When spooks and the Spirit collide

Peter Cotsello looks at elements of Halloween

These days many are dismayed at what has become of the ancient Church feasts at the beginning of  November, the season of All Saints and All Souls, the days of Hallowmas, that tonightís Halloween is the prelude to.

What had once been an occasion for pious recollection of the departed, of charitable prayers for the repose of their souls, and in some countries visits the family graves, has become yet another commercial occasion like Christmas and Easter, with their crass deployment of Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny, both imported in their modern form from the United States.

So too with Halloween and its pumpkin lanterns. The feast is now dominated by witches and shrouded figures rattling chains and other spooky figures.  What is not realised so well is that these have now little basis in a cultural reality, but are as often as not derived from American literature rather than European life.

American culture

What I have in mind is how the long train of American culture is suffused with magic and the diabolical.

Much of this derives of course from popular ideas of the Salem witch trials in 1692. They were written up by the Puritan ministers Increase Mather and his son Cotton.

I doubt if anyone except a scholar now reads Magnalia Christi Americana or Wonders of the Invisible World.  But many still read, or at least have heard of Washington Irving, the creator in 1819 of Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman ñ recently revived ñ and other tales that went a long way to creating the initial literary idea of America.

Once launched this love of demonic and the ghostly has never left American culture. Today its influence not so much longer literary, as visual: think of how TV shows and countless Hollywood movies are suffused with magic. What was once feared has been domesticated for late night viewing. It is strange in a country so dedicated to the advancement of science to find such widespread belief in magic ñ which has nothing whatever to do with real religion.


Halloween it is suggested is an adaption of the old Celtic mid-winter festival of Samhain. But the original was rather a festival of the dead. We can still see something of this in the Hispanic manner of celebrating 'The Day of the Dead', where death is defied by satirising it.

Yet in contrast to the bleak view of the afterlife that we find in so many pagan traditions, Christianity offered a vision of paradise, of communion with both God and with the departed.

Now literature and theology have both been overthrown in favour of commercialism, far from being a night of fun, for many Halloween is one of sober reflection.

Popular ideas about the afterlife, the ghostly and the diabolical have little connections these days with the thinking of theologians. Today Halloween has been made not only harmless but unserious.

 But as a result people have largely have lost touch with that basic idea of the Holy Souls and the Communion of Saints, which is what is really being recalled tonight and the next couple of days.

This is part of a general dulling of the spiritual outlook of modern man. We cannot lay the blame on the genial Washington Irving, whose books remain eminently readable.

But the integrity of his literary work has been destroyed by commercial exploitation. A great writer has been lost to view in the foggy nights of the living dead he inspired.