Editor's note: This commentary from President John S. Tanner is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. It was previously published as part of the series entitled Pacific Ponderings.
Halloween was oddly oxymoronic for our family this year. It mixed holy day and holiday in equal measure. We baptized my granddaughter Jane in the morning and took her trick-or-treating in the evening. For her baptism and confirmation, Jane dressed up in a beautiful white dress; her countenance positively shone. For Halloween, she dressed up in a black witch’s dress and hat; her face was colored green.
Yes, some Halloween traditions are fun and innocent enough. As a child I loved Halloween. What child wouldn’t relish a night set aside for dressing up in costumes and canvassing the neighborhood for free candy? Likewise, adults enjoy seeing costumed children as well as putting on costumes themselves and decorating their houses with holiday knickknacks.
But frankly many traditions associated with Halloween are anything but hallowed or innocent. The holiday has a dark, demonic side. It delights in the macabre, glorifies gore and terror, and celebrates the sinister and superstitious. The older I grow, the less stomach I have for the nightmarish side of Halloween. I now know too well from the nightly news that nightmares can come true and from my knowledge of the past that real horrors have haunted human history.
So can this secular holiday, with its sometimes-sinister trappings, retain any redeeming religious significance for the modern world? And if so, what?
Perhaps Halloween can serve this religious use: It can serve to remind us what has happened to the supernatural in the modern world. In our day, the supernatural has been relegated to the domain of superstition. Demons are often regarded as no more real than elves and fairies. They are thought to belong in Halloween horror films but are surely not to be given credence by rational adults. Likewise, ghosts enter the modern mind through Halloween caricatures — phantasms to conjure up some fun at holiday parties. Since the Enlightenment, our age has conspired to confine the spirit world to the realm of the imagination. Many now automatically regard anything supernatural as mere superstition.
An eccentric 17th-century physician, writing on the cusp of the Enlightenment, saw this coming. In a very odd book titled Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor), Sir Thomas Browne predicted that the decline of belief in witches would be accompanied by a decline of belief in God: “They that doubt of these [i.e., witches], do not only deny them, but Spirits; and are obliquely a sort not of Infidels but Atheists.”
The Book of Mormon also saw Enlightenment skepticism coming. It prophesied that in the last days many would deny the reality of hell and of the devil, as well as of miracles (see Mormon 8:26, 9:7; 2 Nephi 28:22). Both these denials are of a piece.
Halloween, then, may serve this useful purpose. It may remind us to be skeptical of our skepticism regarding anything seemingly supernatural. On seeing his father’s ghost, Hamlet says to his skeptical friend Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Indeed there are. Though some scoff at the notion, the world contains spiritual realities.
Now, I am not suggesting we return to a belief in witches or vampires. This essay is not a brief for superstition. It is a reminder that we live in an age accustomed to ruling out, a priori, anything miraculous or seemingly supernatural.
I know of no more revealing illustration of this point than a statement Charles Dickens published about Mormonism’s miraculous origins in Household Words. The magazine, edited by Dickens, mocks Mormons for “seeing visions in the age of railways.” Visions and railways! The unsigned article arrogantly assumes that these are patently incongruous. How can anyone believe in angels in a technologically advanced age of railways! The essay uncritically pooh-poohs the very idea of visions as a relic of an earlier, ignorant age. This is the same logic by which the modern world turned All Hallows’ Eve into Halloween.
Now I do not believe in the superstitions we amuse ourselves with at this season of the year, but I do believe in a world of spirits. Jane will need to learn that Halloween ghosts are playful fictions, but the Holy Ghost is a precious fact. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth, Jane, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
John S. Tanner is the president of Brigham Young University-Hawaii.