Courtesy of Freestocks

Fall is a season of change. Perhaps that’s why I like it. The muggy, stifling air becomes crisp and cool; trees develop a dazzling spectrum of yellows, oranges, and reds; and Starbucks revives their pumpkin spice lattes with full force. All these things contribute to my mounting excitement, but the biggest factor is, without question, Walmart’s annual shift from bookish back-to-school tedium to the morbid scarefest of Halloween. Ever since I can remember, it has been my favorite holiday, and, although I’ve since retired from my lucrative trick-or-treating career, I am drawn to its creepy aesthetics. This won’t come as much of a surprise to folks who have seen the macabre skull decor strewn about my apartment yearround, but it might surprise people who know me from church. After all, I am a devout Roman Catholic, and if there is one more autumnal tradition I can count on, it’s Americans inevitably circling back to the age-old debate about the merits of Halloween and whether a Christian has any business celebrating it.

Although countless Christians participate in nationwide Halloween celebrations each year, it is nevertheless a controversial and even divisive topic in religious circles. Memes circulate on Facebook every October reminding parents that Halloween is rooted in ancient pagan festivals of the dead, thus insinuating guilt by association for those who instill these rites in their children. Others go so far as to claim the day as a festival of Satanism and witchcraft that Christians should avoid at all costs. More moderate opponents argue that since the Christian faith is founded on Christ’s victory over death, a holiday devoted to death and fear is inappropriate at best, if not wholly hypocritical. This debate has led many Protestant congregations to offer family-friendly “Fall Fests” or “Reformation Day” celebrations as a pious alternative, but the controversy is also alive and well in the Catholic community, with apologists and priests not hesitating to give their two cents. Unsurprisingly, there is a wide spectrum of views. Father Stephen Rossetti, author of the autobiographical Diary of an American Exorcist, says he experiences a marked increase of demonic activity on Halloween compared to any other day, not because of any inherent power from the day itself, but rather due to increased attention and experimentation with the occult.[1] Fr. Vincent Lampert, another exorcist, holds a more moderate view, stating that dressing up in costumes and getting candy is merely innocent fun and that Halloween is only problematic when people begin to glorify evil.[2],[3] Other prominent Catholic voices, such as apologist Jimmy Akin[4] and theologian Tom Nash[5], defend the holiday’s relationship to medieval Christian feasts and suggest Catholics use the day as an opportunity to evangelize, though they are still wary of the holiday’s “darker” side. Although these men bring up points worth considering, it is worth asking whether their seeming distrust of the “death” aspects of Halloween is legitimate. In fact, from a historically-informed Catholic perspective, it is reasonable to accept the modern holiday’s focus on horror with open arms. This is because even though Halloween is, in America, a largely commercial phenomenon, the holiday’s focus on death and the macabre is deeply rooted in Catholic tradition. Modern-day Catholics should fight to reclaim our Triduum of Death from those who would make it about Satan and his kingdom. This is our holiday, and the Devil doesn’t get to take it from us.

From Celebration to Scandal: A Brief History of Halloween

Out of all the arguments levied against Halloween and its celebrants, none is quite as prolific as the claim that Halloween is, at its core, a pagan celebration. At this point, it’s safe to say that the heathen origins of Halloween are just as much a part of our cultural “common knowledge” as the color blindness of dogs or the tendency of piranhas to eat anything that moves. By this, I mean that the claim originated from a small kernel of truth that has snowballed out of proportion to the point that it has now effectively become a myth. And because this myth is used to guilt well-meaning religious people to do away with beloved family traditions, I believe it merits a solid debunking.

The claim that Halloween is a pagan celebration comes from the celebration of Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter in pre-Christian Celtic cultures. Samhain was a harvest festival that involved sacred bonfires, feasting, divination, and disguises, among other things. In these ancient cultures, it was considered a time when the “veil” between the corporeal and the spiritual world was thin, and spirits were able to cross over to the realm of the living.[6] Samhain’s late-fall occurrence, associations with the supernatural, and surface-value similarities to future Halloween traditions, along with a small amount of written evidence that Christians “reclaimed” pagan sites in order to convert people, have led some scholars to theoretically consider Halloween a “baptized” version of Samhain. However, this theory is far from universal, and other scholars have argued that Samhain’s relationship to Halloween is minimal. According to this alternate theory, Halloween arose purely as a Christian celebration, and its similarities to pagan festivals are coincidental.[7]

