All our fears that emerge with the projections of our magical thinking, as well as the various realistic fears that come with our mere existence on this planet, begin in our pre-school years. Just as they had for the Celtics, Romans, and medieval Catholic Christians.
At the realistic end, we quickly learn that falling directly with our knee onto a stone protruding up from the ground will hurt, and hurt really bad. We nervously learn that parents arguing a lot also hurts us really bad. And we learn that death not only hurts us but destroys us. I was four. I woke up one morning to find my three goldfish dead. They were on their sides curled in an upside down “c” position…and stiff. That was my first remembered encounter with death—and that memory is as vivid as if it happened yesterday. I can see the three fish floating lifeless as I peered over the top of the bowl. I was amazed that they didn’t move. I thought I had killed them somehow. No one told me otherwise.
When my oldest son was just a little guy, my wife and I had taken him to a drive-in theatre to see Bambi. I had never seen Bambi before. I thought I was going to see a movie about deer and rabbits and lots of fluff. My boy was sitting between his mom and me on the center console. When he heard the gunshot, my son knew. With eyes as wide as saucers, he looked at me and asked, “Do mommies die?” I felt my heart sink. I took the proverbial deep breath, momentarily debated, but decided to tell him the truth. I said, “Yes, Paul, mommies die.” As he sat back staring at the movie, no doubt pondering in his little boy way the meaning and implications of what had just happened, I whispered to my wife, “Thank you, Walt Disney.” I hadn’t been planning on introducing my son to death that way.
More recently, the celebrated epic musical film The Lion King released in 1994—with a 2011 3-D re-release, video games, TV series, and long-running Broadway musical—doesn’t simply allude to death like the movie Bambi did. It confronts it directly. In doing so, it wraps death with a secular view. (It’s not a Christian view. For more on this, see my book Faith of a Father.) Nevertheless, through song, artistry, and adventure, the movie helps children to “touch” death from the safety of their theatre seats…much like Halloween does.
The fact is, though, we fear what we don’t know about. From death, to the “toilet monster” threatening to suck us down with the flush of the swirling water, to the howling wind outside that threatens to sweep us away, it’s all an unnerving mystery. When we don’t yet have logic or evidence to connect the dots of our experiences—when we don’t know about the drain pipe hidden from view under the toilet or understand how the wind’s invisible but real frictional forces against the ground, the trees, and our homes make noise—we’re left with our ignorant but fanciful imaginations. Reality is mysteriously magical; things just happen…and we don’t know why. Harry Houdini and David Copperfield wisely took advantage of just that kind of childlike thinking to capture our adult imaginations. The award winning Copperfield has earned over $4 billion for his ability to block the human mind from connecting the dots and inducing our childish awe—making more money doing so than any other solo entertainer in history. Incredible…the power of magical thinking. It’s never to be underestimated.
Halloween, similar to many cartoons and movies like The Lion King, brings this early childhood collage of fears and flights of fancy into a single arena. Among other things, Halloween puts together bobbing for apples, fantasies of being someone else through costume, parades to show off our imaginative genius, house-to-house trick or treats, combined with the shadowy elements of nighttime encounters with bats, cemeteries, howling winds, ghosts, monsters, death with coffins and skeletons, and the creative mix of violence and death—with knives going through heads or angry zombies trying to get us. Some older children even indulge this theme of violence and death yearlong, like with the award winning series The Walking Dead.
This leads us to ask: So—just what is Halloween celebrating anyway? What is its point?
On one hand, as noted in the previous article, here in America, Halloween is an historic integrative remnant of adults’ fears and projections—from Celtic to Roman to Christian. On the other hand, Halloween is kind of a weird Copperfield-like celebration of the power of the wonderfully strange, unnerving mix of the secret fears, fantasies, and intrigues of the youngest of our children.
So what do we do with this?
As I’ve discussed in the Coach’s Corner, my wife and I long ago decided it was wise to equip our children to deal with reality—for the sake of building their character as well as their leadership in the church…and in America. Halloween mobilizes powerful dramas within our children’s psyches. The forces that feed those dramas within—and then push them out as projections onto the stage of life—are real. If we’re going to celebrate Halloween, then how we celebrate it matters. It matters for equipping our children to deal with the real forces involuntarily pushing and pulling at them.
I’ve long ago given up on cookie-cutter formulas for dealing with life, let alone Halloween…or any holiday for that matter. Rarely is life captured in simple formulas. But I found that there’s a dance my wife and I have had to dance in parenting…and now grandparenting. On one hand, we’ve certainly wanted to protect our children from life’s nonsense. What good parent doesn’t? I mentioned in the previous article that my pre-school son one day declared to his mother that he wanted to cut off her head and bake it in an oven. This is one reason why some cartoons contain outlandish things, even violent incidents, because young children often think such outrageous things themselves. So the child resonates with the cartoonish portrayal. But my wife and I went to another drive-in children’s movie with our other son when he was little. I don’t recall anything about Return to Oz (1985) except one scene. In that vignette, the camera slowly panned across the wall of a large chamber lined with glass cases, each displaying a head on a pedestal. Only heads. And the heads talked. Inwardly, I groaned. While being keenly aware that children can sometimes concoct such fantasies on their own—my one son did say he’d like to cut off his mom’s head—I immediately decided that this jarringly unexpected scene was too stimulating for my ever so young son. There was no point to having him exposed to that fantasy at his age…or, frankly, any age for that matter. I judged it was too much of an unnerving image to plant and take hold in his mind. He could end up playing that scene over and over again, trying to make sense of it—much like a traumatized soldier going over and over again the battle scene of a fellow soldier’s head without a body, trying to make sense of it all. But for my son and soldier alike, neither vignette makes sense. Their searching would be futile. The fact is, in his late thirties, my son can still recall that scene. So, as a parent, what would have been my point in allowing my little man to continue watching this bizarre fantasy—a mere twisted projection of the writers, producers, and directors of this film? What would have been the sublime recreational reason to keep watching it? What would have been the awe inspiring “let’s equip him for dealing with life” lesson to it? I saw no point in it for a young child, either then or now. So I quickly got him out of the car and took him to the concession stand to get hot dogs. I wanted to distract him—and then wrap the nonsense now in his imagination with some simple, normal, concrete reality.
