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A funny thing happened on my Labor Day stroll through the neighborhood. I came across a young couple planting a faux cemetery on their front lawn. Jokey, plastic headstones from Party City were piled up, as the wife laid out the perimeter, spiking the posts of a miniature wrought iron fence, and the husband stood by, selecting the best tree limbs from which to hang ghostly specters.
I don't know this couple; I've only exchanged brief hellos and pleasantries without breaking stride as I amble past their home. I know they have a couple of cute little kids who play on the plastic playground equipment in their narrow side yard. But, as much as I just wanted to avert my eyes and plod past their ghoulish tableau, the fact that it was Sept. 4 compelled me to groan audibly, "Too soon, too soon," at which the husband chuckled, "Not at all. I need these out of my garage."
But it was — is! —too soon. From Sept. 4 to Oct. 31 is 56 days. That's 15% of the year dedicated to ghosts and goblins, witches, werewolves and vampires. I can't help thinking that's a little excessive.
When I was a kid, back in the Pleistocene Epoch, we started thinking about costumes a week in advance of trick or treat. We put up decorations, and by "we" I mean anyone in the neighborhood who even bothered, two or three days ahead of time. Such was the weight we gave to a kids' holiday that mattered not one iota compared to the holy day of obligation that immediately followed.
But times, and the aura surrounding Halloween, have certainly changed. The seismic shift from kids' after-school candy quest to adult obsession can be traced back to 1974, when the first Greenwich Village Halloween Parade was held, replete with monstrously crafted puppets and flamboyant cross-dressing. Within five years, that annual event grew from 160 participants to a quarter of a million, as curious voyeurs from all over the tri-state area descended on the Village for the guilty pleasures to be found in "adults only" trick or treat.
Almost 50 years later, that cultural phenomenon has left its mark, aided and abetted by Hollywood's succession of "can you top this?" horror flicks, which have sadly devolved into torture porn, often failing to frighten but never to nauseate, exhibiting what Hannah Arendt famously termed, "the banality of evil." Halloween, now widely viewed as "gay Christmas," exists almost on par with the seasonal observance that in present society dares not speak its name, known only as "the holidays." This parity can be seen even in the straight enclaves of Pleasant Valley suburbia.
And why not? Christmas has backpedaled through the Thanksgiving endzone. Silver Bells can be heard even before Tom Turkey meets his maker. Why can't Halloween annex September? Because, first of all, as my momma done tol' me, "Two wrongs don't make a right." Christmas shouldn't even stub the toes of Advent, OK? As Christians, we need time to prepare for Our Lord's arrival — quietly, reverently and soberly. Neither the bargain-hunting stampede of Black Friday nor the drunken office party on Dec. 12 is conducive to a meaningful Christmas. But even if we allow the Christmas season to expand like our holiday waistlines, spending more time marveling at the mystery of "God and sinners reconciled," is not the same as 56 days meditating on the occult.
Halloween began as a preemptive strike against vengeful demons prowling the earth with tarantulas in their bonnets over the impending celebration of All Saints. We created faux demons to repel those real demons. Concerns arose that imitation might be a sincere form of flattery, but St. Thomas More gave a spot-on rationale for Halloween dress-up when he wrote, "The Devil … that proud spirit … cannot endure to be mocked." In that vein, Halloween is a takedown of Satan, striking at his weakest point: his ego. But Halloween has become an embrace and a kiss of the demonic. And yes, I know that sounds reactionary.
I recall an incident when I was a "young adult" at a parish in San Francisco in the early Holocene Epoch. Our group was sponsoring a Halloween party, and I made the announcement after the 5:30 Mass. An older gentleman approached me and earnestly entreated that we cancel the event. "This is diabolical," he said. Trying to be polite to someone I now regarded as a fundamentalist crank, I explained it was just a costume party, not an endorsement of satanism. But in the years since, I've reconsidered my position.
