Vignettes of Darkness: A Halloween Reflection
My seventh grade study hall teacher took her job seriously, and by that, I mean she enforced silence like it was an Old Testament mandate. We were allowed one reprieve from boredom, however, and that was unlimited access to the Chick Tracts she kept on top of a bookshelf near the front of the room. This woman had the entire notorious collection—not just the standard evangelical pamphlets, but Chick’s treatises against Catholicism, witchcraft, and “the VD.” The gaudy cartoons with their campy plot lines are something of a joke now, but for a 13 year old plagued by boredom, they were fascinating, and I could not look away, even though I knew they were a bit melodramatic.
The Chick Tracts were their own form of education. They maintained that demons sometimes wore masks, that sexually transmitted infections were often referred to by absurd nicknames, and that trick-or-treating children risked biting down on razors in their candy. Jack Chick eschewed Halloween, and he warned his readers that they should follow suit, lest they be contaminated by demonic powers.I thought… that following Jesus meant I would never have to confront evil, and that I would never be asked to trust Him when it breached my sense of safety.
Chick is sort of famous for his extreme ideologies. But his diatribe justified a position I already held. Standing firm on my freedom to make my own religious choices, and my deep commitment to living free of demonic influence, I avoided all manner of fear. I figured that was what God wanted, that when He commands us to, “Fear not,” He really means that we should bury our heads in the sand when we sense the uncanny. I thought He meant that I could reject the presence of jack-o-lanterns and mummies when they made me uncomfortable, that following Jesus meant I would never have to confront evil, and that I would never be asked to trust Him when it breached my sense of safety.
I was wrong.
“We have to watch it in the basement,” she whispered, eyes wide. She grabbed the VHS from a cabinet and stuffed it into the front pocket of her hoodie so that her parents wouldn’t see.
I didn’t want to follow her, but I also didn’t want her to think I was a baby. Hoping she would buy a lame excuse to watch something else, I tentatively descended the stairs and perched on the edge of her couch. She was fast-forwarding through the credits. “I like The Standard,” I exclaimed, hopeful. “Let’s watch that.”
But her eyes were on the television screen, on Carman, whose lip curled into a sneer as he stood outside an old English cottage. When Isaac opened the door to greet him, my friend pointed adamantly at the actor. “Before he became a Christian, he was a real warlock,” she breathed. The very thought made my hands clammy, and I closed my eyes against the musical nightmare of “The Witch’s Invitation,” knowing that I would not easily shake the image of an authentic warlock, a bubbling potion, a shattered pentagram.
My dad’s steady presence was the only reason I was brave enough to walk into the building. A friend had invited me to her church’s version of a haunted house, in which visitors were menaced not by images of ghosts and cobwebs, but sinful horrors like drug overdoses and suicide. At 12 years old, I had barely reached the minimum age for admission.
Our tour group huddled close together in tiny rooms, where smoke and loud music bombarded visitors. My stomach flipped as I watched a young actress loudly, emphatically deliver her short monologue. She arched her neck, cheeks flushed, hand pushed against her belly, and demanded an abortion. As the scene unfolded, she lay back on a metal table, and I shook so hard that my dad gripped my shoulder. He broke his self-imposed moratorium on speaking in public places. “They’re banana peels,” he whispered. “Banana peels soaked in red food coloring. It’s not real.” I nodded. I cried.
Someone suggested a haunted house, and then the frenzied race to find an alternative began. We were too old for fall festivals and too uncertain for horror movies. My Bible study leader tentatively pitched the idea of a corn maze, and that’s how we ended up in the middle of nowhere, on a farm, with no cell service. The hayride from the parking lot felt a little reckless, rolling through the dark, unsure of when the jolts would come. We gripped the sides of the trailer, making nervous jokes, staring into the night.
Minutes later, we stood in the middle of the maze, hands stuffed into pockets, inhaling the frigid air. I turned a full, slow circle, claustrophobic under the autumn night sky. We were surrounded by tall, indifferent stalks of corn that separated only to make short paths, broken off by sharp curves. We breathed in the eerie quiet. We were, in the most profound way, alone.
