On Halloween and Facing Our Shadow

My strongest and earliest memory of Halloween is of my father. Imagine a dark, chilly, autumn evening in South London. Dad awaits a horde of English children knock-knock-knocking for chocolate and treats. He’s grumbling about how rude it is to beg and not say thank you, how these children interrupt his time with the evening radio news, and how dare they vandalize his car as a trick.

My parents were Jamaican immigrants to the UK with no social or religious affinity for the British costume holiday, and they made their distaste for it clear to us.

“No daughter of mine,” my mother told my sister, “has the temerity to go out begging for sweets like some sort of feral child!”

Mum is also a staunch Adventist who doesn’t care for fantasy or science fiction. She discouraged idle chatter about monsters, witches, goblins, and devils. Her brood would not dress up to roam the neighborhood at the end of October. There’d be no ghost tales or scary movies, and it wasn’t until my mid-teens that I saw the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

My school-year history classes taught me how women, LGBT people, herbalists, Jews, and other non-Christians had become targets for medieval fear and violence as the Black Death danced across Europe. My schoolmates and I sang the Ring-a-Ring-of-Roses rhyme outside of the classroom, but in classes we learned about the rats, the trade ships, the ignorance of germ theory and sanitation, the bodies piling in the street and the prayers designed to ward off death, the moralizing against difference, the quarantines, propaganda, pogroms, and torture. Some of this history is now memorialized in the National Holocaust Museum.1

When I visited the museum last year, I was overwhelmed by the pattern of violent scapegoating practiced in one context (medieval Europe), repeated in another (modern Germany), applied in yet another (the United States), and revised and localized in each successive decade and century (Cambodia, Armenia, Peru, Haiti, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan). The roots were similar. The results were similar. When we see monsters, we root them out.

We’ve grown as humans in many ways. We’ve improved our technologies and we’ve refined our rhetoric about community and identity, but we haven’t escaped our shadow. We haven’t lost our inclination to dissociate, blame, and Other—and some researchers argue that this pattern is baked into human cognition and there's no way to shed it entirely.

This is one reason Leonard Cohen’s poem about the Holocaust’s logistics manager is still so shocking.

All There is to Know About Adolph Eichmann .

Leonard Cohen







NUMBER OF TOES………………………Ten


What did you expect? Talons? Oversize incisors? Green saliva? Madness?

What do you expect when you stare at your community’s latest monster? “Talons? Oversize incisors? Green saliva? Madness?”

Seventh-Gay Adventists draws a laugh from audiences when we see a mother sewing Pathfinder badges on her daughters’ uniforms and musing about the “racy lifestyle” others believe she enjoys.

I also chuckle to myself: I live down the highway from the General Conference office in Silver Spring, MD. Church life in this area is a constant reminder that those who staff this denomination are desperately normal people. There are no talons. There’s no trail of blood. There are no monsters, except, perhaps, those we project outward.

This morning I chatted with Herb Montgomery about the sociological functions of Halloween and monster-play. Herb has spent the last few years comparing the theories of sociologist Rene Girard with the actions and teachings of Jesus in the gospels, and sharing how scapegoating manifests in society, theology, and religious community life.

Among the quotes he posted during our conversation is from Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

When the abyss gazes back: shall we flee? Or might we laugh? The 15th and 16th Century’s Dance of Death allowed medieval Europeans to personify and confront the horrors of their age, to prepare personally and communally for life’s most common but foreign experience:

"And yet we cannot discover any one thing more near the likeness of Death than the dead themselves, whence come these simulated effigies and images of Death's affairs, which imprint the memory of Death with more force than all the rhetorical descriptions of the orators ever could." — Jean de Vauzèle

We’re far removed from de Vauzèle’s world now. The ancients’ ancestor memorials, Death Dances, and costuming traditions, rites that eventually became modern holidays like Halloween and Dia de Muertos, once helped ordinary people to give the fearsome Other an accessible face.

And when we did that, we discovered something: as we learn to humanize the monster in our midst, we really re-humanize ourselves. As we re-approach those we’ve dissociated ourselves from, we recover our own wholeness. The people we’ve designated “monster,” whoever they were, were always our people. It was only we who failed to recognize them as such.

I still don’t observe Halloween, this American Fall Festival of Cheap Chocolate.

But I do like the idea of being able to taking the sting out of my nemeses, my shadow, and all Others I feel compelled to resist.

Perhaps one day, I’ll put on a costume that represents my shadow and share quality food with my friends; we’ll dance a dance and laugh through our fear and grumbling. The Nemesis Festival: No dressing up or begging required, but the ability to self-examine and laugh through discomfort will be essential.

If I were to host a Nemesis Festival this year, I think I’d go as a General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists church administrator—for they’ve been among the Others I’ve been resisting and grumbling about this year. I imagine I’d need a grey or navy blue suit, a big leather bible with a copy of Adventist World tucked inside, and a short elevator speech about reasonable expectations of surveillance, voluntary self-censorship, and non-reappointment in 2015.

I asked my friends today what some of their Nemesis Festival costumes could be. One said Anxiety. Another described Miss Haversham from Great Expectations. A third named a local college president. All understood that we can examine our own monsters and scapegoats until they no longer loom over us; we can shave down the internal hook pulled by the external barb, and we can stare down our repulsion until it crumbles into communion.

“Facing the disconnected, neglected, rejected, abandoned, and isolated parts of ourselves is not easy at all,” one told me. He’s absolutely right.

Maybe an annual Nemesis Festival would be healthy for us: as healthy as Adventists taking each October’s Great Disappointment Day as a reminder that we can uncover error and failure and not be broken by that discovery. Our shadow need not overshadow our lives.

And that’s something I can celebrate.


