Monsters vs. Monstrance – More Thoughts on Halloween

by Mark Shea Friday, October 29, 2010 Published with Permission National Catholic Register

Come Sunday, we all celebrate Halloween again, that strange night of the year when, with one accord, American civilization dredges up all its darkest fears of the supernatural and waffles between scaring itself and laughing at the whole thing–nervously.

It’s an odd thing really. Halloween urges upon us a particular *kind* of fear. Nobody associates fear of terrorism, or a rise in prices, or dogs, or bullies, or cancer with Halloween. It’s ghosts, demons, witches, and all that sort of fear that our culture plays around with. We sense, somehow, that there are deeper terrors and evils in the world than just muggers or other workaday fears like unemployment. We whistle past the graveyard 364 days a year and then, on this one night, we run up to the door of the crypt, ring the bell, and run away. To be sure, much of the business is good clean fun, what with running around visiting the neighbors, getting candy and bobbing for apples. But there’s also that other side of it, that makes people surf the web looking for creepy “Tales of the Unexplained” that are found, not on the fiction pages, but on those sites that relate some weird story of a haunting or other paranormal event with straight-faced “just the facts, ma’am” sobriety that insists the thing really happened. It’s the night where people–even jolly happy godless secularists–take a moment and wonder if, really, after all, there might just be something to this whole “supernatural” thing.

It’s not an unreasonable starting place, particularly if you don’t have the good fortune to have been raised in the Church. I remember a girl in high school who was greatly troubled by whether or not God existed. She had a dream in which she met a vampire and was greatly relieved because she realized that if supernatural evil existed, then the supernatural good who is God could too. And when we look at our world and the sort of evil that can occur–piles of human ash as big as a house at Maidanek–the notion of supernatural evil doesn’t look all *that* outrageous, particularly when we look at the fascination the occult held for the people who were the architects of the Nazi project. Not for nothing did Pius XII say that Hitler was “diabolical”.

Jesus confirms this intuition by confronting not mere sickness or sin, but the demonic powers behind such evils. He does not simplistically state that a sick person had it coming due to sin (indeed, he goes out of his way to destroy such assumptions). And he denies, with emphasis, that those to whom bad things happen are somehow extra sinful. But he does affirm that evils in this world are aided and abetted by the devil, that Satan can hold us “bound” in sickness as in sin, and that there are such things as demons (i.e. supernatural intelligences called “angels” which have abused their freedom and set themselves as enmity with God and man).

The vast panoply of scary creatures the human imagination has concocted to express our fears reflects this awareness that there is some deeper and more ancient evil behind mere human evil. Always at the shadowy edge of human evil is the awareness that it trails off into a darkness where something is breathing: something that hates us and wills our destruction. We call such things “monsters” in our art, and the interesting thing is that “monster” is a word related to both “monstrance” and “demonstrate”. That is, a “monster” is a thing that shows forth in visible form something Horrible for all to behold, just as the Monstrance shows forth in visible form something Beautiful for all to behold.

We make monsters because it is our nature as sub-creators in the image and likeness of God to do so. We create, as He does, in our image and likeness and dredge up out of ourselves different faces to show us who we are. When God made us, he made us innocent and without sin, pure as He is. But when we fell and chose to trust the word of the Ancient Dragon, who is called the Devil and Satan, we allowed into our souls things that are the stuff of nightmares. In our art, we give these things body in order to face our fears, not only of what we are, but of what lies behind our fall. Through those stories we discover again our capacity for evil–and the possibility of resisting it by grace.

The Faith presents this to us in stark form in the form of what the Didache calls the Two Ways: the Way of Light and the Way of Darkness. It’s what Jesus calls the broad and the narrow way and it boils down to this: the Monster or the Monstrance.

Art Credit: Painting by Jamie Wyeth entitled, “Pumpkins in the Library”

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