The Fun of Fear

Is it good to feel scared? To not feel scared isn’t an option; we may wish to ignore scary things, but we can’t — not completely.shutterstock_159490547

Christians are not excluded from this rule. “Be not afraid” is an exhortation, not a magic spell. In fact, Our Lord gives us a sub-textual tutorial on fear throughout the tenth chapter of Matthew, as in this passage: “And fear not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” That feeling of fear — something that we all experience — shouldn’t have mastery over us, of course, but it is something that our minds should attend to, reflect on, and use in service to Divine Providence.

Fear, therefore, is a tool. Tools, by definition, are useful, but as any guy who has ever used a cordless drill or gas-powered chainsaw can tell you, tools can also be fun. The question is, can fear, used as a tool in service to our own salvation, be . . . fun?

I say yes. We often play with our fears in ways that can be beneficial to our souls by establishing a proper context for them — otherwise known as theater. This can take the form of scary movies, murder mysteries, ghost stories . . . any artistic enactment that, with our permission, presents to us something frightening within a clearly delineated milieu. Under such circumstances, we then have the power to grab hold of our fears, to manipulate them, even laugh at them. It diffuses fear’s psychological and emotional hold over us: We vent bottled-up anxiety and are led to a better understanding of both ourselves and of the things that frighten us. Throw in the visceral thrill that comes with facing our fears , and you have yourself an all-around good time.

That’s why I love Halloween. I believe Halloween is good — not the way some people celebrate it today, as a borderline satanic ritual or a dive bomb into the depths of depravity, but in the way it has traditionally been celebrated in this country: a game designed to give the players a shiver (with a few sweets thrown into the bargain).

Because all of us — and especially little children — carry around so many fears, large and small, about everything from death to how the rent will be paid this month to (in the case of my oldest daughter) a sudden crack in the earth opening and swallowing us up, Halloween gives us a raucous stage for the free expression of our anxieties. It can serve as a dramatic, coordinated, and altogether delightful way to explore and express Catholic doctrines like Hell, the devil, Purgatory, and sin — doctrines that are among our faith’s most challenging beliefs. (If you’ve never shuddered even a little at the thought of damned souls spending an eternity in Hell . . . well, I respectfully suggest there might be something wrong with you.)

Some people worry about the idea of dressing up as scary things. But we are scary things. We are substantially good, because we are made by God — but then we all proceed to disfigure that goodness by our sins, making our spirits ugly. Halloween gives us a creative, theatrical way to express this: We are made ugly by sin and become participators with evil; consigned to a kind of purgatorial state, we go from house to house receiving the grace of God that will purify us, symbolized by treats. We bring the treats home, take off our masks, and enjoy the taste of Heaven.

That’s not a bad piece of catechesis, packaged in a thrilling game that — like all the best games — keeps you too busy having fun to realize its salutary benefits: The fears we all carry are at least temporarily diffused; their power is diminished, laughed at, toyed with. And that is a gift from God.

Maybe you don’t buy any of this. Maybe you’re bothered by Halloween’s pagan connections (which I don’t believe warrant any more concern than the pagan connections to Christmas trees). Heck, maybe Halloween just isn’t your thing. I know some people have had bad experiences with Halloween — I have, too. But I don’t like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We must remain on guard against evil, certainly, but we must also never give in to superstition.

So this Halloween, my family and I are going to watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, just like we do every year. I’ll construct my annual life-size Jack-o-Lantern Man and prop him up on my front porch. The kids will transform into Indiana Joneses or fairy princesses. We will find a fun, safe neighborhood (there are still plenty to be found) and endure the chill of the late October dusk and all the terrors of the night in search of candy — as if we were doing something dangerous. We’ll jump at shadows and at the canned witch’s laughter coming from the speakers hidden in a neighbor’s azalea bush. We’ll enjoy this little bit of controlled fear and let it work its strange magic.

And when we go to Mass for All Saints’ Day the morning after, I’ll thank God for all the gifts He gives us — including a healthy sense of fear.

 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at Crisis in October of 2010 and is republished with permission.

