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How Did Halloween Become a Monster Holiday?

Halloween serves as our unofficial celebration of the supernatural.

Our version of Halloween is widely believed to be a descendant of a Celtic harvest festival also designed to remember the dead (and ward off ghosts). How in the world did an ancient pagan ritual ever become a month-long, billion-dollar holiday in what is purported to be an advanced, modern civilization? Halloween serves as our unofficial celebration of the supernatural, I posit, an important way that our society expresses its interest in and vents its fears of what may lie outside of or beyond our known world.

How exactly did our primary symbol of supernaturalism evolve into such a monster? Driven by marketers, Halloween has surfed the wave of supernaturalism over the years, directly defying the logic and rationalism of modernism. The history of the supernatural in America is as strange and complex as any, a brief tour of the subject reveals.

Immediately following World War I, the supernatural became nothing short of a sensation, with key figures of the movement like Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) giving talks about “spiritism” at Carnegie Hall and other big halls across the country. Lodge and Doyle, both British, toured America to packed houses, the Rolling Stones of their day. With millions of loved ones recently dead from either the war or the 1918 influenza epidemic, their argument that ghosts were among us touched a collective nerve. The media and public quickly took sides, the line drawn in the sand between believers and non-believers.

Just as quickly, religious leaders attacked the supernatural, defending their turf by claiming their beliefs were the truly spiritual ones. Supernatural was labeled the enemy of organized Christianity, the modern equivalent of a false idol. After all, if ghosts really are among us, people do not truly leave this earth, meaning the idea of heaven and hell pretty much goes out the ecclesiastical window. The mainstream scientific community joined religious leaders as an enemy of the supernatural, their common cause the only reason for such an unlikely alliance. Like the religious, scientists had a big stake in the matter, as much of their thinking would also have to be overhauled if supernatural phenomena were real.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, dismayed by how prevalent Americans’ belief in the supernatural had become and how big a role it was playing in popular culture, leading scientists formed a coalition to try to stem the rising tide. (Astrology, which was now more popular than it had been at the turn-of-the-century, was a particularly painful thorn in scientists’ side, as was the book The Secret Life of Plants, in which the authors claimed that communication between humans was possible not just with dogs and cats but houseplants.)

Rationalism itself was at stake, these eggheads argued, a return to the ignorance of the Dark Ages conceivable if half a millennium of scientific progress took a backseat to the likes of Chariots of the Gods, “ancient astronauts,” and “pyramid power.” Fearing it could perhaps be the end of civilization as we knew it, notables such as B.F. Skinner, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Jay Gould enlisted in the cause, challenging parapsychologists on all fronts by demanding scientific proof of any and all claims.

For some critics, even “proof” would not be enough, however; the idea of there being forces outside the laws of nature simply went beyond the limits of the imagination. “Science can answer many questions, but when faced with death and other ultimate problems of meaning, the scientific world view either responds with silence or suggests skepticism,” wrote David J. Hess in the preface to his Science in the New Age, thinking that was why both supernaturalism and religion remained such powerful forces in contemporary society.

Mary Roach could not agree more that it was inevitable that most scientists would remain skeptics even if faced with firm evidence of paranormal phenomena. “Proof is an elusive quarry, and all the more so when you are trying to prove an intangible,” she wrote in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, believing that “the more you expose the intricacies and realities of the situation, the less clear-cut things become.”

While the believers (“sheep”) and the non-believers (“goats”) battled it out, the cultural voice of the supernatural got louder and louder over the years, reflecting its growing popularity and market appeal. Always a provocative part of American pop culture (the “Topper” series of films and Noel Coward’s Broadway hit Blithe Spirit, most memorably), the supernatural drew its biggest audience with the TV show Bewitched in the mid-1960s. This was small potatoes compared to what lurked around the bend, however, as the supernatural found a happy home within the outside-the-box values of the counterculture.