Although it is likely that the truth lies somewhere between these two theories, it cannot be stressed enough that Halloween is as much a Christian holiday as Christmas or Easter. In fact, its origins lie in an 8th-century decree by Pope Gregory III, who dedicated a small chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to all the saints on November 1st. The date gained local significance as a celebration of the saints until roughly a hundred years later when Gregory III’s successor, Gregory IV, made “All Hallows’ Day” a festival for the entire Church, taking place on November 1st each year. Like all Catholic festivals, the vigil, “All Hallows’ Eve” was also incorporated into the celebration. Later on, November 2nd—called “All Souls’ Day”—became the third day of the feast of “Allhallowtide,” also known as the “Triduum of Death.”[8]

As the feast spread throughout the universal Church, different cultures began to add traditions of their own to the feast, such as ringing church bells in remembrance of the dead or giving out freshly-baked loaves of bread, known as “soul cakes,” to costumed townsfolk who promised to pray for the souls in Purgatory as payment.[9] Although these traditions were undoubtedly part of the fun of the celebration, at their core, they were meant to help the faithful focus on the central themes of the holiday: a celebration honoring the saints in Heaven (the Church triumphant), the importance of praying for the souls in Purgatory (the Church suffering), and a grim reminder for the living (the Church militant) to get right with God before death. Far from a day of witchcraft and superstition, Allhallowtide served as a necessary reality check to people living in the chaotic and often violent socio-cultural climate of pre-modern Europe.

Halloween’s gradual decline began, ironically, on October 31st, when a German monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses into a church door, kickstarting the turbulence of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation, by its very nature, was a time when the beliefs and customs of Roman Catholicism were re-examined in light of new theological systems. Several doctrines, including the cult of the saints and the doctrine of Purgatory, were cut entirely on the grounds that they were “unbiblical.” Of course, this had disastrous repercussions for Allhallowtide, as the feast centered on these two doctrines. The Protestant suppression of the holiday is understandable if seen from the Reformers’ point of view. After all, if Purgatory is merely an extra-biblical superstition and our prayers should only be directed to God, then who are these other spirits to whom the laity address their honor and love on All Hallows’ Eve? If not God, the saints in Heaven, or the suffering souls in Purgatory, the process of elimination leaves only demons and the souls of the damned!

In light of this chilling concept, Halloween was soon conflated with witchcraft and Satanism, although many traditions of the old holiday remained, especially in Ireland and the British Isles. As time went on and Europeans began to immigrate en masse to America, they brought their folk customs along with them, including the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve. Although the tradition had been significantly disfigured over time, it soon began to catch on as a secular American holiday until it became the commercialized phenomenon we know today.[10]

In light of this more nuanced understanding of Halloween’s origins, it is time to address more fully the claim that, regardless of Halloween’s long history as a Christian holiday, it remains unacceptable to celebrate it because it borrowed customs from pagan culture. Although I sympathize with well-meaning Christians who want to go out of their way to please God, I must ask why it is such a horrible thing to borrow customs and imagery from pagan cultures. Culture does not exist in a vacuum. Human society is constantly shaped by cultural exchange, and virtually every custom we claim as our own has its roots in some other custom from the past. History shapes our present reality. The same can be said for the newly-converted Christians of the past, who had just given up the most central aspect of their identity—their religion. Would it really have been fair, or even realistic, for the Church to have demanded their new converts to scrap every single innocuous cultural custom they had and invent new ones from thin air simply because they had some connection to the old religion? To demand that an entire nation give up their way of life overnight is far riskier than merely allowing them to continue their same customs for different reasons. After all, symbols can mean different things in different contexts. Who is to say that a pagan symbol cannot be made into a Christian symbol to help catechumens personalize their newfound faith?

“Remember Death”

Another charge levied against the celebration of Halloween involves its focus on death and horror. Christianity is a religion of life, the argument goes, so therefore, dedicating a day to death and fear shows an inability to grasp the reality of eternal life. After all, Christ rose from the dead. Why, then, should we Christians allow fear of any sort, especially fear of death, into our lives? On its face, this seems like a good argument, but upon deeper analysis, it betrays a certain ignorance of early Christian traditions.