On the other hand…my wife and I had long agreed that we had to equip our children, and now grandchildren, to deal with reality. As young parents, we caught a vision. It was a vision fed by a wonderful young pastor in his twenties as well as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship staff whose mission was to equip us college students to deal with the cultural realities wrapping us real tight, even brainwashing us. We applied the vision to our children. We really, really wanted our children to think for wisdom and behave for character and leadership. I am so grateful that others modeled this for us. My wife and I feared if we did not equip our children, they’d end up as ignorant and lacking in wisdom in dealing with life as we were when we were young. At the same time, that vision excited our parenting. It turned our parenting into an adventure. It was adventuresome to figure out how to train our children to think about life. And adventuresome to wrestle with how to train them to be righteous in the face of life. My wife also turned that vision into a career as the long-standing director of a large pre-school here in the Valley.
Central to that parenting vision is Jesus. He fought evil, suffering, and death—themes which swim in the consciousness of our children reinforced by cartoons and movies like The Lion King, and whose reality we “toy with” by varying degrees on Halloween. Like with that scene of the decapitated talking heads that spun around in my son’s mind, Halloween is a time for our children (and us parents) to playfully spin fears, evil, and death around in our minds. On Hallows’ Eve, neighbors grant one another permission to play out those mutual fears on the stage of our sidewalks and lawns and community centers. We allow ourselves to “touch” death through fantasy by draping skeletons over our fences and strategically placing coffins on our lawns. We surprise our neighbors’ young as they approach our house by rising up from the coffin as they gingerly walk by. We grant ourselves permission to “play” with twisted violence in a safe and amusing way, allowing houses of horror, knives through heads, as well as angry skeletons and zombies. We look forward to spotting the dark figures from our children’s weekend cartoons roaming the streets. My neighbors let me play Skeletor, even smiling at me as I stirred their children’s fear of the evil that lies within the human heart as projected onto a cartoon image. You might be critical of me for that. I wouldn’t blame you at all. I do give you the point that dressing up like Skeletor, or any other culturally dark figure, in order to mirror a child’s feelings is a judgment call. And I can think of so many scary things to portray on Halloween that I would not have wanted my young children, and now my young grandchildren, to be confronted with. Still, playing Skeletor was one way to join the children’s world, doing so in a safe way—with the hope that wrapping fun around such darkness might help children master it a bit, setting up a willingness to look within as he or she grew older.
As I alluded to in the previous article, the dynamics of Halloween extend beyond the holiday. My wife and I tried to equip our children beyond this holiday to deal with life’s dark side. When my son was about five, he and I were walking along the beach of a lake where we had rented a cabin. We came across a dead fish that had been washed ashore. Curious, my son bent down to look at it. I noted before that no one had discussed the death of my goldfish with me, so I decided to talk with my son about this dead fish. I bent down with him. He asked me if it was dead. I told him it was. I then told him the fish would never swim again. In fact, it wouldn’t be able to do anything again. (I did not say it would never wake up for fear it might make him afraid to go to sleep.) After a few moments of staring at the fish, I did ask him if he wanted to touch it. He said no. So I did…as a brief and simple model that we could—and needed to— “touch” death. As I touched the carcass, my son reached down to touch my hand. That’s as close as he wanted to go. I understood. We then moved on. This was one tiny step—albeit a powerful one for him—in helping him to deal with death. As he got older and was taught that Jesus came back to life, he’d unconsciously sense the power of that resurrection knowing what death looked like right in front of him in that dead fish (as opposed to death on the television screen.) Such equipping as a child helped when he fought cancer in his twenties. (He is now in his late thirties with one child and another on the way.)
At her pre-school, my wife uses a very straightforward model for Halloween. It gently acknowledges the children’s creative imaginations, their inability to think logically about their fears, and their propensity for acting out aggressive impulses. She allows the parents and children to choose whatever costumes they want. Over decades, there’s never been a problem with extreme outfits. However, she has required that the teachers not wear a witch’s costume. Right or wrong, she drew the line there. If a child comes in a costume that uses a weapon, like a sword for a pirate, she allows that in their school parade. But the sword or any other instrument cannot be used for aggressive play. Her judgment is, let the parents decide that one at home. Knowing young children do not think logically about their fears, my wife authorizes the teachers to use songs to stir the youngsters’ low level fears, like bats and howling winds. Songs wrap their fears with fun, humor, and some drama, giving children a non-logical way to master them. Over the decades, the teachers judge that they’ve never had a child who felt overstimulated by such simple songs. But they watch for it, just like I watched for it costumed as Skeletor.
Dancing such a dance between protecting our children and equipping them to deal had not been as straightforward as they got older, however. What do we as parents do with children, or grandchildren, who want to watch The Walking Dead?