Halloween raises very interesting issues. There are historical debates about where Halloween comes from. Many think that it originated in a pagan ritual, which was then converted into the Feast of all Saints and the associated Commemoration of the Departed. However, not everyone agrees with that historical narrative.
More recently, Halloween has taken on a significance for many people that is decidedly unchristian, and secular rituals such as “trick or treat” have developed around it. Some Christians such as Canon J John simply want to condemn Halloween as unchristian. However, some want to try to turn it back into a Christian festival. For example, there is an interesting book on The Reformation of Halloween: Rethinking Christianity’s response to Halloween, by Phil Wyman. Most Christian churches simply ignore Halloween. However, that seems a poor response, as Halloween is probably the day in the calendar when there is most widespread interest in spiritual matters of some kind.
The ostensible focus of Halloween is on the spirits of the dead, particularly the unquiet dead who have not gone to their rest, and whose mischievous spirits arise from their slumbers at this time and cause trouble. One of the key issues for Christians is what to think about the spirit world at all. There has been a marked shift in academic theology in the post-war years away from a theology that makes dualistic assumptions. This has gone in parallel with a rethinking in philosophy of mind, away from a dualistic view of body and mind as two separate substances. Many academic theologians are alarmed at the idea that Christianity might be concerned with some kind of spook. Nicolas Lash, for example, is keen to claim that religious experiences are a religious way of understanding ordinary, everyday experiences, rather than being experiences of some other kind of spooky world.
However, this is a point where the secular world and the official religious world are moving in opposite directions. Since the middle of the 20th century there has been a significant increase in belief in the afterlife and in departed spirits. This is all the more striking as it has come at a time when belief in God has been in decline. Traditionally, Christianity has endorsed belief in angels and saints and the ‘whole company of heaven’. It has also recognised the vicissitudes that departed souls can go through before coming to their rest. However, paradoxically, the Christian world now seems less willing to recognise spirits of the departed than some parts of the secular world.
The Church has had a cautious engagement with evil spirits and has sometimes engaged in ‘exorcism’, or the ministry of ‘deliverance’ as the Church of England cautiously calls it. However, there has often been no clear distinction between evil spirits and spirits of the unquiet dead. I am sympathetic to the views on this of John Pearce-Higgins, once Vice-Provost of Southwark Cathedral and Britain’s most notorious ghostbuster. He thought that when people encounter troublesome spirits they are almost always spirits of the departed who have not been able to go to their proper rest, rather than of evil spirits.
That calls for a different liturgical response. Evil spirits may need to be exorcised, but Pearce-Higgins devised a special kind of Requiem for dealing with the spirits of the unquiet dead. If Christians are willing to look outside the mainstream, there are valuable resources for re-engaging with Halloween.