We Are No Less Magical or Spiritual than the Pagans Were
Western culture is enlightened, materialistic, progressive, and upholds science as the final arbiter of truth, but…we still love Halloween and horror movies.
With Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) around the corner, it is worth considering why so many people are drawn to the supernatural, the disturbing, and the horrifying. While some horror movies are purely psychological, a good number of them involve the activity of the demonic. In fact, I would wager that most films in the horror market depend on an underlying spiritualistic worldview for their success. And they have succeeded in becoming mainstream and popularized, highlighting, particularly at this darkening time of year, the human fascination with the spiritual and the unknown.
The October holiday’s grim associations go back multiple centuries. The ancient Celts are said to be the first to observe what would eventually evolve into All Hallow’s Eve, celebrating “Samhain,” which marked the end of a new year and the beginning of the next. According to the Celtic lore, the ghosts of those who died would return on Samhain evening, and the Celts would offer food, animal, and possibly even human sacrifices to ward off these meddlesome spirits. Pagan Roman practices later mixed with the holiday observance after the Celts were absorbed into the Roman Empire. British fairy folklore also found its way into the Samhain rituals. While Halloween has been greatly trivialized and geared towards children and “trick or treating,” the pagan and spiritualist origins remain stamped in our cultural imagination.
It may be important to ask, even in our supposedly secular and enlightened society, where “believing in science” is printed on billboards and in which religion is demoted to the realm of private superstition, why people still experience a pull towards the spiritual, or why we have rechanneled our impulses for ritual to create what James K. A. Smith calls “secular liturgies.” I can’t imagine any agnostic or liberally minded westerner today admitting that we are no less pagan and spiritualistic than the ancient Celts, and yet our obsession with science fiction stories, horror movies, and superhero franchises begs the question. Our fascination with such wild worlds and characters are telling, but perhaps our fascination with unbounded scientific progress and technology are even more so—and are not mutually exclusive.
In his science fiction horror thriller, That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis gives us an appropriate Halloween tale of how a misdirected quest for scientific progress opens the gateway for the demonic. In Lewis’s conception, magic and applied science (i.e., technology) both stem from man’s impulse to control the uncontrollable and to bind the mysterious into submission, only to be controlled and enslaved in return. In this sense, fallen humanity is a race of skilled magicians, manipulating reality to fit our lust for power, ease, and control. In order to keep the spirits of death and destruction at bay, in order to defy our vulnerability and mortality, we must use spells and algorithms, chants and mouse clicks, cultic robes and Instagram filters. This is not to discount the benefits of scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, but to acknowledge the potential mishandling of these things for evil. The protagonist Ransom says,
“There dwell the accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicate) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.”
Ransom is referencing the wicked behavior of the fallen beings on the Moon, or “Sulva,” but his insight can be transferred to the normal course of human life as well. We “cunningly fashion” the world to accommodate our lustful imaginations, creating hedges of protection through “devilish arts.” I admit this sounds harsh. But upon reflection, how often do I fashion people according to who I want them to be instead of accepting them as they are? How often do I impatiently check my phone, as a ritual requirement for my peace of mind, hoping to satisfy a craving for connection and community? Technology can be a gift, but it can also be a form of magic—marking us as little different from the ancient Celts who thought their rituals and rites could save them from the spirits of death and chaos.
Christianity affirms the reality of the supernatural realm. St. Paul tells us that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against “the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Despite all appearances, we are no less pagan and spiritualistic than the ancients were; we’ve only deceived ourselves through a new form of magic. Uncle Screwtape would be pleased. But thankfully, the Christian tradition also affirms that providential love, and not horror or malice, constitutes the very center of being and is guiding history toward a glorious ending. And that, as Gandalf tells Frodo deep in the spooky, death haunted mines of Moria, “is an encouraging thought.”
 Grant, George & Wilbur, Gregory. The Christian Almanac: A Book of Days Celebrating History’s Most Significant People & Events. 2nd Edition, Revised and Updated. Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville, TN. 2004. p. 639.
 Lewis, C.S. That Hideous Strength. Quality Paperback Book Club, New York. 1946. p. 615.Peter Biles
Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is now Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/halloween-and-modern-man