Wheaton students weigh in on Halloween
By Hannah Pugh
Rather than going trick-or-treating or attending costume parties on Halloween, junior Anna Edwards and her family went to “Hallelujah parties” at their church growing up. “We weren’t allowed to dress up as anything scary,” she said. “We just had big blow-ups and candy.”
Edwards’ experience with Halloween is not uncommon at Wheaton. Christian approaches to the holiday often encourage families to celebrate fall festivities rather than engage with neighbors outside of their church community through trick-or-treating.
Although Halloween was originally a Celtic ritual celebrating the return of the dead and permitting pagan sacrifice, it does have some Christian influences. According to Catholic Online, the Catholic church and Celts in Ireland and Britain created All Hallows’ Eve together to pray for protection against evil. This Catholic prayer day, combined with the rituals of dressing up as various mythical creatures, became our modern-day Halloween.
In her recent Time Magazine article “Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?” Olivia Waxman noted some of the holiday’s Christian roots. “The roots of trick-or-treating can, for example, be traced back to a medieval Christian tradition,” she writes. “The poor would go to wealthy homes on Hallowtide — the eve of All Saints’ Day — and offer prayers in exchange for food and beer.”
However, many Christian students and families remain averse to Halloween festivities and prefer to only celebrate Protestant Reformation Day, which also falls on Oct. 31. According to Waxman, Christians grew increasingly opposed to Halloween throughout the 1980s. “Religious concerns overlapped with fears about children being corrupted in all sorts of ways,” she says. As the influence of rock ‘n’ roll and other perceived forms of evil grew stronger in American culture, the evangelical church wrestled with how to respond.
In the 1970s, Rev. Jerry Fallwell Sr. began promoting alternative Christian Halloween traditions in order to “overcome” the dominant culture. According to Waxman, Falwell and his church, Thomas Road Baptist in Lynchburg, Va., started “Scaremare” in 1972. “It was conceived as a form of outreach similar to a haunted house, with ghosts surprising guests in the dark, but designed to challenge guests to think about what would happen when they died,” she says.
For alumna Hannah Smith Giordan (‘19) and her brother, junior Noah Smith, Halloween is an important holiday and a personal favorite, but, like Edwards, they created some alternative Christian traditions for the holiday. “One day, I was babysitting and I remember thinking it felt very dark and magical outside, and I didn’t realize until later that it just happened to be Halloween,” Giordan said. “Ever since then, it has had that kind of magical significance to me.” Smith added, “One year, I wanted to go trick-or-treating but I wasn’t allowed to, so I stayed at home and played this creepy dirge on the piano because I thought I had to do something spooky.”
Even though the Smith siblings loved Halloween, their parents weren’t so sure. “My parents weren’t hugely against it, but it just made them kind of uncomfortable. They had us hand out Bible tracts with our candy,” Giordan said.
Aside from alternative Halloween rituals, many Wheaton students think of Halloween as a time to address the changing of the seasons. This year, Wheaton welcomed its first large snowfall of the season on Oct. 31, marking what CBS News called “Chicago’s snowiest Halloween ever.”
Giordan is Irish and has always taken an interest in Celtic, pagan holidays. “Halloween has a sort of heaviness to it, a very mysterious feeling. I would always go outside on the day as a kid and [see] a big moon. It would be getting cold and kind of creepy. I just really liked the aesthetic, that ancient, heavy feeling. It’s always felt like an important or mysterious day because it’s a very old holiday.” Smith added, “At the very least, only an aesthetic level, it feels mystical, which is really cool.”
“I think there is a lot of darkness associated with the holiday,” Edwards said. “There is a heightened aspect of the demonic and spiritual darkness.” Histories of witchcraft and other satanic rituals occurring on Halloween, especially as portrayed in movies and other media, seem to contribute to many evangelicals’ perspectives on the holiday.
Other students aren’t sure. When asked if he thought Halloween festivities invited demonic activity, senior Caleb Ingegneri responded, “My relationships with and my conceptions about the demonic are pretty tenuous. I’m not quite sure where I stand on that in the first place — what it means, what it looks like. In my experience, no. Anecdotally, possibly. I don’t think we should give too much weight to it.”
Some students take issue with the themes and ideas surrounding Halloween. “One thing I have heard about the history of Halloween is how people will put out jacko-lanterns to scare away something,” junior L’Abri Keevy said, fanning out her fingers to emphasize the last word. “The fear comes from the idea that there is something coming to take from you.”
Alumna El Hargis said, “I think one of the reasons death is played up in a really unhealthy, scary or even comical way is because we really don’t talk about it for the rest of the year. It’s just not socially acceptable to talk about.” She appreciates Halloween because of the space it creates to discuss death and tragedy. “I think non-believers, when they celebrate Halloween, are afraid of death,” she said. “They should be afraid of death. But when you’re afraid of death, a lot of times you defend yourself against it either by throwing yourself into it completely or by making it something you can laugh at. As Christians we don’t have to be afraid of death, and because of that, our attitude towards it can be different. I think it is something we still live with, and we can’t ignore. Death is still there, but it’s not something to be afraid of anymore.”
Halloween decorations abound in the houses surrounding Wheaton College. Yet, on our campus, there is little to no interest or conversation surrounding the holiday. Although there is a small trick-or-treat party at Terrace Apartments, which Graduate Resident Advisor Anne Hilstrom said has been a tradition for a while, the campus as a whole does not celebrate Halloween. Senior Madeleine Seeland said that though she “had no idea what to expect for Halloween at Wheaton freshman year, I think by the time Halloween came around, I was familiar enough with Wheaton culture that I didn’t expect much. My high school peers posted on Instagram for several days in a row, wearing different costumes each day, and I remember wishing that for Wheaton. Instead, I remember eating dinner and hearing gasps as two or three people walked by in costumes. I felt second-hand embarrassment because those few who dressed up were the only indicators that it was Oct. 31.”
This could be due to some students disliking Halloween’s aesthetic. “I don’t like Halloween decorations,” Ingegneri said. “I think it’s really sad seeing someone put up a ton of Halloween decorations. You’re pouring too much of your life into this holiday. It’s very tacky. It’s too invested. Halloween, depending on the person’s attitude, is mostly for celebration. I think it should be for celebrating the harvest with friends.”
“I guess if I had to choose between liking and not liking [Halloween], I don’t like it very much,” said sophomore Ethan Iha. “It doesn’t really celebrate much. If you’re going to celebrate something, you should celebrate something of substance. To me, Halloween is just another excuse for adults to get together and party.”
Ultimately, the campus response is mixed. Hargis described it as a combination of background, church upbringing and beliefs. “You have a lot of students who grew up in a very conservative environment where Halloween was frowned upon,” she said. “There are still students who are very uncomfortable with it. And there are a lot of students who just don’t talk about it.”