It’s Halloween, which means that children across the country will leap enthusiastically into the darkness, transforming terror into treats and wrapping innocence in fear.
I am often asked: why do we get so excited about a night that turns on spirits, demons and monsters and is it morally acceptable that, each year, we should continue scaring ourselves and our children so enthusiastically?
The Catholic Church in Italy seems to think not for it has warned that celebrating Halloween can tempt people into worship of the occult.
Father Aldo Buonaiuto, a Catholic priest who took part in an international conference of exorcists in Rome earlier this week said: “Halloween originates from superstitions that exalt malign spirits and demons. Many people see it as a simple carnival, but it is anything but innocent, it is a subterranean world based on the occult.”
Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, when the spirits of the dead ancestors were said to return and were invited home. People wore costumes to ward off harmful spirits. Christianity later incorporated the honouring of the dead with All Hallows and All Souls; but for many, Halloween has become a pointless celebration, which needlessly scares our children with rediculous masks, symbols of death and bloody, plastic severed limbs, or more commonly, incites civic unrest.
Admittedly, it does seem rather absurd that a date installed on the Christian calendar should flourish with the ecstasy of fright; and even more absurd that we should encourage our children to impersonate weird werewolves and ghosts! What’s the point? Where’s the moral import? Is there any? Or has the occasion lost all its original depth?
I don’t think so. Halloween allows us to confront our long sheltered fears about death and darkness without putting ourselves in actual danger, enabling us to make fun of our most primal anxieties.
When I was a teenager, I tested my resilience to fear by volunteering to sleep in a set of rooms purportedly haunted by the spirit of a nanny that allegedly moved babies from a cot onto the bed. The ghost walked, I was told, in the dead of night, and was a horrendous sight. This was in a remote part of South Wales, where superstitions still hold sway and, though I was sceptical, my host was at pains to warn me that sleeping in this room would not be a good idea. What was I doing? And why did it give me such an alluring thrill?
For the same reason, I think, that so many parents are happy for their children to dress up on Halloween. At it’s heart, this is a festival about fear and doubt, the two emotions that drive us and protect us.
I know many who are limited by their fear of failing or losing control of their life, and when fear and doubt take control it can be crippling. These are the everyday manifestations of fear, and it’s because we are confronted with them so regularly that I believe we are so fascinated by fear. Rather than pretending those fears aren't there (which can leave them haunting your dreams and nightmares), it’s advisable to put them on the page and really tackle them, like characters in the scariest novels.
Halloween – at once scary, creepy, and comical – enables us to better distance ourselves from our darkest fears. What better way to harness that which frightens us than to diminish it into something fun and entertaining? By making fun of those fears, we confront them in a controlled environment.
But if the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, surely the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. H.P. Lovecraft through so, and i‘m inclined to agree. For those who lie awake in darkness and listen, houses are rarely still; a tree branch taps at the window, a floorboard creaks. And sometimes our imagination does the rest. Sometimes the latch rises. Sometimes there’s a dark figure at the foot of the bed...
I learned all this writing my first book and all those years ago during my stay in the haunted bedroom. That night, the blood was thumping in my ears as I pulled the bed clothes up to my chin and shivered. The adrenaline was coursing. There were no ghosts in that room, at least none that appeared to me. Fear was my only companion. But I left reminded that darkness can be good and that we all have something to learn from fear of the unknown.
Neil Spring is the author of The Ghost Hunters (Quercus)