Despite assertions to the contrary, Christianity was never a feel-good religion in which death was glibly denied in lieu of the Resurrection. To the early Christians, death was a grim reality, and gruesome martyrdom was a sobering threat. While it is true that Christ conquered death, countless writings from the early Church, as well as the teachings of Jesus himself, stress the importance of continual repentance and perseverance in holiness, lest a believer fall away into perdition.[11] The bones of particularly holy men and women were preserved as relics for the purposes of veneration and “the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”[12] These practices may come off as creepy or even scandalous to our modern sensibilities, but they served a purpose: as memento mori.

Memento mori is a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “remember death.” It is an ancient custom, far older than Christianity, although the practice has been widespread in Christian worship since its earliest days, as the aforementioned customs illustrate. As time went on and the Church expanded its influence, the motif persisted throughout the Renaissance. Relics continued to be displayed and venerated, entire monastic orders were founded on the concept of memento mori,[13] and popular exhortative plays depicted the Danse Macabre, a trope in which a personified Death approached actors representing various social classes and roles, bringing them the news of their untimely death. The “dying” actors would struggle and fight, refusing to come along with Death, but Death would always overpower them. The foolish mortal would succumb to his fate. The moral of the story was painfully obvious: death is inevitable, so prepare yourself while you still can.[14]

To some, this may seem like a coercive scare tactic, a way to frighten the masses into submission with threats of damnation. But is it any different than Christ’s admonitions about Gehenna or the frightening apocalyptic imagery of the book of Revelation? Far from being mere political subjugation or a preoccupation with death, the Catholic practice of memento mori is all about bringing the reality of eternal life into sharper focus.

Modern Horror in Christian Practice

With this understanding of the role of death imagery in Christian worship throughout the ages, it is now possible to examine the role such imagery can play in modern Halloween celebrations. Admittedly, the “scary” aspects of contemporary Halloween are markedly different from the memento mori imagery of Allhallowtide. One does not need a history degree to know that Renaissance Catholics did not dress up as werewolves or greenish-gray zombies and jump out at their friends. Compared to the more abstract focus on death in the ancient world, modern horror tends to focus on these frightening entities, like ghosts and monsters, or on terrifying circumstances, like curses or serial killings. Of course, demonic imagery can also be brought into the mix, as is evident in movies like The Exorcist.

This is the point where many religious people understandably get cold feet and wonder if this is the sort of material that a Christian should consume. Focusing on sin and death is one thing, but is it becoming for a Christian to bring Count Dracula into the mix? What about the demonic nun from The Conjuring? I think here it is important to separate, as Fr. Lampert said, “innocent fun” from “glorifying evil.” Although Fr. Lampert and I may have different thresholds for what we consider “innocent,” I believe that we can both agree that decorating your house with imagery of evil spirits or otherwise celebrating demonic entities is out of the question, as are attempts to communicate with spirits, such as by hosting a seance. Christian tradition has given good reasons for rejecting occult practices. Our faith tells us that demons, unlike Count Dracula, are real and dangerous, and we do not want to celebrate them, give them attention, or otherwise welcome them into our lives.

However, not all “scary things” are necessarily demonic, and this is a very important distinction to make. Many things that we consider “scary” are not associated with spiritual warfare, but with our mortality as animals. The truth of the matter is that we live in a fallen world and that death is a reality for each of us. This reality is deeply ingrained in our psychological makeup, and we experience it as the instinctual fight-or-flight response. This evolved trait helped our ancient ancestors survive attacks from predatory animals, but in our modern era, nature is no longer a threat. Sabertooth tigers are extinct, and many of us have never encountered a wild animal that intended to eat us. While our natural fear of death remains, the imagery that represents it has changed drastically over time. Early on, it was wild animals, in another time, it was the skull-and-bones imagery of a plague-ridden corpse, and in our modern, cushy era, we have had to invent imaginary boogeymen on which to project our instinctual fears. In this sense, imaginary monsters like werewolves or undead mummies are nothing more than symbols of death, exactly like a skull or art depicting the Danse Macabre.

