When I taught ESL (to adults), one of the things I liked to spend at least a few minutes on as they rolled around every year were American holidays. Most holidays are fairly simple to describe and explain, but Halloween is not one of them. I tried a couple of times to look at the history of it with my students, but I eventually just focused on Halloween traditions, especially trick-or-treating, as this was something that would directly affect them. We talked about things like costumes (including masks), jack-o’-lanterns, handing out candy (or not), and the symbolism of the colors orange and black. I also told them about my own family’s Halloween tradition; more on that later.
As I have thought about Halloween over the years, the one overriding, pervasive theme of it has been fear, which is often reflected in Halloween costumes. This in turn has caused me to reflect on the depiction of monsters throughout the history of cinema, which strongly influences costumes. I used to watch vampire movies, and I have come to realize that the depiction of them has changed rather dramatically over the years. In Dracula (Bela Lugosi, 1931), Horror of Dracula (Christopher Lee, 1958), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Jack Palance, 1974), the vampire is portrayed as an evil creature who must be (and is) destroyed. This continued in 1979 with Salem’s Lot, a miniseries. However, also in 1979, there was a remarkable change in the movie Dracula (Frank Langella); he is romanticized (quite literally), and whether he is actually destroyed or not at the end of the movie is ambiguous. Jumping ahead to 1994, Interview with the Vampire also romanticizes the creatures; furthermore, they are not destroyed, although others are. I mention all of these specific titles because I have seen them, I’m not proud to say, and I don’t recommend them; after Interview, I stopped watching vampire movies. However, I’m well aware of the Twilight series of movies (2008-2012) and the strong romanticism of the creatures in them. I find this evolution of vampires in cinema to be disturbing. On the one hand, the earlier monsters were scarier (and often ugly), but at least they were portrayed as evil that was to be destroyed. The more-current monsters, on the other hand, are often portrayed as very attractive, romantic, and not necessarily evil. I’m not very familiar with movies and shows about witches (which is just as well), but compare the wicked witch of the west in The Wizard of Oz (1939) with the witches in the original Charmed TV series (1998-2006). Based on what I see online about these three witches all being “good” witches, you can see a similar change in portrayal. The current Hocus Pocus 2 is listed as a “comedy” for “kids and family,” which also tells you something.
When I think about Halloween traditions, I have also noticed a dramatic change. When I was a boy in the 1960s, only elementary-school and younger kids trick-or-treated in my community. Jumping to the early 1990s, after being overseas for a few years, my wife and I returned to the U.S. One thing we noticed was that trick-or-treating had expanded to include teens. In addition, we began to hear about Halloween parties for adults. Costumes were becoming more sophisticated. While little kids wore very cute costumes, some teen costumes were becoming scarier. In some cases, costumes were even sexualized, especially for adults, but also some teens. I certainly don’t see a one-to-one correspondence between the changing portrayal of vampires (and witches) in cinema and changing Halloween costumes and traditions, but there are some striking similarities.
With all that said: What’s a Christian to do on Halloween? I have known brothers and sisters who refuse to participate in any way; they keep their outdoor lights off and either stay home or go elsewhere. Some churches have “Alternative Halloween Parties” or “Fall Festivals.” Some believers participate very “normally” by taking their younger kids trick-or-treating. Some believers hang out in their front yards and play Christian music, serve food (besides candy!), or get even more creative. Many years ago when our kids were little, my wife and I decided that we wanted to get the Gospel out in some way to all of these kids coming to our door. While one of us took our own kids trick-or-treating (my wife was very creative with their costumes), the other stayed home. We had decided to write up a message and attach it to each piece of candy that we handed out. Here are a few examples of messages that we have written over the years:
- For many people, Halloween is a time to fear. Witches, ghosts, and the like may be fun, but at the same time they can cause fear. But the Lord says to those who know Him, “Don’t fear because I am with you and will guide you.” Have a fun–and fearless–Halloween.
- Since the events of Sept. 11, many people in our country have been scared. Halloween has also traditionally been a scary holiday. However, if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you have nothing to fear. “Perfect love drives out fear.” (I John 4:18) Have a fun and fearless Halloween.
- Many changes are taking place in our country and in the rest of the world. This has caused some people to be afraid. If you believe in Jesus Christ, however, you have no reason to fear. Have a fun, fearless Halloween.
- Taste and see that the Lord is good. (Psalm 34: 8 in the Bible)
Our young trick-or-treaters arrive first and don’t care about the messages, of course. However, we usually have a pretty good number of teens a little later. Some of them (even in groups) stop to read the messages before they continue on their way. Our 9/11 message resonated with at least one teen, who the following year told us that it had meant a lot to him. One year, a teen said, “Hey, we remember you; you’re the guys who hand out the cool messages!”
It is not my intention to criticize Christians who choose not to interact with their community on Halloween night. Each person/family needs to decide before the Lord what they are going to do. Speaking of: I’d be especially interested in knowing what you choose to do on this holiday. Regardless, have a fun–and especially fearless–Halloween!