Souls of the Dead

by Max Sparber

Evangelical cartoonist Jack T. Chick hates Halloween. Chick, creator and publisher of the inexplicably popular Chick Tracts, is a somewhat mysterious figure. No information exists about him except a brief biography published on his Internet site (, describing his journey from youthful actor and military man to full-time proselytizer. Chick refuses interviews, leading some to speculate that Jack T. Chick doesn’t exist at all.

Perhaps, like Ellery Queen, his is a corporate name used by a variety of cartoonists scrawling similarly amateurish morality tales in which the wages of sin are death – and an eternity in hell. Chick Publications’ bile-filled free tracts tackle everything from the pope (he’s in league with Satan) to homosexuality (a one-way ticket to hell), but there must be a special place in Jack T. Chick’s (perhaps nonexistent) heart for Halloween. He has published four separate tracts decrying the holiday as a satanic festival of slaughtered infants and hell-bound sinners.

One, titled “Boo,” tells of a group of college students who rent a cabin to hold a Halloween party. They decide to sacrifice a cat, but their plans are cut short when Satan shows up with a chainsaw to make a few sacrifices of his own. Another, called “The Trick,” observes a group of satanists as they prepare for Halloween by poisoning apples and inserting razor blades into candy bars. A witch, who leads the ceremony, explains carefully that “The children who are mutilated and murdered every Halloween are no accident. They are carefully planned sacrifices to Satan, carried out by those who serve and worship him.”

Even ignoring the astonishing hysteria common to all of Jack Chick’s writing, there is something about Halloween that terrifies right-wing Christians. Dozens of Web pages misidentify the holiday as a pagan festival to their death god and insist that it is a night of rampant satanism. At large Halloween celebrations around the country, such as the carnival that consumes Hollywood Boulevard every year, Christian witnesses show up en masse holding picket signs and passing out pamphlets. Some churches even sponsor their own anti-Halloween events, such as the Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada, Colo., who built their own haunted house in 1997. Rather than the usual assortment of vampires and mummies, this spook house contained a realistic abortion, a satanic cult sacrificing a human, a teen suicide, the funeral of an AIDS victim and a recreation of a date rape.

What is it about Halloween that inspires such animosity? It is a very popular holiday – Hallmark cards estimate that 65 percent of the American population decorate their houses for Halloween, a percentage only bested by Christmas. It is also, in theory, a Christian holiday. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV created the holiday in response to a real problem: The Catholic Church had too many saints. Pope Boniface called his holiday All Saints’ Day; it was a catch-all holiday in celebration of saints that could not be accorded their own days on the calendar – a sort of Catholic President’s Day. The evening before was called “All Hallows’ Eve,” hallows being another word for saint. Eventually this name became shortened into Halloween.

Pope Boniface set All Saints’ Day on May 15. It wasn’t until 100 years later that Pope Gregory changed the date of the celebration to Nov. 1, putting Halloween on its now traditional date of Oct. 31. The reason for the date change was simple and common: It was intended to replace a Celtic holiday that fell on the same date. This holiday was called Samhain (pronounced Sow’ an), and therein lie the roots of contemporary evangelical Christianity’s terror of the holiday. While Christianity supplanted Celtic religions in the British Isles over 1800 years ago, traces of the old pagan religion remain lively, even to this day.

This conflict is gorgeously dramatized in the 1973 film The Wicker Man. Although ostensibly a horror film, The Wicker Man will disappoint enthusiasts who are looking for a traditional monster flick, particularly when they discover it is a musical. Every 15 minutes or so the film’s characters burst into pagan-sounding folk songs and dance merrily around May poles. Despite this, The Wicker Man has real depth and power, telling of a policeman who is sent to investigate rumors of child sacrifice on a small Scottish island. He quickly realizes the inhabitants of the isle have reverted to paganism, to such a degree that it is taught in the grade schools. He gets caught up in a May Day celebration that ends in his own sacrifice when the pagans trap him inside a huge, burning wicker statue of a man. By this time the policeman, a devout Christian, has gone mad. As he burns he screams Bible passages, seeming for all the world like a character out of the Old Testament – or, for that matter, like the sort of street-corner preachers who protest Halloween.

While The Wicker Man is set during May Day, the burning wicker statue at its climax was historically associated with Samhain. The holiday marked the Celts third, and final, harvest before winter; in fact, “Samhain” means “end of summer,” and was the Celtic new year. During this time the Celts culled their herds of cattle, weeding out those who were too weak to survive the winter and those who would not be used for breeding. According to Roman reports, these animals were sacrificed in the wicker statue along with humans. Many sources on Halloween report human sacrifice; however, scholars are split on the issue, some arguing that the Romans invented stories of ritual human slaughter as wartime propaganda against the Celts, as the Romans routinely painted their enemies as savages.

Whether or not human sacrifice occurred, Samhain was a supernatural period. The Celts were a pastoral people, so winter was a lean time for them, and the end of summer meant a dramatic shift in their lives. These periods of transition were viewed with awe, as the Celts believed that two identical worlds existed: the world of the living and the world of the dead. During the transition between the seasons, the veil between these two worlds grew thin, and the dead could communicate with the living. Surprisingly, this was not viewed with dread – in fact, there is some evidence that the Celts believed these dead souls brought gifts to children.

While the holiday of Samhain disappeared with the rise of Christianity, the people of the British Isles continued its practices on October 31. The Celts, for example, built vast bonfires during Samhain. To this day Scottish youths build similar bonfires, some digging a trench around them as did their pagan ancestors thousands of years earlier. Many of the traditions of Samhain continue, such as bobbing for apples (used as a divination; the first person to take a bite of an apple was believed to be the first to marry) and trick-or-treating. The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead would engage in horseplay and practical jokes, and out of this came the tradition of dressing as spirits and demanding gifts – with the understanding that if the gifts were not provided, repercussions would follow. Hard as it is to believe, children who toiletpaper a neighbor’s yard are engaging in the same sort of behavior as the ancient Celts.

While only the most zealous of Christians could be made nervous by these vestigial remnants of a long-dead religion, protestors still appear at PTA meetings to denounce Halloween parties at school or on street corners to admonish trick-or-treaters. In their own way, these protestors are also re-creating history, taking the part of the Romans who wanted to destroy the Celts. The dead battles spring to life every year at this time, renewing their enmity and ferocity as though they had never died. Perhaps the Celts were correct: At this time of the year, the veil between the world of the living does seem to grow thin, and the souls of the dead walk – and battle – among us.