Confronting our demons: understanding Halloween and the vital connections between darkness and light

Posted on: 26 October 2022

Halloween celebrates the vital connections between the light and dark interfaces of existence explains Dr Cathriona Russell, School of Religion, Theology and Peace Studies, in this piece originally published in The Irish Independent.

All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, Samhain, in Ireland is a longstanding harvest festival of apples and nuts, kale and spuds, divination and bonfires.

In the 1980s in Dublin, a city of free-range kids, Halloween was always a test of childhood bravado and humour: ghost stories by candlelight; divining with fire and food (oranges, nuts and barmbrack); masquerading in the streets after dark; hilariously knocking on strange doors knowing what lay beyond was only half civilised (if your own place was anything to go by); and later lulled by bonfire sparks flying into the mysterious night sky.

West of the Shannon, bonfire night was June 23, St John’s Eve, likewise a charmed time for mystery-laden practices like cutting divining rods, burning herbage and making lots of noise to chase demons away.

Far from being tame, the spirits (daimonia) conjured up were real, emanating from deep desires for love and life, the many abysses of grief, and the fear of bad choices and bad fortune. You could repel, or accidentally attract, the spirits that reward or thwart us in everyday life.

A pair of hazelnuts popping in chorus in the bonfire was a cosmic confirmation that love would be requited. A coin in the barmbrack signified good fortune, a ring meant marriage within the year and a stick was a forewarning of disaster. ​

Out in the dark it was not just pesky spirits you bumped into, but other kids (and spookier adults) in all their familiarity and strangeness. Who was that in the half-light and what were they wearing and why? A sheet, a plastic bag, a cardboard mask, a witch’s hat, a mouth of fangs, a pair of high heels and black stockings, all quite telling.

Later, homemade get-ups were replaced with a shop-bought ghoul, grim reaper, zombie, alien and superhero suits, cute animals, movie characters and fairy accessories, not nearly half as quirky or funny. And lovely subtropical things to eat that were rarely seen at any other time of year – nuts still in their shells, whole coconuts and fresh pineapple.

There were few pumpkins. These came later, a child of another place much further west, an inculturation from the Americas (over there) of an earlier inculturation (from over here). Now a well-established seasonal crop, their local equivalent, the humble turnip, rarely gets a look in.

Christianity had long found its niche in these rustic and biocosmic intuitions, mirroring as they did the ancient mystery religions, the vital connections to creation.

And traditions elsewhere in the world bear a family resemblance. The Mexican Day of the Dead, the preoccupation with witches, zombies and horror in the US, as well as the “new but ancient” religious sensibilities of druids and Wicca (which, for reasons unbeknown to us then, were endlessly attractive to our older hippy siblings). These are not strange, not exactly, but variations on a theme.

We might neatly disentangle their separate origins and interdependencies, but either way, as interesting as that might be, festivals are really for those who celebrate them, each time as original or as authentic as the last.

Spirits good and bad are indispensable to the Christian story even if they are more like stagehands for the main event. ​

On the one hand, demons are anti-tragic, perpetrators of all suffering and separation, and so, it follows, to be justly condemned. On the other, they are tragic figures, like Vrubel’s The Demon Seated, desperate for love and acceptance, creating havoc with their confused and impatient desire. Like ordinary mortals, just more so.

Satan, after all, was the brightest heavenly star, the son of morning, now fallen into loneliness in his awful greatness. He desired something necessary to his happiness, but before its proper time, and missing the loveliness of what was possible now, lost the very thing he sought.

Halloween celebrates the vital connections between the light and dark interfaces of existence, in morality tales of duplicity and identity, of passions thwarted, of seduction and fear.

It also celebrates laughter, love, good fortune and good neighbours, as well as the unbreakable ties to beloved ancestors and the abundance of nature. It is not an escape from real life but a welcome disruption of our customary expectations. And on November 1, the feast of All Saints, as the bonfires fizzle out, the spirits settle down, we dust ourselves off and return to the whirr of the ordinary machinery of living, to the civility of manners and polite introductions.

Later this week, to celebrate Halloween, international experts will gather in Trinity College Dublin to share their research on the complex ways in which demons are culturally understood, their peculiar afflictions, the ways they function to demonise others but also as tragic figures in their sorrows and trials.

The conference, Demons: Good and Bad, organised by the School of Religion, Theology and Peace Studies, will take place on Thursday and Friday in the Trinity Long Room Hub.

The conference is free and open to the public. More information here.

This article was originally published in The Irish Independent on October 25th, 2022.