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.