When I was a kid, I used to love to be scared. Whether on a freewheeling roller coaster or at a horror movie, I would love to jump up and scream! A good scream was usually followed by the audience’s laughter, both at our squeamishness and at the delight in realizing that we got scared over an illusion of danger.
There was a movie out when I was in grammar school called “The Tingler”. The scare of this movie was augmented by an electric charge that was administered in the theater to each seat every time the monster ‘Tingler’ attacked on the screen! Today, there would be lawsuits a plenty if we tried to electrify movie seats! But at that time, the concept of the “movie experience” was much different.
However, the laughs that followed the collective scream from scary and unexpected moments instantly created a sense of community and a relief that it is all make-believe!
Halloween exploits these fears and the fun that they entail. While there is nothing funny about demons and witches, by laughing at them we take away their power. Unfortunately, it also makes us easy targets for these malevolent and malicious beings. Demons and witches are not make believe: Witches can target someone and put a curse on their target. A coven of witches just called for a curse to be placed on Justice Brett Kavanaugh. This is not child’s play; this is real.
One of the things that Halloween and the horror films that have come from Hollywood do teach us is that there is a supernatural world of both goodness (Angels) and evil (Demons). What makes a horror movie like the classic “Dracula” so frightening is not the sight of blood (slasher movies prey on our fear of being dismembered), but the unearthly suggestion that the dead can still be alive.
When Dracula says of the wolves howling in the distance: “Listen to them: the children of the night! What music they make!”, the chill that comes over us is the true feeling of horror and dread. There is something out there that is beyond nature and, in the case of the vampires, is malevolent.
But the reverse of that is that there is also something good out there that is beyond nature, has enormous power and loves each of us deeply. What I am trying to suggest is that what horror movies and the fascination with Halloween communicates is the religious knowledge that there is more ‘out there’ than we suspect. This is the antechamber of the religious.
Horror stories have always had their ‘deeper senses’. In “Frankenstein”, there is the story of the dangers unleashed in trying to manipulate nature. In the Vampire myth, the nocturnal hidden side of our nature that threatens to suck the life out of us is highlighted. In “Doctor Jeckle and Mr. Hyde”, the destructive side of our personalities that lies side by side with the good side is explored and contrasted.
While these hidden meanings are helpful, what I want to put a spotlight on is that these stories point to the supernatural both as promise and as terror. Like good science fiction, they challenge the imagination to expand and to be open to another vision of reality that might go significantly beyond our restrictive way of seeing and evaluating.
This failure of the imagination is at the heart of the experience of the supposed ‘loss of faith’ of many people. What people in this category are really experiencing is the inadequacy of past formations of God and the beyond. When you are in college, believing in the old man in the sky is very difficult. This is not because there is no God, but that the person’s past formulation of Who this being is no longer answers the deeper questions that science and experience pose.
It takes a dose of humility to realize our limitations and to consider the possibility that reality is more complex and wondrous and dangerous than we imagine. Being scared helps us as it jump-starts our consciousness into new and uncharted regions.