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Halloween and the haunting of secularism

Netflix horror stories portray hopes and longings they cannot quench

A graveyard for victims of the Titanic in Halifax, Nova Scotia Associated Press/Photo by Robert Gillies

Halloween and the haunting of secularism
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As Sunday is Halloween, we’re reminded that America’s obsession with horror films proves that age-old existential anxieties about death, suffering, and the afterlife still haunt us and that secular answers to such anxieties cannot soothe them.

Our civilization has been captivated by ghost stories since at least the Victorian age, that tumultuous period when the industrial revolution upended so much more than transportation or manufacturing. The Victorians witnessed seismic advances in social, scientific, and technological standards that provoked existential and civilizational questions about meaning and worldview.

Amidst such new tensions, many perceived that the Christian faith that had long nourished their moral imagination and guided their understanding of reality was now being challenged. It left some feeling unmoored in a world in which science seemed to have triumphed over religion and yet offered no consolation.

Loved ones still fell ill, faded, turned cold, and died. The infant mortality rate still wreaked havoc on future hopes and dreams. Poverty still decimated the poor. Longings, seemingly insatiable, still stirred the human soul—even if many were no longer sure they had one. Human beings demand a connection with the supernatural. We’re built for it. In its lack, the Victorians groped for palliatives: post-mortem photography, Ouija boards, tarot cards, mediums, hypnotists, and magicians—anything that offered hope for making sense of death and the beyond. It was within this context that ghostly tales of the supernatural helped satisfy people’s hunger for the transcendent. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a prime example. Both a ghostly tale and spiritual allegory about salvation, Dickens’ tale leans heavily on biblical notions regarding sin, guilt, repentance, penance, forgiveness, and redemption.

Such existential hunger continues. In our contemporary Halloween season, we see Netflix collaboration with veteran horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan, including The Haunting of Hill House (2018), The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), and Midnight Mass (2021).

Flanagan has a reputation for what has been called “humanistic” horror. Though now an atheist, much of his work draws on his Catholic upbringing. Alongside ghostly terrors, his stories focus on deeply troubled human beings wrestling with the everyday terrors of simply being a human being. Grief, especially involving the death of loved ones, looms large. “We can’t help but be attracted to the idea that death isn’t the end for us, and that we’re going to see the people we’ve lost again,” Flanagan commented. “That idea is one of the things that interested me in horror in the first place. When you’re talking about the afterlife and the soul, you’re talking about ghosts.”

Unlike Dickens, however, Flanagan’s handling of Christian themes betrays his distance from the true faith. His portrayal of love, for instance, cannot be found within a biblical frame. Running throughout his stories are competing images of love versus appetite. What at first seems an act of love turns out to be an appetitive act of consumption, digestion, and absorption. Spirits trapped within haunted homes seduce still-living loved ones into killing themselves so that their spirits, too, will be enchained with them. A priest sets loose a terrible evil over his flock, all so that he might be reunited with his illicit lover for eternity. But to do so, he must destroy her. Lacking any confidence in a heaven where lost loves will be reunited, Flanagan’s characters do everything they can to possess and lock their beloved in the here-and-now. In their desire to possess, they ruin the things they cherish.

Divine love does not obliterate; it liberates. God does not desire to consume those he loves but to conform them, by faith, to his will. He draws us to himself in Christ, but in our union, he wants us to be our true selves. We are sheep in a fold, not drops in a puddle.

Flanagan’s haunted universe can be achingly beautiful. We care about his people. We understand their longing for the indescribable. But he cannot give it to them.

If you want to know a people, St. Augustine tells us, find out what they love. Equally, find out how they love what they love. If untethered to the divine, the soul’s longings parody those deep fits of hunger that would have called us to God. Our hopes prove unquenchable, mocking us. In the absence of anything transcendent, the dead are simply dead; graveyards are filled with travelers who have ceased their travels, there is no “after;” the spiritual is proved mere vapor; the incorporeal is truly without substance; and love is, however innocently, just another form of gluttony.

That is the scariest story of all.

Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also a non-resident research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in the College of Leadership & Ethics. He is the author of The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury.


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