What We Hide From
We cannot talk about the Halloween spirituality without talking about death. But first, a question: when was the last time you and your friends (or family) talked about death? Not in the abstract (war, violence, disease), but the specific. I’m talking about actually discussing your own deaths: the single inevitable in your whole lives.
The truth is the modern Western world has such a twisted relationship with death. We either fetishize it (in our entertainment for example) or completely hide from it. We have professionalized death, handing it over to doctors, funeral directors, and clergy. Most people won’t even say that someone died. Instead we say they “passed on,” “passed away,” or did something equally evasive.
But on October 31st each year all the taboos around death go away. Once a year we put skeletons out on our front porches like we’d pulled Uncle Albert out of the family crypt. We dress up as monsters, or undead versions of ourselves and we go nuts. Or we at least walk around behind our kids in their wildly imaginative costumes planning on stealing some of their chocolate (taste testing dammit!) and smiling at a night totally set aside for something we normally wouldn’t ever discuss.
The roots of Halloween are ancient. It harkens back to the preChristian rituals in Britain (especially Scotland). Christianity absorbed the practices and put its own twist on them, but they retained their fascination with death. Halloween, or All Hallows Eve (the night before the feast of All Saints) remained a time when the world grew thin. When death and life stood next to each other and when anything was possible.
There’s something about human beings that loves being scared. But there is also something deep within us that needs to acknowledge the reality of death and evil in our world. Halloween has given us that opportunity (in multiple spiritual traditions) to do just that in a safe and controlled way.
We adore haunted houses, even as we dread them. On Halloween night we love walking around in the dark letting our imaginations run wild about what the moving shadow over there might be (it’s a fat sleepy raccoon wondering what the heck is going on) and making up all sorts of awesome monsters.
It’s almost like saying the word dead will summon up the grim reaper again.
Wearing Our Demons on the Outside
Halloween and its spirituality has its origins from the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain. Samhain celebrated the harvest, and ushered in the darker half of the year. And in early Christian Britain All Hallows Eve was a time when people huddled inside behind tightly locked doors. It was the night that the spirits of the dead walked the earth. No one wanted to be out and about then, no one wanted to end up getting dragged off to the underworld.
Not long ago we we lived cheek to cheek with death. We bathed, dressed, and buried our dead with our own hands. We lived and died in the same bed in which we’d been born. Today we are disconnected and distant from death.
Halloween has changed with us, but it still has deep spiritual significance. Perhaps the spiritual change to Halloween was prompted by our changed relationship with death. We no longer huddle in our houses waiting for the dead to get back in their graves where they belong. Now, we who are so removed from death in our daily lives wander in the darkness with the dead, getting close to death even for just one night. And getting close to the darkness within ourselves as well. It’s no mistake that we wear costumes on Halloween.
Originally they were meant to confuse vengeful, or mischievous spirits, but today they serve a different purpose. Dressing up as something other allows us to wear the fears, or dreams, we can’t voice on the outside. We become witches, or zombies because there’s a thrill in those taboo things. We become sexy nurses or nuns (this is me rolling my eyes) because sex is nearly as taboo as death and the two are all wound up together.
And so we are, for one night, all the things we cannot be in our nice, polite, modern lives. And there is a deep spiritual need in us to be able to court our dark side, to flirt with the taboo, even for a moment.
The Thrill & The Revulsion
However, even Halloween has found itself being pushed more and more into the realm of the nice and the safe. Kids costumes come pre-packaged and branded with characters from their favorite shows instead of being messy and homemade (though this is a boon to busy parents). In the world of Pinterest and magazine spreads decorations have moved from the macabre and frightening into the tasteful and Instagram worthy. As much as we might be thrilled about stepping out of our safe cultural norms for one day, we’re afraid of even that.
And so Halloween is in danger of becoming just one more day to paint over the frightening truths we avoid in our everyday lives. It is in danger of becoming just one more consumer holiday, an excuse to sell us things we don’t need and spend money we don’t have. (We may already be there as we spend 8.4 billion dollars on Halloween!)
An Invitation to Halloween Spirituality
Confront Your Dark Side
I’m going to give you permission to confront your dark side this Halloween.
What are you afraid of? What is it totally taboo to talk about in your little corner of the world? This is not an excuse to behave boorishly, or to continue harm to minorities. Skip the Indian or Geisha girl costume and really dig into your own shit.
This is the time to put our insides on the outside. Make fun of your fears, it’s the oldest trick in the book. I invite you to make this Halloween messy, authentic, and real. Here are some ideas for really getting into the spirit of the holiday and letting the darkness out to play.
- Make your own costume, it doesn’t have to be perfect, revel in doing something that isn’t about perfection.
- Dress up as death, the undead, or a monster.
- If you go trick-or-treating go out after dark (yes even if that’s after bedtime) when it’s spooky and quiet and cold.
- Using tarot, or art that includes themes of death take on some art journaling.
- Throw a themed Halloween party and ask everyone to come as the thing they’re most afraid of.
- Host a ghost story contest after dark. Go all out, I suggest a bonfire and a flashlight to illuminate the face of the storyteller. The more shrieks and giggles the better.
- In light of Halloween’s reminder of our own deaths do some internal housekeeping. Consider a life audit, or kick off your Halloween spirituality by finding a spiritual director and taking your spiritual journey seriously!
- Brainstorm creepy recipes with your kids. “Eyeballs, brains, guts!” Yumm!
- Make your porch into a miniature haunted house with creepy decorations, and spooky sounds.
- Did you know the ancient Celts carved turnips into scary faces to ward off evils spirits? It’s where we get our modern carving tradition. Make your own door guardians with pumpkins (which are easier to carve) and set them out on the porch to make sure only trick-or-treaters make it to your door.
- Read scary stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-tale Heart. Here’s a great list that includes some of my all time favorite spooky stores.
- Honor your own beloved dead. There are many ways to do this: display their pictures, or favorite heirlooms, tell stories about their lives, visit and clean/adorn their graves, light candles for them and say the prayers called for in your tradition.
- Learn about the harvest festival traditions (religious and otherwise) of your ancestor’s native culture (where did your ancestors come from? Mine were Celts)
- Talk to your family about your own beliefs about death. Plan out your funeral (your clergy would love to help), tell your family what you want. Ask your parents what they want when they die?