On the way to school last week, my son, Will, spotted a house that was decked out with pumpkins, skeletons and spiderwebs. Will has a way of making dry yet amusing observations, especially for a six-year-old.
“I guess they’re ready for Halloween,” he said, without even a hint of enthusiasm.
But it got me thinking about the whole spooky season. I’ve always been puzzled by it. Not the dressing up as princesses and superheroes–there’s no mystery there. I mean the let’s-get-ourselves-scared-out-of-our wits aspect of Halloween.
When we lived in Florida we were blessed to have a pool in our backyard. We invented many games in that pool, but the boys’ favorite game was Nice Mommy, Mean Mommy. This is a game whereby I would bounce around the pool with one boy in each arm, kissing them and saying, “Awww, nice mommy…sweet, sweet, mommy…so, so sweet…” Then with facial expression turning vicious and a little growl through clenched teeth, I’d declare, “Mean Mommy!” Then Mean Mommy would thrash about, splashing and dunking two hysterically laughing little boys. It is surprisingly difficult to laugh and swim at the same time, and so twenty minutes or so of this routine and we were all exhausted and ready for the hot tub. We played Nice Mommy, Mean Mommy a few times at our swim club this past summer, but really it is a spectacle best reserved for your own backyard.
And even Baby Sam likes games with an element of fear. Hide-and-Seek gets the most laughs when he is startled to find me. And Sam much prefers to have his chubby little feet bitten rather than kissed, and frankly I’m happy to do either all day long.
These examples are innocuous little tales about the entertainment value of anticipation, but I think there is something deeper going on as well. I believe we are innately attracted to a certain aspect of the dreadful — this is hinted at in childhood but ripens as we mature. Consider the words of St. Augustine that were written nearly seventeen hundred years ago:
What is that which gleams through me and smites my heart
without wounding it? I am both a-shudder and aglow.
A-shudder, in so far as I am unlike it, aglow in so
far as I am like it.
Augustine is describing the holiness of God as terrifying, and yet also appealing. I won’t pretend to have anything of Augustine’s spiritual insight, yet I know what he means about the smiting and the shuddering. Have you ever had the feeling that even contemplating the Holiness and Perfection of God is too much to endure? It makes me feel like Adam and Eve in the garden — like I need to run and hide.
So maybe the desire to be scared at Halloween can be explained, at least in part, as a perversion of our longing to experience the holiness of God. After all, a mere glimpse into His holiness is haunting. The great prophet, Isaiah, was petrified in God’s presence, crying out “Woe to me! I am ruined!” (Isaiah 6:5).
In Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the novice demon is told that “everything has to be twisted before it’s any use.” And everything in this fallen world is twisted, isn’t it? Even our cravings for the holy.
Boy am I thankful my little guys are still in the superhero phase!