Evidence in support of this understanding of monsters as a symbolic memento mori lies in our attraction to horror as an artistic genre. I fondly remember my childhood days spent curled up in a corner reading one of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps novels, relishing the chills cascading down my spine with each uncanny scene. As an adult, I spend my hard-earned money to watch horror movies with my friends as a form of recreation, as do countless other people. In some sense, this seems counterintuitive. Being faced with an actual survival situation is traumatizing, so why do so many people willingly scare themselves with monsters on the big screen? The answer may lie in threat-simulation theory, a biological hypothesis that attempts to explain our attraction to horror as an evolutionary drive to experience simulated danger in a safe environment. Through this simulation, we can “practice” what we would do if ever placed in a similarly life-threatening position. Anyone who has ever yelled at the movie screen when a character foolishly goes to “investigate” a creepy noise is well aware of this phenomenon, as this frustration comes from an understanding that they would never be so stupid. This cognitive experience of safely experiencing, assessing, and responding to a simulated threat activates our sympathetic nervous system and releases adrenaline, which gives us a pleasurable “high,” thus rewarding our behavior and making it more likely that we will “practice” survival again.[15]

Because humanity seems to have evolved to take pleasure from simulated danger and because this trait seems to exist to help us survive, we should acknowledge that this is a part of God’s design for humanity. It is the way he made us, in his infinite wisdom, knowing that we would live as fallen mortals, deprived of his shielding grace that would have protected us from the inheritance of our animal ancestry. He gave us the desire to simulate danger out of love, for our protection. Far from spurning God to celebrate death, occasionally immersing ourselves in horror imagery and intentionally grappling with it is an acceptance of this gift ordered towards safety and life! As Stephen King, perhaps the most famous horror writer of all time, observed in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, “Horror movies do not love death, as some have suggested; they love life. They do not celebrate deformity, but by dwelling on deformity they sing of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned they help us rediscover the smaller joys of our own lives.”[16]

Olivia Hill ’24 is pursuing a degree in
psychology while working at a therapy center for
autistic children. She is a devout Catholic and
lives in Holland, MI with three roommates
and the love of her life: a drawer of exotic


[1] Stephen J. Rossetti, “Halloween Will Be Ugly,” in Diary of an American Exorcist (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2021), 188-89, Kindle.

[2] Fr. Vincent P. Lampert, “Playing the Devil’s Game,” in Exorcism: The Battle Against Satan and His Demons (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2020), 50-51.

[3] Charbel Raish, “Fr. Vincent Lampert: Exorcism, Halloween and the Demonic,” November 3, 2020, in Parousia Podcast, produced by Parousia Media, podcast, MP3 audio, 14:38,

[4] Jimmy Akin, “Jimmy Akin: Is It Okay to Let Your Children Celebrate Halloween?” December 22, 2015, on Catholic Answers Live, produced by Catholic Answers, video of interview, watch?v=gUfQMfyZ8JM.

[5] Tom Nash, “It’s OK to Celebrate Halloween,” Catholic Answers (blog), its-ok-to-celebrate-halloween/.

[6] “Samhain,” British Broadcasting Corporation, October 19, 2011,

[7] “All Hallow’s Eve,” British Broadcasting Corporation (website), October 20, 2011,

[8] Francis Mershman, “All Saints’ Day,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), accessed online February 11, 2023,

[9] T. Susan Chang, “Soul Cakes: Halloween Offerings for Hungry Ghosts,” National Public Radio (blog), October 24, 2007,

[10] Joe Kelly, “The Catholic Church and Halloween,” The Catholic Spirit (blog), October 26, 2017,

[11] Catholic Answers, “What the Early Church Believed: Mortal Sin,” Catholic Answers (blog), August 10, 2004,

[12] “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), republished online at New Advent by Kevin Knight, accessed February 13, 2023,

[13] Florence McGaha, “Paulists,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 11 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), accessed online February 13, 2023,

[14] Charles Herbermann and George Williamson, “Dance of Death,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 4 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908), accessed online February 11, 2023, htm/.

[15] Mathias Clasen et al, “Horror, Personality and Threat Simulation: A Survey on the Psychology of Scary Media,” Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14, no. 3 (2020),

[16] Stephen King, Danse Macabre (New York: Gallery Books, 2010), chap. 6, sec. 11, Kindle.

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