Growing Up Where Halloween Was Forbidden

I grew up during the Satanic Panic and my evangelical dad thought it was the ‘Devil’s Holiday’

Photo: Jen Theodore/Unsplash

A lot of millennials get pumped this time of the year. They spend months getting their elaborate costume ready, and come the first of October, they change their display name on Twitter to a holiday-themed play on words — ex. “Suzy Gould” becomes “Spooky Ghoul-d.”

I envy them. I wish Halloween gave me that much joy, but I can’t get into the spirit. Their excitement is largely driven by nostalgia. Halloween offers a chance to relive childhood memories that I don’t really have.

My family was Southern Baptist. We attended church weekly and prayed before meals, but for the most part, we were relatively normal by the standards of our town. We didn’t speak in tongues like my Pentecostal friend Joey or handle snakes like… well, I didn’t have a friend who handled snakes (that I know of).

Dad didn’t beat us with Bibles or anything, but he did get caught up in the Satanic Panic that took hold among evangelicals in the late ’80s and early ’90s — and that meant no Halloween at home.

We couldn’t watch the movie Willow because it had black magic in it. I wanted to take karate, but Dad said “no” because they practiced meditation, which was “pagan.” Throughout our lives, anything related to Dungeons & Dragons was verboten due to some evangelical hysteria.

Once my Sunday school teacher told me she stood outside the Hot Topic at the mall and could ‘feel the presence of evil.’

When my brother and I were still in elementary school, I vaguely recall going trick-or-treating a few times. It must have been before dad got deep into the moral panic, which started gaining steam around the time we were getting old enough to really appreciate Halloween. I can only remember one Halloween costume. I went as a knight. Mom spray-painted some cardboard silver for my armor.

Once he got caught up in the anti-Halloween hysteria being pushed by the churches and right-wing talk radio, Dad would take us to these anodyne Halloween alternatives held at churches called “fall festivals.” If you remove all the haunted houses, skeletons, zombies, ghosts, and vampires, all that’s left is the lame stuff nobody likes: hayrides and bobbing for apples.

But everyone else only visited the spirit realm once annually, whereas we evangelicals inhabited a world full of ghosts holy and otherwise year-round. When one actually thinks the Devil and his demons are at work everywhere, the mundane takes on a terrifying spiritual significance. Once my Sunday school teacher told me she stood outside the Hot Topic at the mall and could “feel the presence of evil.”

There’s intense psychological fright in everyday life that rivals what is produced by all those horror films I was never allowed to watch, such as panicking when you come home to an empty house because you think the Rapture happened and you got “left behind.”

I actually believed that heavy metal music had Satanic power that might overtake me, which wouldn’t you know, made it more exciting.

Unbeknownst to my dad, I went out and bought a copy of Astro-Creep: 2000 by the heavy metal band White Zombie. I recall listening to it in the backseat on the way to my grandma’s house and, like my Sunday school teacher, I could “feel the presence of evil” — but I liked it.

All the ominous organ music and creepy audio clips from old horror films in songs like “Electric Head” that seem sort of cheesy and banal to me in hindsight were thrilling at the time because I lived in a world of an epic contest between light and darkness.

When I grew up, I gave up religion and left this spiritual world for one that is coldly rational. It was a process of disenchantment in both senses of the word.

There’s a great poem by Leonard Cohen called “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” that equates God with magic in a positive way. It tells of people in a civilized, enlightened world secretly yearning for the magic lost in the bygone age of superstition. “Many weak men lied / They came to God in secret / Though He left them nourished, they would not tell who healed / Though mountains danced before them, they said that God was dead”

Growing up and losing one’s beliefs is not unlike the process of “thinning” in fantasy fiction. The classic example is the Lord of the Rings in which the Age of the Elves ends, marking the beginning of our own non-magical era.

I no longer have a fear of Satan to make all the dark and scary things exciting, but I don’t have any nostalgia for all the fun I had when I was young, either. Halloween just leaves me feeling empty — and sad.

Journalist, socialist, activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD

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