Halloween is a strange holiday. We seem to be celebrating death and darkness. But really, at the core, hidden beneath decades of costumes layered over the day, is a beautiful message celebrating life, that has been completely lost.
I have been fascinated with (both attracted to and repulsed by) Halloween most of my life. It has taken me years, but I am finally starting to realize what it is about Halloween that I love, what causes the giddiness that captured my imagination as a child, and still excites me occasionally as an adult. There is something magical that is hard to point to.
It is not the Texas Chainsaw Massacres or the Freddy Kruegers—It is not the psychopaths, the freaks, or the gory monsters. It is not just the trick or treat candy and the chance to dress up anyway you want. It is whispered in the rustling of the fall leaves and brought on by the shortening of the daylight. I could give you a list of movie moments and book excerpts that contain it.
But instead it is easier to explain it this way: “The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain [pronounced Sah-ween], more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living.” (Jack Santino, The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows). There seems to be a magic around Halloween that celebrates the connection between the living and the dead.
We don’t understand this connection or the magic it brings. Yet it is there.
The bible explains it this way:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:5)
It is as if the changing of the seasons and all of the traditional black cats, witches hats, and candy corn are an indication that Elijah has come and created a connection between the dead and the living.
Anciently, people gathered annually at the temple where masks were worn by the participants to represent the part they were playing in the ritual dramas. Today we wear masks and attend haunted houses – the distorted mirror image of the ancient holy temple.
“The Egyptians felt themselves surrounded by an omnipresent and ever-threatening chaos … it haunted them…They hated death, they loathed it, but they looked it in the eye anyway.”— Hugh Nibley, The Meaning of the Temple
Later, traveling performers went from town to town and house to house to perform modified versions of the ancient drama—a story of a priest-king who is killed and then returns back to life.
It is the story of power over death. It is the story that all other stories originate from.
“Those who have heard deeply the rhythms and hymns of the gods, can recite those hymns in such a way that the gods will be attracted.”
Today, remnants of the ancient ceremonies are found in our literature and film.
It is the secret that both Voldemort and Darth Vader lost their souls trying to obtain. It is the promise of every love story and the quest of every science fiction journey.
The temple drama is essentially a problem play, featuring a central combat, which may take various mimetic forms-games, races, sham battles, mummings, dances, or plays. The hero is temporarily beaten by the powers of darkness and overcome by death, but calling from the depths upon God, “he rises again and puts the false king, the false Messiah, to death”. This resurrection motif is essential to these rites, whose purpose is ultimate victory over death.— Hugh Nibley, The Meaning of the Temple
We can view Halloween in several ways: a fun activity for children to dress up and get candy, a dark celebration of evil, or a time to look death in the face and realize it too is only wearing a mask. We spend our whole lives afraid of death. We make it out to be grotesque and awful. Yet, beneath the mask (that we have fashioned for it) is actually more life and beauty in another realm. Those who have passed through death are not far away.
The thin veil between life and death was “rent in twain” [torn in two] at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt 27:51) and now Elijah has returned with the mysteries of the ancient temple.
They without us—We without them.
Our ancestors whisper through the changing leaves and the autumn breeze that they need us to live and be happy so that they can be at peace. And we look back to them for strength and life lessons and feel them even now supporting and cheering us on.
When we are linked, death has no power—no sting (1 Cor 15:55). As we serve them, they serve us. We are family—extended through the ages. And as we see who we really are we can take off our masks and truly live.
Their story is our story. And their story lives on through us.