In the baptismal rite, we reject "the glamour of evil." Does not the current fetish surrounding Halloween glamorize evil? From sexy vampirellas to porno nurses to S&M dominatrices, young women now embrace Halloween with the exhibitionistic ardor of Castro drag queens. Ghoul chic is in for men. The more blood-soaked the better. Homes are bedraggled in cobwebs, circled by covens of witches and haunted by ghosts for weeks on end. A freakish night out is one thing, 56 days spent wallowing in the darkness is another.
Father Gabrielle Amorth, the Italian exorcist who wrote extensively on demonic possession, warned against studying the occult, even as a defense against Satan. The darkness is too seductive. We don't need to know all the details of Black Masses to understand that Satan is evil and craves our ruin. Father Amorth says, "Therefore, it is necessary to guard our heart and our external senses from indecent spectacles: Each of us becomes what we see, what we listen to and what we read."
Yet, viewing pornography and listening to filthy, debasing music is a daily routine for many in society. Even reading, which parents used to be able to safely encourage, is an area of concern. As the popularity of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Anne Rice et al. attests, horror books sell. But unlike, say, Bram Stoker's Dracula, where the undead horror must be squelched and Christian virtue is the weapon to triumph over evil, too many contemporary horror authors create seductive worlds of glamorized evil ascendant.
When I was teaching at a Catholic grammar school early in my career, I received the grim news that a former student of mine, then a sophomore in high school, had taken his father's gun into the shower and ended his life. The principal said he was an avid reader of Stephen King and other aficionados of abomination. Since my young friend took his life, the rate of teen suicide has only increased. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that suicide is now the third leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24.
Meditation on the darkness has consequences because the darkness is seductive, and Satan never sleeps. The sexualization of Halloween gives license to sexual "exploration," which promotes deviancy and attracts more people to the occult. Few of us have the inherent fortitude to resist the temptations of glamorized evil. Witness the sudden resignation of Xavier Novell, a staunch, orthodox bishop, who requested laicization to marry Silvia Caballol Clemente, a psychologist and author of erotic novels with satanic overtones. When the seemingly most upright among us are so vulnerable to overtures from the dark side, who is safe? Certainly not a population whose culture is dominated by disordered trends that celebrate deadly sins.
Where the occult is concerned, one cannot go broad (even in the sense of campy theatrics) without ultimately going deep. Thus, it is no coincidence that the expansion of Halloween has coincided with a wave of cultural debasements: the mainstreaming of homosexuality, transgenderism, hookups, pornography, profanity, neopaganism and recreational drug use; the proliferation of mass shootings, child pornography and child trafficking; as well as Marxist agitation and violent unrest targeting the stabilizing elements of society, i.e., the rule of law, vaunted historical figures, small businesses and private property. How ironic that the modern culture, which in its sophistication denies the existence of Satan, nevertheless genuflects to him. Rebellion against natural order is in vogue, because the impresario of darkness craves chaos.
To counter the lure of the occult, our thoughts should be directed towards the divine. St. Paul writes in Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things."
The expansion of Halloween is a cause for concern because it is morally corrosive, threatening the character of individuals and ultimately the character of the nation. How much better to focus our attention on truth and beauty than on ugliness fomented by the Father of Lies?
This brings me to my second point: September is a beautiful month, rivaling April and May as the most beautiful of months. Here, in the Northeast, September offers our first respite from the blistering heat of summer and our first hints of the golden harvest to come. For children, it's the dawn of a new school year, ushering in hope and excitement. Baseball pennant races come down to the wire and college football games kick off. Yes, "the days grow short" and "dwindle down to a precious few," but shouldn't we spend such vintage days basking in the fading beauty of summer rather than cloaked in occult darkness?
I'll admit there is great fun in a good scare. But it's time to push back against The Blob that Halloween has become. "Get thee behind me, Satan," at least until Trader Joe has restocked pumpkin spice everything, the annual vilifying of Christopher Columbus has abated, and combatants for the World Series have been named. If you want to dress your home up as 1313 Mockingbird Lane in late October, go at it! Just keep your ghoulish claws off my September.