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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

The Thriller Within

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 28, 2001

 

Not too long ago, a group of second graders at a school in New Brunswick, Canada, were asked by their teacher to write Halloween stories. I’m going to share a couple of them in their entirety with you this morning.

Here’s the first. It’s called “The Ghost”:

“A ghost is spying on me? What will I do? The ghost said, ‘Go away!’ I ran home.” The end. That’s it.

Nice and simple and direct. Kind of zen, don’t you think?

Here’s another one, a little longer. This one is called “Halloween Night”:

“Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Johnny. He was walking down the road one night and he saw a vampire and a wicked witch and a ghost and a skeleton. Johnny was so scared, he ran to his house. He said, ‘Mom, Mom, I saw a vampire and a wicked witch and a ghost and a skeleton.’ But Johnny’s mom didn’t believe him. She just said, ‘Oh, Johnny, there are no such things.’”

But Johnny knew what his eyes had seen. So did the other boy or girl in the first story. Kids know. Kids know, I think, that the veil between the send and the unseen, between myth and reality, between those of us passed on and those of us still here, is a thin one. They know of the power that figments of our imagination have to haunt us—or, to enchant us. They know. And on Halloween, they teach us about it, too.

I know that there are some preachers who like to intone against the “evils of Halloween”. It’s the Devil’s holiday, they say; it’s based in paganism—or worse, it’s Satan-worship; it’s a black mass, mirror image of true religion, true faith (as defined by them, of course). These are the same people, of course, who rant and rave against the Harry Potter books, and don’t want their children reading about magic and witchcraft and mysteries based on something other than their narrow views. They’re the spiritual, if not biological, descendents of those who wanted to ban The Wizard of Oz for similar reasons, generations ago.

There are others who don’t like Halloween for other reasons: It’s too commercial they say—and merely encourages more blind consumerism on the part of children. If we were honest, “Gimme candy!” probably would replace “Trick or treat!” as the Halloween greeting of choice in many quarters. What really galls me—great traditionalist that I am [?]—is how many kids show up on our doorstep on Halloween night, and just stand there (with their bags open, of course), and say nothing! No “Trick or treat!”—nothing! Doesn’t anybody teach these kids how to act? So, I give them a little tutorial on the spot, along with their candy bars (bet you we won’t see them next year…).

It’s easy, of course, to condemn the commercialism of Halloween (along with the commercialization of everything else in this culture of ours). Just listen to these figures from a recent issue of American Heritage: Ninety-two percent of American children go out on Halloween night, and seventy percent of American households open their doors to them; fifty percent of Americans take photographs on Halloween (that’s a lot of film); Coors beer sales rise by over 10%; the sale for black-and-orange Halloween Rice Krispies (yuk!) rise by almost 20% for the week, as do holiday M&Ms. When Nabisco began filling Oreos with orange rather than white cream, demand for the cookie increased by 50%. Add to this a “Syncromotion Grim Reaper” which sings and dances and sells for $199.95, and a “Fog Master” to give lawns that “haunted look” which sells for $ 99.95, and you can see why Halloween adds more than 6 billion dollars to the American economy each year. Six billion dollars—that’s a lot of Rice Krispies!

The question is, of course: Is it worth the price?

I think it probably is (though here, as elsewhere, we could no doubt do without the garish commercial excess; I think I’ll pass on that automated Grim Reaper this year, thanks.)

What do we gain from Halloween?

For one thing, we gain a wonderful opportunity, all of us, to play, to break free of the the oh-so-serious casing that most of us all-too-often wrap ourselves up in. God knows, there are times to be serious and somber. But it shouldn’t be a 24/7/365 profession—and it is for all too many people in this driven culture of ours. Halloween calls out to us (like the Eagles used to sing):

Take it easy, take it easy,
Don’t let the sounds of your own wheels drove you crazy,
Loosen up while you still can,
Don’t even try to understand,
Just find a place to take your stand,
And take it easy.

I can remember as a kid dressing up in all different kinds of ways for Halloween: as a wizard, as a pirate, even as Popeye the Sailor Man. I can also remember (more often than I might want to) putting on a dress and going as a woman (no psychoanalysis, please). I went as Julia Child one year (not too big a stretch), wine bottle and all. Then, the next year I was Boris Yeltsin (and the wine bottle became a vodka bottle). In my (kind of) rebellious youth, a did a series on notorious dictators, as it were, and I went as Hitler one year; Stalin the next; and then, Chairman Mao the year after that. This year, I would like to go as Bruce Springsteen, but I’m afraid I don’t have quite the build… I suppose I could dress up as Vaclav Havel, but then, no one would know who the hell I was, and what fun would that be?

