Halloween and Stories of Darkness

Halloween has never been my favorite holiday. Dressing up and getting mini Hersheys and Snickers bars was fun, but the look and feel of this day has always bothered me: bright orange, jet black, neon green, plastic purple, and ghoulish masks in the aisles at CVS. I’m especially uncomfortable about little kids dressed up as ghosts, witches, and demons – not because ghosts, witches, and demons aren’t real, but because they are.

The stories of Halloween are also my least favorites: horror stories and ghostly tales with dark mansions and midnight forests, screams and gore, terror and despair. I prefer stories that have at least a glimmer of hope, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Last year, though, I listened to a two-part podcast by Andrew Peterson and Lanier Ivester called “The Delightful Shiver,” which made me reconsider my all-encompassing dislike of ghost stories. Andrew and Lanier describe ghost stories which don’t celebrate evil, but remind us of the reality and strangeness of the spiritual world. 

Andrew pointed out that in some ghost stories, hardened characters who don’t believe in the supernatural are turned from unorthodoxy to orthodoxy; the ghost’s visitation is an act of grace (think of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol). 

Lanier argues that the beautiful sadness of a really good ghost story has a special place in our imaginations. She also argued that Victorian ghost stories and interest in the occult were a reaction to the previous century’s deadening rationalism and realism: people still longed for tales of mystery and imagination. 

These two writers and speakers, who I respect for their faith and artistic ability, gave me pause. Now, a year later, I reflect on the parts of the Bible we could interpret as ghostly stories (even if no actual ghost appeared): the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28, the writing on the wall in Daniel 5, and the disciples’ reaction to the Lord Jesus in Matthew 14

Only one of these stories actually involves the dead speaking to the living, but they all portray moments when people on earth glimpse the unseen world – and their terror is an integral part of the revelation. Messages from the spiritual world, whether they declare comfort or judgement, are never taken lightly.

This talk on the spiritual aspect of ghost stories made me think about references to otherworldly beings in stories: specifically, ghosts, witches, and demons. Each one of these entities is wrapped in superstition, stereotypes, and stock Halloween costumes: white sheets, striped socks, red tights and pitchforks. But each one (well, at least witches and demons) is also real.

Ghosts: the souls of the dead returned to haunt the living. I usually avoid ghost stories, but there are some lovely ones that do involve ghosts, like A Christmas Carol or My Diary at the Edge of the World. Ghosts serve as messengers of doom or, in some cases, hope, like Moana’s grandmother.

And yet…the Lord Jesus told a parable in Luke 16 in which Abraham tells a rich man that if his brothers “do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” 

Is it ok to show the dead returning to influence the living, as though death were a two-way door?

Witches: Humans who harness evil, supernatural power through spells, incantations, or conjurings. Witches are real; they were outlawed in Israel.

Many stories include witches. Some call witches evil, like Grimm’s fairy tales or The Chronicles of Narnia. Other books have good witches: 

  • Harry Potter makes them the female version of wizards.
  • The Wizard of Oz presents Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.
  • The White Witch has Froniga, who only practices good magic.

Is it ok to use this label for people, particularly women, who use supernatural power? 

Demons: Fallen angels, evil spiritual beings who followed Satan in rebelling against God and were cast out of heaven. Demons are also very real, even if they don’t wear red tights and carry pitchforks. 

Many authors classify demons as part of Western mythology, along with fairies and unicorns. 

  • Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven, a gorgeously-written and clever series filled with puzzles, quests, and legends makes demons evil magical creatures who want to break free of their ancient prison. 
  • Howl’s Moving Castle creates a good “fire-demon,” Calcifer – a lovable and very funny character who was born as a falling star (which strikes me as corresponding to the Biblical story…). 
  • Jonathan Stroud’s The Ring of Solomon and the rest of the series deals with humans summoning demons to perform tasks for them. 

Is it alright to use the name of real, evil, spiritual beings for fictional magical creatures? Is it ok to make them positive, believable characters in stories?

I remember walking with my mom and sister to the library one silver-brown autumn day about eleven years ago, the summer after we finally read the whole Harry Potter series in one week. My sister and I loved the characters and the adventure – but we both felt guilty about the label “witchcraft,” and the darkness in some of the later books. “Are these ok to read?” we asked my mom. “Is this wrong?”

As we walked across the stone-paved patio in front of the library, past where the crabapple tree dropped its leaves, my mom was quiet. “As you grow older, you’re going to have to make these decisions,” she said at last. “You’re going to have to read with discernment.”

In her book about good books, Book Girl, Sarah Clarkson presents some excellent principles for discerning what books are good and healthy to read. She suggests we ask, what is this book doing to me? What is it making me think and feel? 

