Every community has its good points and bad points. For example: I grew up in a deeply religious and conservative community in Utah. That was mostly bad points – the ostracism, the closed-mindedness and ignorance, the extremely disturbing rates of child abuse and suicide. However, when I later moved to a *different* deeply religious and conservative neighborhood, this one in Oklahoma, I learned that there are aspects of the dominant faith in Utah that I find greatly preferable to the shenanigans of many of the Evangelical communities I encountered.
The list of differences between the two places was long, but there was perhaps no bigger disappointment to me than the realization that not everyone loves Halloween.
Now, don’t get me wrong: most people in Oklahoma celebrate Halloween to some extent. But a large number of Evangelical religious leaders take a jaundiced view of the holiday. At best they view it with suspicion. At worst they castigate it as Satanic and unholy and ban their congregants from participation (or, as portrayed unforgettably in the excellent documentary Hell House, they craft weird and overtly religious “answers to” Halloween). Come October 31, you will see the requisite adorable children roaming neighborhoods in costume, but you’ll also see church marquees ostentatiously decrying it and there will be an uptick in the distribution of Jack Chick tracts, and even those participating in the devilry seem a little guilty, a little inhibited in their appreciation of it.
In Utah, on the other hand, people go hog wild for Halloween. Costumes, raucous (albeit alcohol.-free) gatherings, and elaborate yard décor are de rigueur. While the relatively recent “trunk or treat” phenomenon can potentially segregate kids by faith (since such hyper-supervised activities are usually congregation-based), the religious authorities usually have remarkably little to say about the holiday. Professional haunted houses abound in Utah – and it’s difficult to make adequately clear to folks from out-of-state their scale and production value. Also, every year Salt Lake City hosts FearCon, a massive convention dedicated to Halloween and horror.
I think part of it is the longstanding, historic love of theater that permeates Utah and Mormon culture. The Deseret Dramatic Association was established in 1853, and Salt Lake City’s Social Hall was dedicated in 1857, making Salt Lake City one of the earliest American centers of theater west of the Mississippi. (For comparison, San Francisco’s magnificent California Theater wasn’t built until more than a decade later in 1869.) There’s also an interesting inverse relationship between the Evangelical approach to mainstream American culture and the Mormon one. Since the 1950s, Mormons have striven mightily to mainstream their faith and become part of the primary American cultural conversation. During that same time period many Evangelical sects have done the opposite: they have endeavored to create a counterculture, to establish themselves as separate from (indeed, as victims of) mainstream culture.
For Mormons, that has meant embracing all things Americana: the 4th of July, ice cream, the Boy Scouts. The story of 20th century Mormonism is the story of buying in to the idea of America. Meanwhile, Evangelical Christianity’s narrative in the 20th century has been one of alienation and renunciation; from Hollywood to public education, they seem to want out of American life. And as everyone from John Carpenter to Rob Zombie would tell you, Halloween has become all-American. Americans love Halloween. It’s full of all sorts of things that we can’t help but love: candy, (simulated) violence, and costume parties – just thinking of the crisp smell of autumn leaves on the air and the feel of a chill breeze, of corn mazes and plastic vampire fangs, ignites a warm coal of happiness deep in my heart.
I make it a point not to judge other peoples’ taste in subjective matters, but I have a hard time extending the jovial claw of friendship to anyone who hates Halloween – especially if they hate it for half-baked reasons. I’ll readily admit that Halloween has some pagan trappings that people who hate and fear religious traditions that differ from their own could point to, but I’d argue that the same is true of both Christmas and Easter, and while some true die-hards object to those holidays as well, I didn’t encounter the widespread objections to them that I did to my beloved “demonic” night of jack-o-lanterns, tricks, and treats.
In most cases, a holiday is exactly what people make it. I’m happy to be back in Utah these days, where Halloween, horror, and dorky theatricality in general are appreciated. I have my issues with the dominant culture here (to put it mildly), but credit should be given where credit is due, and as we edge closer to my favorite season of the year, it’s hard not to love people who love Halloween. Maybe that’s the secret power of holidays and avocations, one we all could harness – the power of shared enthusiasms to bridge divides of identity.
Halloween and horror could help heal humanity.