The annual celebration of Halloween is marked by fun and frightening traditions, those that involve monsters the most fun and frightening of them all. They’re featured in costumes, decorations and horror movies — and they’re often part of the reason religious people don’t celebrate this holiday at all.
But these representations of evil are inextricably linked with faith, used to condemn evil, the search for comfort in suffering and a lot more.
The Grim Reaper
What does death look like? Popular culture presents the harvester of souls as a hooded figure who’s gaunt or entirely skeletal underneath dark robes and who carries a scythe (presumably for all the soul harvesting), referred to as the Grim Reaper. Both the appearance and the name trace back to the bubonic plague that spread through Europe in the 14th century.
As it killed so many people of all walks of life, the universality of death became a popular message in art. The Danse Macabre genre, associated closely with the later popularity of memento mori, personified Death in a way that emphasized this universality — and often urged repentance before an inevitable end.
The art of Danse Macabre, which popularized skeletal representations, was featured in murals on church walls and in cemeteries, illustrated sermon texts and in morality plays performed by the church. Similarly, the first appearance of the name “Grim Reaper” in English is from a Christian devotional published 500 years after the bubonic plague:
“There are many who suppose that a clear and certain foreknowledge of the day of their death would exert a very powerful influence upon their mind. In this opinion, however, there must be some deception. All know full well that life cannot last above seventy, or at the most eighty years. If we reach that term without meeting the grim reaper with his scythe, there or there about, meet him we surely shall. Death being thus the most certain of all certain events, why not begin at once the work of preparation for it?” said Jillian Cheney.
Vampires, the fanged, blood-sucking creatures of the night, are originally a product of European folklore — connected largely to the vampire bat, at the time an unknown creature that survives by drinking blood. They were established firmly in fiction with the 1819 short story “The Vampire” and Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula.”
Religious combatants had long been part of the folklore surrounding these immortal beings, as they were believed to be the epitome of evil, but this was solidified further in fiction.
There are a few ways to kill a vampire, and they’re connected to a variety of ideas about purity. Garlic, for example, was used as an antibiotic, and a vampire was plagued with a disease of the blood, so garlic would ward them away. The same goes for silver (also believed to effectively kill werewolves). Silver is scientifically pure, a well-known antimicrobial, and it was additionally ascribed a religious purity.
The use of a crucifix is notable in “Dracula,” as protagonist Jonathan Harker receives one that he comes to believe is his protection against the vampire.
Stoker was an Irish Protestant who was married to a Catholic woman in a place where tensions between Catholics and Protestants have historically run high. Harker is also written as a Protestant, and he remarks in the book that he doesn’t buy into the usefulness of the Catholic crucifix. By the end of the novel, however, he’s been convinced of its usefulness — as well as other sacraments, such as rosary beads and holy water. In this way, the book is an allegory for religious tolerance as well as Christian purity.
This one seems obvious, right? Witches practice black magic, casting spells and mixing potions and communing with the dead; or, more aptly, they practice Wicca or another pagan religion. The witch trials were spearheaded by Christian belief in society in an effort to rid the world of evil. While this is true, and a condemnation of practices like witchcraft is in the Bible, the hatred of witches goes much deeper — and it has everything to do with the familiar pointy witch hat.
There are many possible sources of the familiar accessory, but a prevailing theory is that it’s connected to the Fourth Council of the Lateran held in 1215, after which Jews were required to wear a pointy cap called a Judenhut to identify themselves. This identification made Jews an easier target of antisemitism, and the cap became associated with Judaism and evil in one. During the early witch trials in Hungary, those who had been caught practicing sorcery were also required to wear hats of a similar style.
It’s also worth noting that another common characteristic of witches in artistic representations is an exaggeratedly long, hooked nose — a common feature given to Jews in Nazi propaganda and used to stereotype in antisemitic caricatures.
Zombies — undead creatures who are feared because of their hunger for human flesh — are a popular costume choice and a ready-made scare. In modern representations, zombies are often paired with dystopia and are the result of a pathogen that spreads like a virus. That’s true of this year’s hit series “The Last of Us” and the cultural phenomenon apocalypse drama show “The Walking Dead.”
But zombies originally come from Voodoo tradition. Voodoo is a syncretism of Vodun, a West African religion, and Roman Catholicism; its practice began in Haiti by enslaved Africans who were influenced by 16th and 17th century missionaries. It’s centered around worship to and relationships with spirits, all of whom were created by an all-powerful God.
It was believed that shamans and priests were capable of bringing the dead back to life with Voodoo ritual, and these undead were used to carry out evil or acts of extreme physical labor — in many ways a representation of the fear of slavery.
This belief is prominent in what’s believed to be the first ever feature-length zombie film, “White Zombie” from 1932, and a few others in early film history. But that’s hardly the case anymore. Zombies became known as flesh-eating monsters because of George Romero’s 1968 movie “Night of the Living Dead.”
Ghouls, another humanoid flesh-eating monster, share many traits with zombies — in fact, Romero intended the monsters of “Night of the Living Dead” to be ghouls, but they became synonymous with zombies instead. Ghouls are still a popular feature of monster-centric entertainment; they were written about by Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, and they often feature as enemies in video games. The phrase has also come to broadly describe spooky monsters as a fixture of Halloween.
Ghouls originated in pre-Islamic Arabic religion, where they were described as graveyard dwellers who want to feast on flesh. Some beliefs claim ghouls are shapeshifters who used tricks to lure desert travelers off their path before killing and eating them.
“They’re also a part of Islamic belief, described in hadith as a type of jinn or otherwise as demons who had been burned and fallen to Earth — often taking the shape of women who would lure men to their deaths. Islamic literature suggests that ghouls could be warded away by reciting the call to prayer, and the ghoul may even choose to convert to Islam,” said Jillian.
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged
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