Why We Should Keep the Devil in Halloween

"Red Devils" image courtesy flickr user Bridget McKenzie via Creative Commons

In early thirteenth-century Belgium a young woman named Christina (who would later have “Mirabilis” or “The Astonishing” affixed to her name) died, apparently, after suffering a seizure.

But during her funeral in the local cathedral Christina suddenly jerked upright, and then flew to the rafters of the church. She explained that she could no longer abide the stench of sin from the congregation below.

According to her hagiographer Thomas de Cantimpré, the next half century of Christina’s life offered ample justification for the “astonishing” honorific. This included her ability to dwell within burning furnaces, to survive at the bottom of frozen rivers, and to emerge intact after being crushed underneath a mill-wheel. She claimed to have visited both hell and purgatory, and that she viscerally remembered the sensory feeling of eternal torture.

There are accounts of her eating food given to her by the sinful, and then feeling the mental torments of the penitent, and the physical pain of purgatorial suffering. She was literally a sin-eater, and in this way took part in a soteriological tradition going back to the scapegoat sacrificed by the Temple priests in the Hebrew Scriptures—or by Jesus Christ himself.

Accounts of her life report that she was known to speak in a deep growling voice, that she would move in a sort of herky-jerky motion, and that she would often spasm and roll around like a person in need of exorcism.

Throughout her life she would behave so erratically that de Cantimpré writes, “men thought that she was possessed by demons” and yet they also understood that being possessed by God can seem disturbingly similar. Today the faithful of Limburg view Christina Mirabilis as a saint, though she has never been officially recognized as such by the Church.

The tale of Christina Mirabilis presents us with a reflection on the ways in which religion allows us to approach the sublimity of darkness, the profundity of horror. Her memorial day is July 24th, but we might claim Halloween her unofficial holiday—and not just because her story could be so well adapted into a horror film.

Scholars have been fascinated by what differentiates Christina’s life-story from more conventional stories of saints. A great sacred ambivalence runs through her tale, not least of all because it is so frightening. Christina reminds us that one of the great strengths—and indeed purposes—of religion might be to give us a language and a narrative to understand that which is darker.

Religion might help us, for example, to conceptualize evil. The traditionally religious can avail themselves of descriptions of hell—even if in American culture we’ve moved from Jonathan Edwards’ self-excoriating understanding to that of the contemporary fundamentalist who makes everyone an inhabitant of that place but himself.

In an increasingly disenchanted world it is horror that provides some of our most common experiences of the transcendent (for we must remember that Lucifer himself descended from heaven). What film is more suffused with a sense of the holy and the radical otherness of the sacred than The Exorcist? In that way Halloween is one the most sacred days in the liturgical calendar of our secular civil religion, because it embraces all of the facts we naturally try to ignore – that evil is real, that we will die, that we must honor the darkness lest we be controlled by it.

Halloween lets us look into the abyss and allows the abyss to return the gaze—while we survive intact. It is a dark carnival, depicting a world-turned-upside down. For one day skeletons, ghosts, and monsters can freely and harmlessly roam, simultaneously appeasing and dispelling the power of real demons just a little bit.

This sort of release of psychic pressure is a function of ritual throughout history, and shows up frequently in scriptural narrative. In the most honest of all biblical books, Satan (or ha-Satan, the adversary), makes his appearance in Job as a kind of divine litigant. Some have interpreted Job’s sin as that he was so deferential to God that he did not properly acknowledge the other side of our Manichean reality—that he had to be punished because he literally did not give the devil his due.

If that is a way of interpreting Job, it is strongly evocative of Greek tragedy also written in the Axial Age. In Euripides’ The Bacchae, for examplePentheus, the ruler of Thebes, is torn to pieces by a group of possessed Maenads (including his mother) because he does not give respect to Dionysus, that liminal, exotic, dark, foreign horned-god. Pentheus, with his uptight piety feels he is too good, too holy to properly respect those chaotic powers.

The Theban king of course gets this tragically wrong, for The Bacchae teaches us that proud self-piety is nothing but a form of personal idolatry. Dionysus, that resurrected god of intoxication, appears before the stubborn, stiff-necked Pentheus and says, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” This is of course also what Christ said to Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9:5, written half a millennium later.

By a happy syncretic coincidence Samhain, the Celtic holiday, falls near All Souls Day and so we have Halloween. The Spanish Conquistadors in sixteenth-century Mexico found that they could conflate their holidays with Aztec observances for Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld, and so we have Dia de los Muertos.

In autumn the days get shorter and life begins to die and decompose, the leaves we crunch underfoot are the detritus of the trees that bloomed only a few months before. It certainly feels as if that gossamer veil between the world as is and the world to come is a bit thinner. It is nature’s memento mori, the natural time in the calendar for cultures to mark death and dying, to commemorate and recognize it.

In the contemporary world our twin idols of positivist science and neutered religion have sanitized our experience. In exorcising the world of our demons we’ve made our angels leave as well. The mystery of an expansive metaphysics must allow room for both God and the devil. What better time to reflect on such things as the nights become long and the air cold, the year turned over for a bit to darkness?

In America today Halloween has become commercialized, its noble dark origins coopted by corporate sponsorship. Yet despite the candy and costumes, Halloween—or Samhain, or Allhallowtide—fulfills a yearning we have for embracing the macabre, the grotesque, the morbid, the gothic, the upsetting, the truth.

There is great power and importance in a day where storefronts put drawings of skulls like some vanity from a seventeenth-century Dutch painting in their windows, reminding everyone that passes by that they too shall die.

It was said that when it comes to death “et in Arcadia ego,” that even in paradise it dwells as well. In the first world technocratic utopia of our current moment, we would do well to remind ourselves “et in America ego.” The wisdom of religion is that it sings a song of the light, and of the dark; after all, God says in Isaiah 45:7 “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil,” or as Tom Waits once put it “There ain’t no devil, only God when he’s drunk.”

There’s a campaign to “keep Christ in Christmas.” I say let’s keep the devil in Halloween.