I’m no longer an evangelical. I was raised in a conservative evangelical home, attended an evangelical college, and many of my Midwestern family members and friends are still in that world. Now, I’m still a Christian, and I attend my local Episcopal church with my family every Sunday. This fall, as in so many previous years, I’m witnessing evangelical “mommy wars” centered around Halloween. In the same way that some moms shame other moms for using (gasp!) an epidural during labor, not breastfeeding, not breastfeeding long enough, some—although not ALL—evangelical moms like to berate other moms, like me, for letting their children celebrate Halloween. And thus, the battle lines are drawn: their children attend fall festivals while mine attend Halloween parties. Their children wear cozy sweaters and bob for apples while mine dress up as ninjas and mosh elderly neighbors for candy corn. These moms sip apple cider at the end of a hard night of keeping their little ones safe in a world of miniature goblins while I chillax with an Appletini. (Cinnamon on the rim, thank you very much!) The basis for their argument against celebrating Halloween is that Christians represent God’s light in a very dark world. If we’re Christians we must eschew all things evil, wicked, or scary. Much of this is based on the New Testament verses about being light in the world. As a Christian, I get this whole “light bearer” idea. What I don’t understand is how being a light bearer means being anti-Halloween; the “evil” symbols of Halloween: ghosts, goblins, witches, zombies, are all parts of lore. I don’t get it because these monsters are not real. Most children aren’t dressing up as actual villains like Hitler or Charles Manson. Instead, on my street I see adorable children inserting themselves as scary, brave, or silly characters in their favorite stories—the vampire ruling a castle, Dorothy off to see the wizard, or Harry Potter, defeater of Voldemort. And if they are dressing up as actual people, they’re dressing up as their heroes—like my friend’s adorable little girl who rocked out as Amelia Earhart last Halloween. Or (shudder) the tween babysitter dressing up at Snooki. Bottom line: I don’t see a celebration of evil, but a celebration of stories and of people.
“But these stories are so dark,” one of my evangelical friends said to me recently. She argued that if we’re truly light bearers then we keep our children away from “darkness”—at all costs. Many of my Christian friends claim that the creepy stories and costumes will harm children or make them commit evil acts. One rather high-strung Religious Right friend from college went so far as to say that if I let my children trick or treat, it’s the same as when the Israelites in the Old Testament committed child sacrifice to pagan gods like Moloch.(I’m pretty certain this friend isn’t around anymore. He imploded when “Obamacare” went into effect because affordable healthcare was too dystopian for him.) This anti-Halloween blog post by an evangelical mother claims that if we let our children enjoy scary zombie stories we shouldn’t be surprised by school shootings. (Why yes, clearly watching zombies eat brains makes a person take advantage of the lax gun laws these same people support.) Yet another friend, both a mother and teacher, told me she won’t allow Harry Potter books in her classroom or her home because “witchcraft is evil and bad.” (Interestingly, she doesn’t ban C.S. Lewis’s marvelous Narnia series which, last time I checked, contains a pretty bad-ass witch. Semantics.)
As a writer, I’m here to defend the scary stories we celebrate at Halloween because stories, of any kind, are empowering. Reading and exploring stories makes us more moral, empathetic, and brave human beings. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” In the young adult dystopian zombie apocalypse novel, the point isn’t that zombies are real, that they’re cool, or that brains are delicious and you should pick some up for dinner—it’s about the struggle to maintain your humanity in the worst of circumstances. The most haunting and best ghost stories don’t show us that ghosts exist. Rather they make us question how much we can truly know about our world—and about love or fury that’s powerful enough to buck against the known boundaries of death. Essentially, in navigating these fictional worlds, we walk around in the shoes of characters doing stupid, risky, silly, wonderful, and brave things. We’re motivated to be heroes in our own extraordinary real world.
And in this real world, let’s focus on real evils. Because my children are more likely to get mowed down at school by a bullet than a broomstick, any light bearer should be focused on real and tangible solutions—passing reasonable gun control and making healthcare available for the poor and mentally ill. This makes more sense than arming ourselves against bogeymen.
“I want my children to read books where characters are clearly good and evil and always do the right things,” an evangelical relative told me once. Although I respect her a lot, I was puzzled by her words, mainly because somehow no one ever sent me a handbook telling me exactly what is right and wrong, good and evil. (And don’t tell me the Bible is this handbook, with clear, easy-to-get messages—it isn’t!) Personally, I think there’s a lot of yin and yang in all of us, and life is often a struggle to try to do the right thing when the answer isn’t always clear. Life is just more complicated than that.
This is why I’m drawn to writing. Toni Morrison said in an interview that she likes to “put [her] characters on the edge of a cliff and see what they do.” I can relate well to this statement. Navigating life’s moral flyballs is tricky business, and I like to watch how my characters fight their way through while making mistakes and messing up and falling in love. This is more exciting than oversimplifying a world that just isn’t black and white.
And the light bearer business becomes a lot more inspiring and actually effective when instead of snatching scary stories and costumes from our children, we boil it down to trying (as clumsily as we can) to alleviate as much suffering as possible. Rather than being inspired by the women who strike all semblance of demon lore from their children’s lives, I still think the best light bearers to me are Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Bartolomé las Casas, Mr. Rogers, Antoinette Tuff, and—yes— Jesus.
So this Halloween, I’ll be running through my neighborhood with pint-sized goblins, fairies, and ghosts. And afterwards (feel free to join me!) I’ll toast my Appletini to the power of story.