Amy Levin: Last week, rushing through the Atlantic-Pacific terminal in Brooklyn, I passed my usual underground subway Jesus cheerleader, warning passersby about anything from the apocalypse to the dangers of evolution. Normally I take their pamphlets – I figure if you study religion, you might as well look twice when it’s standing right in front of you. This time I regretfully ran past in my hurried state, but I had just enough time to glance at their sign which read: “The Truth About Halloween.” I presumed they weren’t warning New Yorkers about the dangers of poisonous candy or child predators, and instead evoking a warning about Satan’s Birthday. And while I happen to like birthdays, there’s still a part of me that wants to know “the truth.”
The quintessential argument invoked by many conservative American Protestants is that Halloween’s origins derive from pagan and/or occult practices. While some religious groups denounce any participation in Halloween, there are a number of mimetic rituals that aim to compete with the lure of the secular day of the dead. In Mary Valles’ post in Religion Dispatches this week, she notes the recent flow of articles on JesusWeen, an “evangelical alternative” to Halloween, in which, according to HuffPostReligion, “participants are expected to hand out Bibles and other Christian gifts in “a friendly way,” mentioned in the organization’s promotional video. “Instead of costumes, participants are supposed to wear white, to symbolize righteousness.” The Jesus Ween website explains where the “Ween” comes from: “The dictionary meaning of Ween is to expect, believe or think. We therefore see October 31st as a day to expect a gift of salvation and re-think receiving Jesus.”
Jesus Ween is hardly the only alternative to Halloween. Besides harvest festivals, hayrides, and Trunk-or-Treat, Christians can attend the infamous “Hell Houses.” In response to the secular-pagan-satanic ritual of Halloween, evangelicals have begun forming their own versions of haunted houses using a pop culture medium of the theater. According to Ann Pellegrini in “Signaling Through the Flames,”
Hell Houses are evangelical riffs on the haunted houses that dot the landscape of secular culture each Halloween. . .Where haunted houses promise to scare the bejeezus out of you, Hell Houses aim to scare you to Jesus. In a typical Hell House, demon tour guides take the audience though a series of bloody staged tableaux depicting sinners whose bad behavior—homosexuality, abortion, suicide, and, above all, rejection of Christ’s saving grace—leads them straight to hell.
Indeed, “Sometimes you have to traffic with the Devil to do the Lord’s work.” However, when the Lord’s work involves watching a gay wedding scene or two teenagers about to have sex, followed by the lush theatricality of imps and screaming souls paying for their worldly sins, Pellegrini wonders whether or not “. . .the theater succeeds too well.” Pellegrini pays particular attention to evangelicals’ use of performance and theater as a medium for making sin look scary, but regarding the depictions of heaven and hell at the end of the performance, “In comparison to the pyrotechnics of hell, heaven was a let-down. . .Preachiness may be good for the soul, but it is not very fun.” The problem for the Hell House is that watching two male actors kiss and then later end up in hell actually looks kind of fun. In other words, “The worry is not simply that seeing is believing, but that believing might beget doing.”
This question of performance is central to Halloween, and not just for the religious. If the truth about Halloween has to do with “the real,” (i.e. you’ll go to hell) then the anxiety over this holiday has to do with that thin line between performance and reality. Valle interviews Angie Schuller Wyatt, a third-generation pastor and granddaughter of Robert Schuller, who says that during Halloween, “We weren’t allowed to be witches, warlocks, or the devil as these are not fictional characters. They are real characters who represent a religion contrary to Christianity.” So dressing up as a witch and acting in a pseudo gay sex scene is threatening for some religious groups because it’s more than performance. But is this so different from the way “secular culture” experiences Halloween, or performance for that matter?
For me, Halloween has always been about blurring that boundary between performance and “the real.” Whether we “dress up” as fictional or real characters – fairies, zombies, “sexy kitten” (my favorite), hipsters, Occupy Wall Street protesters, “Jersey Shore” cast members – we’re entering that realm of the daring, the diabolical, the dramatic. We love a legitimate excuse to break away from our cultural norms and we look forward to a night of being someone else, and yet, we don’t want to feel as if it is “mere performance” – that would take the fun out of it. But if we keep our costumes on too long, then it might look as if our identities (political, gendered, etc.) are not as solid as we thought. Yes, Halloween can be horrifying. The truth about Halloween applies to all of us; next time I’ll be sure to grab the pamphlet.