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.


Whose Land is It?

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this passage from my daily reading:     “From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates,all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory.   No one will be able...

Ep 12 – “The Church Cracked Open” with The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers

Amy shares about her journey of faith, path to ordination as an Episcopal priest, passion for and vocation of studying scripture, and the blessings and challenges she has experienced along the way.

Dealing With Fear

Tornados of fear are swirling around the world, many of them invading our psyches.  Wars in Ukraine and Gaza, not to mention Sudan and Myanmar; escalating climate change; unrelenting gun violence; immigration crises.  To my mind, the storms of fear are particularly...

The Different Layers of Campus Anger

I lived a block away from a campus protest that erupted in November, 1974.  I was a teaching fellow at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, and the campus was about to be shut down in opposition to Gerald Ford’s visit to the city, the first time an American President...

Campus Protests: What We Bring to What We See

In the past week I have had several conversations with friends about our respective opinions on what is happening on college campuses across the country, as students have set up encampments to protest the war in Gaza and insist that their university divest any...

Passover and the Importance of Remembering and Honoring Pain

I write this post on the first day of Passover, an annual commemoration of the Exodus story, when the Israelites escaped their slavery in Egypt, traveled through the parted waters of the Red Sea, spent forty years in the Sinai wilderness, and crossed the Jordan River...

Cherry Blossoms and the Denial of Death

While Spring is officially on the calendar, it is still inching into southern New Hampshire, where I live.  Some daffodils are emerging, taking their time after a surprise snowstorm earlier this month.  This long wait for spring calls to mind my two-year sojourn in...

Scams: Preying on Vulnerability and Violating Trust

I fell for a scam last week.  My computer froze, a pop up alarm appeared and said needed to call Microsoft immediately to protect all that was stored on my desktop, lest foreign hackers steal my data, documents and identity.  The Microsoft number was prominently...

Easter: Breaking Through a Contraining System

He broke out.  He got up.  In faith Christians proclaim that Jesus rose from the grave:  Alleluia!  Christ is Risen.  What follows are hymns of praise, expressions of joy, a profusion of flowers – all offered to gatherings that are double the size of a normal Sunday...

Ep 11 – “Passion and Patience” with The Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler

Amy shares about her journey of faith, path to ordination as an Episcopal priest, passion for and vocation of studying scripture, and the blessings and challenges she has experienced along the way.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join my mailing list to receive the latest blog updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!