebrating Halloween, and the roads were closed off around the center of town as throngs of children and their parents mobbed the streets all dressed up. Wouldn’t life be endlessly mundane without traditions.

  15. I too want to say how much I appreciate what is written here. American Evangelicalism has done such a number on me that I can’t even enjoy some very simple pleasures. Thanks for the freeing thoughts and message!

  16. Hey, I had this idea that maybe (at least in the culture I grew up in) Halloween is a celebration of the sovereignty of God, and victory over evil.

    I read a book on writing horror, and one of the articles examined the reason why people love scary stories. When society becomes “sovereign” over every aspect of our lives, the darkness introduces a time of chaos, where the power of the state is not as absolute as it is during the day. Structures break down, and wild events become possible.

    As kids, we approached this wild “chaos” with the same mindset that I imagine African tourists have when crusing through the savannah in the saftey of the jeep. We knew that the wonders that awaited us in the darkness where restrained by the power of God and any experience we had, was a thing to be marveled at.

    Bring on the darkness…our God is sovereign! (This was our attitude, and I think it’s why childrens movies like Monster Squad, and Earnest Scared Stupid appealed to us so much.)

    Maybe I’m overthinking it, but when I see common themes in these movies…(adults representing “society” who don’t understand or even believe in the danger until it’s too late… among other themes) I remain convinced.

  17. Have you developed any further thoughts along this line of discussion? Halloween has never appealed to me much, but I grew up with very fond experiences and memories of Christmas. I understand the trappings that are regrettably attached to it, and as a Reformed Christian of more covenanter persuasions, I have been round and round. However, I have also experienced a great resurgence of unbelievable wonder at the mere thought of God taking on human flesh to bridge the gap between us entirely contrary to my otherwise natural inclinations against reconciliation. None of that means we ought to celebrate Christmas per se, but this coupled with an escalating awareness that we are rapidly losing the white, Anglo-Celtic, and general Europeaness of our land, and that which distinguishes us as a civilizational extension of old Christendom has begun to reassert itself as increasingly important.

  18. Brother in Dixie– my own view is still too half-baked to warrant a whole post. But the position that I have tentatively settled into is that the church ought not to declare holy days not warranted by Scripture, but the civil magistrate may do so — that is, not holy days as such, but days of national celebration, honor, etc. That our magistrates declared this is a national holiday (celebray? we need to get away from the etymology of holy somehow) is something wonderful about our land, and all European lands. And it is amazing that alone on this day, a true cessation does occur, only a few chinese carry-outs and such excepted. Even the jewish bookstores are closed. It’s like a foretaste of “every knee shall bow.”

  19. I reckon our views are actually pretty close including their somewhat current “half-baked states.” I certainly agree that the church has no warrant for establishing unprescribed holy days. I do however like the day as a civil celebration. If you think about it, every king should celebrate and honour, if not tremble at, the day the King over all the kings and the Lord over all the nations “paid us a visit” and with reconciliation on his agenda no less. It frankly seems like the ultimate civil celebration–as you said, a foretaste of “every knee shall bow.” Anyway, whole post or not, I appreciate you sharing some of your current thoughts.

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