I don’t want to be a legalist: I can’t make rules for other people, but I can say that it’s good to reflect on what stories that involve ghosts, witches, or demons are doing to your heart and mind. Harry Potter stirs me to go do something courageous and self-sacrificial; Howl’s Moving Castle encourages me to imagine a beautiful world full of laughter and adventure; My Diary at the Edge of the World fills my soul with yearning to show my family I love them; A Christmas Carol motivates me to be joyfully generous. 

I prefer stories which show ghosts, witches, or demons as they really are – imaginative supposals, human enemies of God, or spiritual enemies of God (in that order). When a story I love uses the label “witch” or “demon” for a good character, I try hard to read with discernment – not always abandoning the book, but recognizing that using those names out of context is unwise.

I think all stories need a little darkness, even bright ones like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle or The Penderwicks, because evil is real. But because good is always greater than evil, and God is sovereign, I look for stories with hope – whether they give me a jolt of courage, a thrill of terror, or the quietness of awe.

Musings from the UK: The Lake District, Edinburgh, and Durham

After some full, exhausting days at Oxford (we walked 13 miles each day), we went to the Lake District, Edinburgh, and Durham. Miles of train travel past thick forests, green fields, and small villages showed me that some of my favorite books – Watership Down, Jane Eyre, A Room with a View, and others – captured and mythologized a place of real beauty and intrigue. The feeling of being in a story turned out to be a theme of the trip.

I also gained a new appreciation of J.K. Rowling’s genius. Train travel is fast, convenient, and lets you relax and watch the countryside, but is also stressful, dirty, and chaotic. Rowling turned a monotonous necessity into a delight with the Hogwarts Express. I kept thinking of Harry Potter every time the food cart rattled by.

I also gained even more insights about imagination and story-telling.

Stories are mythologized truth

Every scene was a story; I’ve read about the loveliness and mystery of this place from dozens of authors. They saw truth, and they told it slant. The shaped it in imagery and metaphor and breathed life into characters who embodied the human experience.

Kendal was all gray stone, with tight corners and winding streets – somewhere Father Brown or Sherlock Holmes would have walked. The taxi ride was on winding rows and hills through green fields, pastures, low stone walls, hedgerows, woods, and little farms – a country of borders. You’ll have to take my word for most of it; our speed and the rain made picture-taking difficult.

Bowness-on-Windermere, a village next to Lake Windermere, was all shops and restaurants painted white, walled gardens with white and yellow roses, and a shining lake reflecting the green mountains around it. It was Laketown from The Hobbit.

The hikes were glorious. We stepped into a shadowy tunnel of green trees covered in thick moss, up through hill pastures ringing with the forlorn bleating of sheep, to a hilltop shrouded in silvery mist. The dim outlines of trees were all we could see, but I didn’t mind – it felt secret, ominous, and foreboding as Weathertop or the moors of Wuthering Heights.

The magic of stories is the magic of real, natural beauty on God’s earth, expressed in minute detail by people He gifted with wordcraft. I’m burning now to spin a story out of the beauty of New England.

Travel for people

The allure of the Lake District, Edinburgh, and Durham was worth traveling to see. But the best parts of this trip really were the people. Though we trekked 15 miles up and down the streets of Edinburgh to collect Scottish tartans and chocolates as souvenirs, it’s the conversations that I value the most.

We talked with our taxi drivers about English weather (one said that snow shuts down the Lake District; the other said that now winters were too warm and wet for snow); “health and safety” regulations set by the government; and regional accents (two of them warned us about Liverpool and Newcastle accents). The owner of the hotel in the Lake District told us what he knew of the history of the place, his previous career, and his aunt’s paintings which hung in the dining room. I spent hours talking about food, travel, dating, and culture with two Americans, a British woman, and an Australian woman on our last train.

In college, and just after, every glamorous Facebook picture of my friend’s travels filled me with envy and yearning: European castles, Italian vineyards, and tropical reefs. Now, after being able to take a few pictures of my own, I feel stronger knowing that I want to travel for people, not just scenery – fellow travelers, conference attendees, and hopefully new friends.

Seek out the family of God

Sunday morning in Durham, just before we had to get back to Heathrow, I was feeling sick, and we were both tired. We persevered enough, however, to get to Christchurch for their service.

The meeting room had a high ceiling, large windows, and white paint that caught the light. It was full of families: men and women talking in small groups, college students, and children who ran among the metal folding chairs, filling the room with laughter.

“If you get Jesus wrong,” one pastor began, “you get everything wrong, and you can’t relate to Him.” We recited the Nicene Creed, and sang through Christ-centered songs based on the Psalms. The main pastor talked through Psalm 8, pausing at verse 2:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

“Oh, good,” he said, when one of the children there let out a happy cry. “I was hoping that would happen. In fact, I prayed that it would happen.” He continued to explain the majesty of God in making human beings, as helpless and small as babies, into priceless treasures. He went to Hebrews 2 to explain how Adam’s race had failed to rule this world as God created us to, but Jesus Christ became the ruler Adam failed to be.

