For most people Halloween is a fun time of dressing up, creating elaborate costumes and decorations, visiting haunted houses, taking kids trick-or-treating, and of course eating candy. It has become a heavily commercialized holiday second only to Christmas in terms of the number of people who celebrate and participate in it.
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For some, however, the fears associated with Halloween go beyond fake-scary ghosts and into genuine spiritual warfare for the souls of the innocent. These people, including many fundamentalist Christians, believe that there is a dark and sinister side to the Oct. 31 festivities. Where did this belief come from?
Fear of Witches Part of the answer lies in the reputed origins of Halloween. Many trace it back to an ancient Celtic pagan celebration called Samhain (pronounced "sah-win"). Samhain, which occurred on Halloween, the night before All Saint's Day, was an annual communal meeting to gather resources for the winter months.
Samhain has many aspects but focused on the changing of seasons and preparing for the dormancy (and eventual rebirth) of nature as summer turned to winter. These pre-Christian practices, with their focus on nature's cycles and many deities, were viewed as occult by the Roman Catholic Church. All Saint's Day and Samhain, coming so close together on the calendar, influenced each other and, many believe, later combined into the celebration we now call Halloween.
Then there's the fact that the Bible is pretty clear about its position on magic and the occult - for example Exodus 22:18 commands that "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Because witchcraft is seen as an abomination in the eyes of God - along with other occult practices such as dowsing, astrology and Ouija boards - anything associated with it is to be shunned as evil.
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Still, you may ask, what's the big deal? What, exactly, is the link between the Devil and the day kids dress up as ghosts, Spider-Man or Shrek? Christian evangelist Phil Phillips and Joan Hake Robie, in their book "Halloween and Satanism," explain why many fundamentalists are concerned about Halloween: "A tragic by-product of fear in the lives of children as early as pre-pubescence is the interest and involvement in supernatural occult phenomena."
Thus, they believe, if a child is scared by a haunted house zombie or spooky witch costume, his or her natural curiosity will soon lead them to read books and watch TV programs on the things that scared them - dead bodies or witches, for example. According to Phillips and Robie, this will start children on the road to Satanic practices.
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Of course, it's true that Halloween practices - like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other holiday practices and rituals - have a historical context and make use of certain symbols, foods, music and so on. However just because there exists a long history of real, genuine witchcraft claims - such as those that resulted in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 - doesn't mean that any child who sees a green-skinned, pointy-hatted witch costume will become interested in magic or witchcraft, much less become a witch.
Unlike concerned adults who read sinister meanings into things they fear or shun, children tend to take things at face value. They are more concerned about how much candy they get - or how good their costume is - than whether their black cat lawn ornament is really an invitation for Satan.
Halloween is only a high-profile part of the problem. Role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, the Harry Potter books, and even popular films like "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" and "Ghostbusters" are also gateways to sin. Rap music, violent cartoons and video games, and so on are all evidence of social moral decay leading to drug use, suicide and murder. Underlying all this is a conspiracy-theory like belief that there are hidden meanings behind everything, and powerful, sinister forces at work trying to brainwash the innocent.
Halloween, Samhain and Satan The connection between Satanism and Halloween is even less plausible in historical context. Though a clear and direct historical connection between Halloween and Samhain has never been proven, many scholars - and the public - believe that the traditions are linked.
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As for the allegedly sinister nature of that ancient Celtic feast, Nicholas Rogers, a history professor at York University and author of "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night," writes:
"We can dismiss the argument that Samhain was ‘satanic' or that in some essentialist sense Halloween is a ‘satanic ritual,' as the Reverend Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, declared in 1982.... Satanism is essentially a Christian creation, a travesty of Christian forms centered on the fallen rebel angel Lucifer. In fact, the early Christian church left little room for Satan... Certainly, Satanism was incompatible with the polytheism of the ancient Celts. Indeed, the belief in satanic cults blossomed only in the late medieval period - long after the demise of Samhain."
The confusion may have arisen, in part, because Wiccan witchcraft traditions worship a horned god which superficially resembles depictions of a goat-headed Devil. This "Horned One," however, is a god of fertility (among other things). Since these early pagans did not believe in anything resembling a Christian Satan, it could not have played a role in their rituals.
Hell Houses for Jesus Despite no evidence that Halloween is satanic or occult, some religious organizations have tried to ban the holiday. Nicholas Rogers writes:
"Christian fundamentalists have taken exception to Halloween school parties on the grounds that they insidiously promote pagan, if not satanic, beliefs. There have been attempts to ban the annual party outright, or at the very least prevent masquerading as devils and witches."
In fact some religious groups have co-opted Halloween for their own purposes, creating their own evangelical version called Hell House to give wayward teenagers a chance to be "scared straight."
"Evangelical churches have promoted scare-fare enterprises on Halloween as a counterpoint to society's permissiveness. In 1996 a church in Arvada, Colorado,
It's true that Halloween has been associated with pranks and bad behavior for centuries - after all, "trick or treat" is a not-so-veiled extortion threat - but the idea that All Hallow's Eve is a time for Satanists to run amok doing evil is the stuff of myth.