At around 2:00 a.m. on a sixth grade summer’s night, Halloween came early to our usually quiet neighborhood. The gruesome night unfolded after some drug-impaired hit men had just completed their work at our new neighbor’s house, and left the scene. As I waited at home, my dad and brother were the first responders to the blood-chilling cries for help. Their later descriptions of the Halloween visual effects, and the 4:00 a.m. news that our new neighbor had died of the injuries he had sustained, haunted my sleep for the rest of that summer.
Over the years, the trauma from that night waned. What remained was the outline of a Halloween story that would be told over and over again, around countless childhood campfires. I usually waited until the other boys or girls had completed their quaint tales of hitchhiking phantoms, terrorized baby-sitters, severed limbs seeking their owners, and other commonly traded urban myths. The same thing always happened. After I finished, someone would invariably ask, “Did that really happen?” When the discovery set in that this was not make believe, a collective shudder would pass through the circle that always outstripped the earlier fright from the make-believe stories. My narrative always trumped the other tales because on one sickening sixth grade summer’s evening, I learned the “adults only” Halloween secret.
The “adults only” Halloween secret hides, like other secrets, in plain view. The scariest monsters aren’t the ones made up by Edgar Allen Poe, or Alfred Hitchcock, or anyone else. What is the “adults-only” Halloween secret? “The scariest monsters in life are real.”
You and I live in a time and place where the dark sides of human nature can be largely overlooked. Bio-medical sciences have stretched the boundaries of our life spans to ever further reaches. The relative abundance that we enjoy has placed an arm’s length between ourselves and the kinds of skirmishes that crop up when peoples fight over limited life-sustaining resources.
But every-so-often the frightening dimensions of our human existence impress themselves on our consciousness. A soldier arrives home having seen things that he’d rather not talk about. Buried in the fourth page of the newspaper is a tale of another teenager slain just fifteen miles away. Within the walls of our otherwise warm home, something cold is said or done that sends an enduring shiver through the household. Despite the noble efforts of psychologists, sociologists, philanthropists, educators, politicians, and religious leaders, the frightening side of our human nature endures.
Psychologists tell us that the drive to tell ghost stories, or to create a holiday like Halloween, is to make tangible the worst fears of the human psyche-especially the fear of death. In making those fears explicit, the theory goes, the psyche transcends the fear.
During the darkest time of the year, our Catholic tradition celebrates the Feasts of All Saints. A saint is not a pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna. Our saints were realists who were fully aware of the “Adults Only” Halloween secret. The thread that binds these diverse men and women is the conviction that the only thing that truly transcends and heals those monstrous parts of the human condition is life in Christ.
In the stories of these ancestors can be found example after example of a God who draws near when we are facing the scariest monsters of the human condition. In their lives are examples of men and women who could pass through truly monstrous experiences knowing that they walked alongside a God who had conquered even the most monstrous of Halloween ghouls-death itself. The saints’ lives witness to the truth that the most powerful weapons we have against the terrors of the night dwell within our own heart.