I felt like crying with joy; to travel across the Atlantic and much of England and Scotland, and then find my family – radiant with worship, full of love for each other, steadfast in the truth – was exactly the encouragement I needed.

And then we returned. Now, I sift through my memories and new resolutions: to mythologize the beauty around me in stories; to use travel to build relationships, not just view pretty scenery; and to seek out the family of God everywhere.

While we were gone, summer arrived: tree canopies are lush and green, white spirea and pink rhododendrons are blooming, and the ocean is impossibly blue. For the first time, I can taste the sweetness of the word homecoming.

Literary Role Models and Self-Revelation

Greek city on a mountain at sunset.
Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

I first wandered into the wild garden of Greek myths in second grade, during our private reading times at school. The classroom bookshelf had a huge picture book of gold, copper, ruby, and charcoal illustrations and (censored) versions of the most famous myths. I learned the melodic Greek and regal Roman names, magic on the tongue (Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno), personalities, and powers of each character. Picking my favorite stories, and my favorite characters, was self-revelation and self-identification.

I picked my favorite goddesses: Athena and Hestia. I liked the serenity of Athena’s name, by her grey eyes, and her domestic and military powers – wisdom, craftsmanship and artistry, and battle strategy. I liked that she stayed relatively innocent amidst the other gods’ drama.

I liked the sweetness and peace of Hestia, goddess of the hearth. I liked the comfort and safety of home that she represented, the love and fellowship that her fire symbolized, and her quietness.

I didn’t like Aphrodite. Her taunting, flaunted beauty and airy carelessness reminded me too much of the pretty, popular, and mean girls whom I judged (unfairly) and envied (foolishly). Her arrogance reminded me too much of what I disliked in myself.

My favorite story was Cupid and Psyche’s. Psyche represented the woman I longed to be: beautiful, desirable, kind, and courageous. I’ve heard readers and scholars complain about the fairy-tale convention of “princesses who just sit around and wait for princes to rescue them.” I liked the idea of being rescued, but I also dreamed of being brave. Psyche was both; she went on a difficult quest, but still was rescued by a handsome husband and lived happily ever after.

These preferences have become valuable memories in adulthood, amber-frozen longings of my eight-year-old self. Though I found many other literary role models, these three help me understand myself better now. I recognize my longing for the qualities that Athena, Hestia, and Psyche symbolized: wisdom, confidence, freedom, security, and of course, unfading beauty.

In college, I struggled to find a paper topic for my “Classical Literature” course (you’d think after a few thousand years there would be more scholarship on ancient Latin and Greek texts), and finally contrasted the character of the goddess-guides in the Aeneid and the Odyssey. My old loyalty to Athena, and dislike of Aphrodite, held up under my research.

In the Odyssey, Athena shepherds her friend Odysseus with compassion and concern. She restores the peace to Ithaca and a joy to his and Penelope’s marriage bed and hearthfire that must have pleased Hestia.

In the Aeneid, Aphrodite hauls her son Aeneas across kingdoms and continents in total indifference to his happiness. She forces him to love, and leave, Dido of Carthage, and brings war and chaos to Italy.

I began my paper with the underlying truth behind the goddess-guides, though now I think my thesis sounds pretentious: wisdom is a better guide than passion.

Eight years old is so young – but remembering my eager search for role models reminds me that yearning to be something more than who we are begins early. My yearning helps me see who I was and who I longed to be.

For Creative Writers

Think about your favorite characters from childhood reading. What did they tell you about your own nature, and what you wanted to be? You can use these reflections in self-examination in personal essay and memoir, as well as in building believable characters.

For example:

Self-reflection

  • If you loved Hermione Granger from J.K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter series, was it her intelligence, her kindness, her sense of humor, or her friendships that attracted you? What does this tell you about your self-image?
  • Which is your favorite Marvel or DC Comics superhero, and why? Is it the character’s personality or superpowers that you find most attractive?
  • Have you read a book or watched a movie with a protagonist who you strongly disliked? If so, consider why: what does this tell you about yourself and your own relationships?

Character-building

  • Write down 10-20 fictional characters from various mediums (books, movies, TV, etc.) and genres on pieces of paper and mix them up. Pick 5 and make those the favorite characters of your own character. What does this say about your character’s personality and dreams?
  • Create a map of character traits (cheerful, angry, intelligent, anxious, etc.) for your character: three things they are, three things they want to be, and three things they don’t want to be. Match each character trait with a role model and show how your character’s actions are shaped by their self-perception and dreams.