Dan Lord

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Dan Lord is the author of By the Downward Way (SalvO, 2014) and Choosing Joy (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012). His articles have appeared in Crisis, National Catholic Register, Catholic News Agency, and Fathers For Good and he is a national speaker on various topics. He blogs at That Strangest of Wars.

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  • James H, London

    Nice one!

    I remember reading a comment somewhere (I think it might have been Mike Flynn’s blog, tofspot.blogspot.com), that All Hallows Eve in some parts of medieval Europe had poor people walking door-to-door asking for alms in return for praying for souls in purgatory. They’d carry lanterns with suffering faces painted on them, to show what they were doing. I have no background on this, it’s merely hearsay – but wouldn’t it be good to have a non-pagan background to the time?

  • Mother of 9

    Wow, I find this article quite disturbing. We are not “scary things” as you say, we are made in the image of God. God has not given us a spirit of fear. Fear is not as great and wonderful as you make it sound. Have you ever had a real expierience with the demonic? If you had I am pretty sure you would change your mind. My siblings poayed with the ouigi board when I was a child. We had a dysfunctional home, I was the youngest and something evil came from that board into our home and harassed me for years. A black shadow figure where no light could pass or reflect was in our home, people saw it, I felt it. It is the presence of fear, malice and evil. You may have a strong faith in God and nothing may shake you, you love the feeling of fear, but there are those little ones, and there are many people who have weak faithm it does not take must to shake them. I remember Saint Paul saying it was best to not eat certain meets in front of those with weaker faith. We must do the same. If those with weak faith look at us who shouls be faithful Catholics, celebrating halloween as the world does what example does that set?

    Satanic music is another doorwary, horror movies are, there are many gateways and I find it appaling you could give such a praising article for what has become the biggest pagan and secular holiday. Instead we should go to Mass, say extra prayers and do penance in atonement for all those who will go out of their way to offend God, not join in with oblivious contentment. Don’t decieve yourself, evil is real. And it should not be celebrated. Satan is much more pleased than God when Halloween comes around, just look at the way our society celebrates. Perhaps at one time Catholics had it right, but after reading this article I see many havnt and are swimming with the current. I find it very sad.

    I know I am a minority here, but we all should prayerfully decide what to do and how to involve our families with the knowledge we will stand before God one day and give an account for all. God calls us to much much more than this.

  • I’m with HIM

    i have never, even as a child, been excited, interested, or anything about Halloween. i think it’s just plain boring and stupid. i have no idea why. nothing personal, of course, i read the article. i suspect there’s a good possibility that i just don’t get it. However, i will admit that i love seeing the reaction of the kids and how excited they get. perhaps that’s what i get out of it.

  • wogforever

    There is a balance that needs to be struck. While I see where you are coming from, and that spirits/demons should be taken seriously, the article is not dismissing this.
    However, it must be mentioned that stories/theater, as mentioned in the article, have been around for ages. They continue to teach us lessons. Nowhere in the article is evil glorified; rather, the confrontation of fears.

  • Joyful mother of 7

    My 7 children, ages 3-15, have been talking about what they will be for Halloween for months! We are fully Catholic, faithful to the Pope, pray and receive the sacraments often and find no contradictions with this fun and scary holiday. Today my 3 little ones were fascinated and tickled by stretching “cobwebs” on our bushes. On Thursday, with several other large, faithful Catholic families, we will gather in costumes, take an impressive group photo, divide the kids into chaperoned groups by speed and set out through the neighborhood to delight and be delighted by our neighbors, many of them in the autumn of their lives. Later the older children will meet in our home for “candy trading.” I am always amazed by their generosity with each other. I trust that parents know their children and their personal history and can responsibly celebrate all hallows eve and All Saints Day mass with joy.
    Blessings!

  • Mother of 9

    Glorified? Not at all, Trivialized? yes. We as Catholics/Christians are called to be counter cultural, to go against the current, to swim upstream. We are all called to be saints, and I don’t see how the advice in this article applies to that. I never seek to change minds or hearts, that’s Gods job. I am to simply be a light, regardless of however bright or dim and that’s why I responded today.
    I did read a better article below which helps explain my point, so for those interested, have a look, its from http://www.wnd.com
    May God bless and protect all who read this.
    http://www.wnd.com/2013/10/halloween-a-demonic-trick-not-treat/print/

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