1Based on the books of Iona and Peter Opie, we were told that this nursery rhyme echoed the symptoms of bubonic plague. Folklore researchers have since rejected this theory.

Keisha E. McKenzie (@mackenzian) lives and works in the MD-DC Metro region, and writes on politics, faith, and sexuality at mackenzian.com

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6381

Thank-you Keisha. This concept has been so much on my mind of late. Reacting to an uncomfortable person or group by moving away from them instead of moving toward them. Othering them because I feel them othering me. There simply MUST be a better way.

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although this article isn’t exactly about halloween, i’d thought i’d share that i’m having a very nice halloween this evening…the cutest kids have been showing up at my door - i have all the lights of my house going full blast - and i have tons of chocolates, candies, and potato chips that i offer them (in huge orange pots that look like pumpkins)…it’s great to meet the kids in the area and to chat with the parents…i got into a conversation with one dad about the three rows of chinese lantern plants i’ve kept on my front porch for all of october, and most of september…i see nothing that compels me to have anything to do with the possible origins of this festival…i see it as a social time, and i think it’s a mistake to be resolutely against having anything to do with being hospitable on this occasion…


There are Important days this weekend.

  1. Holloween.
  2. Commemoration of Martin Luther and his 95 Thesis paper pinned to the church door. The reason we are Seventh day Adventists and not Catholic. The reason we read the Bible in English and NOT have it READ to us in Latin.
  3. All Saints and Souls day. To think about and commemorate the faithful who have died – ALL-- strangers, friends, family. To Rejoice in their Witness. To Rejoice in music, in song, in Word.

That’s really cool Jeremy!

As an Aussie I’m not into Halloween at all, but what you’re doing sounds like a lot of fun!

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Halloween isn’t big here in Australia. Well not my part of town, anyway. That would be a great opportunity to pass out tracts with the candy.


Well this Aussie does not like Halloween one bit. There are two reasons- first, it normalizes the dark and evil things of this world, and second, it is a further infiltration of American culture and tradition (and the commercialization associated with it) into Australian culture. What next, will we see Aussies celebrating thanksgiving, a celebration which has no historical meaning for us?

On the first point I know that many Christians agree, the second has large agreement amongst Australians.


Happy sabbath, and happy Protestant birthday ( now that’s something worth celebrating)


Haha, cool!Australia don’t become America!


It was fun watching my toddler enjoy getting costumed this evening and seeing other children dressed up as well. Still, I think I like Keisha’s Nemesis Festival more.

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why fight it, tim…america is destined to rule the world, get used to it…

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:open_mouth: them’s fightin’ words!

By the way Rohan, I noticed the other day your from Australia. The next time your in Melbourne, come and visit North Fitzroy church. You cant go wrong. First SDA church in Australia and Ellen White preached here :smiley: hehe.

And I genuinely mean that, be good if you popped in, if you ever happen to be in town.


Thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful and thought provoking essay. Thank you, Keisha.
So many bits and pieces, hints and allusions on and between the lines - a mixed bag of quality food you have indeed distributed here to anyone who would listen.


Cheers thanks mate! If I come back to Aus I’ll take you up!Ro


Yeah, Steve, this time round I am going to preach about Halloween, All Saints and the local saints of my district. From time to time it is important to remember. From time to time it is important to celebrate all saints - and that would include you and me, I guess… including our past (the witnesses gone before) and including our shadows, haunting our church.

Greeting all living saints with the apostle Paul: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Happy Sabbath.


I find it puzzling that any Christian would participate in Halloween ( I like your spelling better: “Holloween”. By any estimation, when celebrated as it is in the US, it is a hollow day, devoid of any good). I’m sure it is pleasing to the forces of darkness when they do so. Adventists, of all people, should be emphasizing the fact that it is the anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses on the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. I can’t help wondering if the 500th anniversary, coming up in 3 years, will pass unnoticed by most Protestants. After all, Tony Palmer insisted that “the protest is over.” For most “Protestants,” that seems to be true. Adventists are among the few true Protestants left in the world.

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That depends on the type of community you live in or as a matter of fact, the church you belong to. The psychodynamics behind the phenomenon are the same, only the words change. Type 2 Spiritualism, Male Headship, second-class citizenship as modeled by Jesus and Paul, and the list goes on. Ask Mr. Herb Montgomery.

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Don’t tell me you are advocating to take Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer, among other things, from innocent SDA children. That’s barbaric. Do you and your family celebrate christmas with all the trimmings? Well? And since we are in the holiday mood, allow me to wish you “season’s greetings.”

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Our kids never believed in Santa Claus. As one wise woman I know said, “If we lie to our kids about Santa Clause, the time may come when they think we’ve lied to them about Jesus.” You man call it barbaric to tell kids the truth, but I believe it’s the only honorable course to pursue. As for Christmas, we try to avoid all the hype, keeping in mind the counsel we’ve been given from the SOP. It’s a perfect opportunity to emphasize the “reason for the season,” that without the Incarnation, there would be no Christmas.

Celebrating Reformation Day would be ecumenical, which is explicitly disapproved by Ted Wilson. And, anyway, we traditionally haven’t regarded the restoration of God’s Spirit to the church until the Advent movement, about 350 years later.


I dont know where you have lived all your life, but where I have been about in my life time, Oct 22 is barely mentioned, much less “celebrated”. No body mentions Reformation Day. One has to go to the Catholic church in town to celebrate the lives of the Saints, living and dead.
For some reason SDA do not have fun with Church Holy-days.
My handicap Jewish friend that I take to his services and I recently concluded a month long celebration of “year end” holy holidays. What Fun! At the conclusion there was available for the congregation a 28-page Book of Remembrance for 5775/2014. Listing the names of all the departed remembered by the congregation. It included a short statement by the Rabbi as to why we remember their lives and our connections to them.