With faith in both science and religion on the rocks, there was a window of opportunity for the supernatural to go to another level in popularity, which is exactly what happened. Movies like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Amityville Horror poured out of Hollywood and equally horrific books out of Stephen King, comprising a new (and very profitable) genre of entertainment grounded in scaring the heck out of viewers and readers. Now, in our post-X-Files era, every other show on television seems to be about some aspect of the supernatural, with both fictional and non-fictional mediums, psychics, and ghost hunters offering glimpses of the other side to millions of curious viewers.

The tipping point of the supernatural in the 1970s could be seen well beyond pop culture. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s report that he had a “peak experience” while in space certainly got people’s attention, as did Uri Geller’s apparent ability to bend spoons with his mind (despite failing to do so on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show). Helped in by a strong vote of confidence by anthropologist Margaret Mead, parapsychology was accepted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, official recognition that the fledgling field was legitimate. (It was later booted out.) Researchers began calling paranormal phenomena “anomalies,” this more scientific term another attempt to get rid of the kookiness associated with the field. Universities began teaching courses in the paranormal, finding young minds quite interested in the subject and open to its possibilities.

Buoyed by its elevation in status, funding in the field increased, a long shot for investors but one that would pay huge dividends if researchers hit pay dirt by discovering real-world applications for parapsychology. Psychic detectives were a perfect example of how the power of the supernatural could be tapped, the ability for some to locate missing people suggesting that they could possibly locate other things, like oil or precious gems and metals. Other investors were now using psychics and astrologers to play the stock market, thinking such folks had some true insider information that could reap big returns.

Ghosts, historically something to be frightened of, were fast becoming a popular tourist attraction, the beginning of our all-the-rage “most haunted houses” entertainment concept. International interest in parapsychology too was on the rise, especially in the Soviet Union, not surprising given that country’s long tradition of belief in the supernatural.

Like the counterculture, the New Age movement of the 1980s proved to be a powerful force for the supernatural to be aligned with. The supernatural went upscale in the eighties, recast as a trendy activity as much Wall Street as Main Street. With thinking different the order of the day by tapping into the intuitive, inductive, and creative parts of our brain, the supernatural was now swimming with the cultural tide rather than against it. The specious pastime of communicating with the dead was re-branded as channeling, offering millions of the spiritually disenchanted a direct, personal way to connect with a higher power.

That the principal face of the movement, Shirley MacLaine, was smart, attractive, successful, and talented certainly did not hurt. The actress’s self-deprecating sense of humor about her past lives and contact with aliens was also refreshing, as was the revelation that otherwise conservative First Lady Nancy Reagan dabbled in astrology. Soon yuppies were having their astrological charts done, visiting psychics, and carrying crystals in their Coach bags, their “you never know” attitude bringing more sheep into the flock of believers. In the late eighties, however, the supernatural skies got decidedly darker as paranoia and conspiracy crept into the equation.

With the Cold War over, the enemy was now within, the U.S. government the last institution in the world to be trusted. And rather than the harmless phenomenon they were in the 1970s, UFOs became more sinister, part of a massive government cover-up, with alien abductions a particularly concerning paranormal “anomaly.”

Defying all logic, the last couple of decades have proved to be fruitful ones for the supernatural. The “entertainment society” of the 1990s laid the foundation for the supernatural to become a mainstay of popular culture, its inherent edginess offering lots of creative elbow room in a media environment getting harder and harder to capture viewers’ and readers’ attention. As well, the supernatural has benefited from “the Oprah effect,” a heavily therapeutic aura now hovering over attempts to communicate with loved ones on the other side.

Of course, the explosion of the online universe has exponentially advanced the ability for the supernaturally inclined to find each other, with the Internet host to hundreds of subcultures dedicated to some aspect of it. The crossing over into a new century and new millennium has made recent years only that much more supernaturally friendly, with no reason to believe that Halloween will, despite continued advances in science and technology, ever vanish like a ghost.