But here’s my point: Halloween gives us all the opportunity to stretch ourselves toward absurdity, to exercise our imaginations, and dress up funny, and joke around, and otherwise act stupid (for which some of us need no invitation). We can be someone else that we’d like to be. Or, conversely—other side of the same coin—we can be someone that we’d never want to be, but that we fear we might be.

Halloween reminds us “that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”, in the immortal words of the Boss, whom I cannot dress up as, but whom I can still quote with the best.

And it’s fun. Halloween is just good, plain, fun.

Which would be valid enough reason for Halloween’s continued existence. But it goes even deeper, too:

Halloween points us deeper inside ourselves, too. It’s like a little prayer from a tradition more Christian than ours which says: “May the baby Jesus shut my mouth and open my eyes.” Well, may all the gods and goddesses and spooks and spirits of Halloween do that for us, too. May it push the “pause” button on all of our pontificating, and rationalizing, and explaining away, and metaphor-izing, and ironicization of everything—and may it open our eyes to look out more clearly and expectantly and wondrously at this world of ours (just as children do). ‘Cuz we might be surprised at what we see…

“This really is, you know, a magical time, a mysterious time,” writes James Ishmael Ford, “a time where the veil between the living and the dead threads bare. This is a time where our hard and bony existence meets the ethereal and mysterious. This is a time when dreams and reality might be hard to separate. This is a special time.”

Halloween is a time to embrace the darkness, the mystery, within and without, and commune with all of that which we cannot control. This is the mystery out of which we have all emerged-- the great cosmic ocean-- and into which we will all return, and of which we are all composed; it is the interdependent web of existence in which we are all joined, part and parcel, in wholeness and unity. It is the living Spirit—the Love which unites all—from which nothing can separate us, not even death itself. It is knowing, like Dumbledore says to Harry Potter, that “to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

At Halloween (the feasts of All Saints and All Souls in the Christian tradition; “Day of the Dead” in Mexican culture) we can know most clearly, when the veil is thinnest, that those whom we have loved will always be with us in some way; they will always live within our souls.

At Halloween we honor (with childlike glee) the mystery within—the thriller within—which we repress at other times only at our peril. If we nurture and foster this mystery and wonder inside our souls, then it can flower forth in beauty, and creativity, and wisdom, and bless our world.

But if we keep it repressed, and hidden, and pretend we have no need for it, then it is like the farthest corners of a deep, dark cellar, where the sunlight never reaches, and where all manner of evil and ugliness may lurk, and where horrible crimes are committed in humanity’s name.

“The civilization of the [modern] age has robbed old myths of their authority,” Vaclav Havel has written. “It has put its full weight behind cold, descriptive Cartesian reason and recognizes only thinking in concepts… This, of course, is only a grand self-delusion of the modern spiriti…[M]an has what we call a human heart,” Havel continues, “but… he also has something of the baboon within him [as well]. The modern age treats the heart as a pump and denies the presence of the baboon within us. And so, again and again, this officially nonexistent baboon, unobserved, goes on a rampage, either as the personal bodyguard of a politician, or wearing the uniform of the most scientific police force in the world.”

Or, as someone who would hijack and airplane and use it as a weapon. Or someone who would blow up a government building with a day care center on the first floor with a pickup truck full of fertilizer turned into a bomb.

“Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Johnny. He was walking down the road one night and he saw a vampire and a wicked witch and a ghost and a skeleton. Johnny was so scared, he ran to his house. He said, ‘Mom, Mom, I saw a vampire and a wicked witch and a ghost and a skeleton.’ But Johnny’s mom didn’t believe him. She just said, ‘Oh, Johnny, there are no such things.’”

But Johnny knew that there are “such things”. Children know. The world’s evils are real. So are our fears.

And at Halloween we acknowledge the terror that can stalk us in the darkness.

But we acknowledge the even-greater mystery that is there, as well.

And we wrap it in joy. And sweeten it with laughter. And season it with sugar and spice and magic and enchantment, rather than with the drear and dry and flat and cold gray flannel hash which we too often choose as our day in/ day out nourishment of our living.

And, at Halloween, we join hands, and dance —a dance as ancient as our pagan ancestors, and as new as a freshly christened baby— a dance we share with all who have come before and all who will come after—a dance around life’s immortal bonfire—our steps guided and inspired by the music of the tricks that life always will play on us when we least expect them; and the treats—the joy, the wonder, the surprise-- that wait in store for us in the instant of our next heartbeat.

Happy Halloween to you all. Trick or Treat! Gimme candy! Gimme that sweet candy of life! Blessed be! Amen.


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