My friend and I made eye contact, then we both stood up, gathering our things, pretending that this was an ordinary day in an ordinary place, that the circumstances were blessedly ordinary. But they weren’t, and our friend, the patient, knew that much, despite the way that the cancer had ravaged her. In the cruel light of the ICU, I saw her eyes dart from one face to the next, confused, or maybe, definitely scared. Her hands trembled as they grasped for ours. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave.” I blinked at the shadows in the corner of the room, paralyzed. We mumbled platitudes, waited for her to be calm and quiet again. Then we turned to leave, darkness nipping at our ankles.
Every phone in the house blared. Her baby face suddenly grinned at us, rolling through our screens at regular intervals. We spoke her name to one another, shaking our heads at the terror of it all. She was only three, just a baby. They interviewed her father, and he wiped his forehead, then his eyes. He thanked everyone for the help he had been given, then begged for what he wanted, then thanked again, but that raw and desperate beg was what rang in my ears, that impossible nightmare. Her picture flashed over and over, underscored by phone numbers, escalating rewards, frantic, slimming hope.
I would see her face on my newsfeed and briskly go to my own children, march right into their bedrooms, risk rousing them. I suddenly needed to make sure they are still there, that their faces won’t light up a million phones, alarms clamoring. When we ventured out, they waved at strangers, grinning, saying “hi” first. I gripped their hands and stared, freshly suspicious of everyone, hoping that something in my eyes will communicate boundaries, that I am not someone to be crossed. Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe not.
She didn’t come home. And she won’t.
I’ve heard that early Christians acknowledged Halloween, that our current customs have mixed pagan and religious roots. Some people used to believe that the dead returned to Earth on Halloween, and some tried to ward off evil spirits with costumes and lit up pumpkins. Some people held a feast and solemnly remembered the saints.
I understand the early church’s impulse to confront the darkness, to look straight into the eyes of the thing that has stolen so much from us, the silent threat under every uncertainty, the looming darkness in every end. I, too, want to settle that score, to draw a line, to call out evil in the middle of its bluster. The grief, the despair, the fear, and the terror have limits. They are bound.
We may be threatened by this looming darkness. Evil seems imminent. But we are not powerless. We can call evil by its name, mock its presence, deride its bluff. We can, in small and sure ways, rebel.
I understand the impulse to run from fear, to avoid and retreat if we can. But I also suspect that my own impulse gives fear more power than it should have, that it makes it seem like a serious threat, that my security comes from circumstance. And in any case, it’s nearly irrelevant. The question is not whether we’ll ever be asked to walk down a narrow path, Egyptians at our backs, the seas towering on either side, and the unknown before us. The question is, when our time comes, whether we’ll walk with our eyes open.
My own small children are menaced by small horrors—an inflatable dinosaur, thunder, darkness. I know Jack Chick and many others would disapprove, but we dress them in flimsy costumes on Halloween, walk with them up and down our neighborhood streets. We giggle at Styrofoam tombstones, shine flashlights into the shadows, wave at the tiny lions and superheroes that we bump into on our way. When some indiscriminate nightmare rises up out of the shrubs and our children run to us, we open our arms, then immediately plant their feet back on the ground. Kneeling down, we chide. “Look at it. That’s the brave thing to do. Open your eyes. It looks scary. But it can’t hurt you.” I pray in those moments that God would give them eyes to see—eyes that can see to look directly at disease and kidnappings, at isolation and manipulation, at every frightful thing that tries to wreck our hope and steal our joy. I pray that God would give them the courage to lean into tension, to refuse to cower, to resist the urge to sidestep, but instead to stride right into the darkest places and stay, certain, faithful, until the light comes.
On the last night of October, we gather up plastic jack-o-lanterns, light up sneakers, and shuffled candy wrappers. We look straight into the façade of evil victories and declare that hell has no hold on us. We mock the fear that menaces us and ridicule the absurd masquerade of darkness. We walk into unknown territory, under cover of darkness, unafraid. We refuse to be intimidated. Hell may breathe mere inches from our faces, but it cannot touch us.