Violence, Death, and Halloween

Halloween is a fun holiday for kids, partly because they have an opportunity to score lots of candy, which is restricted, if not forbidden, most of the rest of the year.  But more profoundly, they get to dress up and live into a fantasy of being a princess, witch, ghost, or ninja. Or Cowboy Barbie, a front runner this year.  It is an important holiday for kids, but it is also a vitally important holiday for adults.

Halloween is a vestige of the ancient holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sa-wen).  It originated in the Celtic world on the night before the first day of winter (which then was November 1), when it was believed that the souls of the departed from the last year would rise from their graves and make their journey to the other world.  Residents would light candles to help guide the ghosts on their journey.  Because the night was cold, the departed souls would often seek refuge in the warmth of people’s homes.  The residents were prepared for the potential invasion, and gave them treats to support them on their journey.  If treats were not offered, the ghosts could come in and establish permanent residence.  Centuries later, it is not uncommon to hear people who live in the modern Celtic world (the British Isles and northern Europe) complain (not always with tongue in cheek) about the ghosts who still rattle around in the attic, moan on stormy nights, and slam cabinet doors.

Halloween recreates this ancient ritual.  It is the only night of the year where we welcome strangers to the door – at night no less.  The avatars who appear at our doors greet their hosts with “Trick or Treat”; fear is sometimes playfully registered in response — and hospitality is then offered in the form of candy bars, Skittles and UNICEF donations (although I am not sure giving out pennies is still being done).

Halloween recreates this ancient parade of death.  For a night, death becomes a game.  A safe engagement, for the most part, with what all of us will inevitably face.

But, of course, death is not a game.  It can be brutal and cruel, unjust and terrifying.  And we are seeing death more – in Ukraine, In Gaza and Israel, ripping apart communities and leaving people with a grief that leaves traumatic wounds for years, if not a lifetime.  And the concept of safety becomes more constricted.

Death came a bit closer to many doorsteps when 18 people were killed last week in Lewiston, Maine.  My daughter graduated from Bates College in Lewiston.  I have driven by many of the places where the killings took place.  Those deaths hit close to home.

And for many of us, death has come into the home.  A loved one dies, casting a pall over the house and the heart.  The bereaved struggle – and some sink, in the mire of grief.  We honor the mourning –for a bit of time, and then expect people to be able to move on.  All in the interest of keeping death distant.

In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a best-selling book, On Death and Dying.  She brought the issue of death onto the cultural doorstep by outlining the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance; and by naming our culture’s distancing dance with death:  “Death happens to thee, and to thee, but not to me.”                           

There is a bizarre calculus that shows up when dealing with violence.  At some level, a person can say that by killing someone else, they are sparing themselves.  They die, I live.  And death is kept at a distance; violence dooms someone else, but the killer gets a reprieve.

This calculus doesn’t always work.  Sometimes it is necessary to engage in self-defense.   Death will come to me unless I protect myself with a violent response.  The transaction – they die, I live, isn’t always clean. Or clear.

But one thing has become clear to me – violence always begets violence.  There are 121 guns for every 100 people in America.  There are nearly 45,000 guns deaths in this country every year.  Both numbers are growing.  Most, if not all, in the interest of keeping death off one’s own doorstep. Which isn’t working. Death cannot, and should not, be kept at a distance.   It is a part of life.

I am persuaded that more honest discussions about death, and more engagement in rituals, which bring death closer to home – have the capacity to reduce violence, because the conversations and engagement can help move us past the denial and anger, into a more honest, and realistic, relationship with death.

Thank God for Halloween.


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