Halloween is not an easy time for those of us brought up to respect the principles of the Enlightenment. According to those principles, we human beings can only take our next step forward by banishing all our fantastic supernatural beliefs, and building a world based on scientific knowledge and humanistic principles. On Halloween we take several steps backwards. In the eighteenth century, philosophers like Voltaire confidently expected that superstition – “That infamous thing” as he called it – would soon vanish and that the world would move into a golden age of reason and science. How disappointed he would be to see us now, still captivated by some of the oldest and silliest superstitions and magical beliefs.
The desire to believe in mystical forces of good and evil seems almost to be hard-wired. All our myths and stories show it. Our modern myth-makers, whose dream factories are located in a northern suburb of Los Angeles, lose no chance to remind us that the universe is divided neatly into good guys and bad guys, both with quasi-supernatural powers. Batman has the Joker; Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort; Frodo Baggins has Lord Sauron (why so many evil lords, I wonder?); Superman has Lex Luthor, and so on more or less ad infinitem. Every good witch of the north must contend with a wicked witch of the east. For every Force there must be a Dark Side, or where’s the storyline?
At this darkening time of year, we seem to like the Dark Side especially. It speaks to us with its tales of vampires and werewolves, hobgoblins and bad fairies, unquiet spirits and tormenting demons that still haunt our dreams and provide the imagery for some of our most popular fictions. It has been slyly suggested by some European critics that, due to an unfortunate confusion between Hollywood storylines and real-life, these myths of good and evil also provide the justification for a lot of our foreign policies.
Voltaire had already despaired of the human race in 1778. He would certainly despair all over again today when he would find us preparing to celebrate All Hallows Eve, the Eve of Witches. He understood all too well that there are no hidden forces -although there may be secret ones. The Caped Avenger won’t save us, but on the other hand, Galactic Evil Empire is unlikely to blow up the universe. What we see around us is what we get – the ordinary human muddle, full of uncertainty, and ambiguity. “Doubt is not a pleasant condition,” wrote Voltaire, “But certainty is absurd.”
Of course, Halloween is not really – or at least not consciously – a celebration of the forces of darkness. It’s mainly about amusing small children, and marketing chocolate and orange plastic. But when millions of kids and adults, at a cost of two and a half-billion dollars, adorn themselves and their homes with medieval death symbolism on the eve of the traditional Day of the Dead, it does make you wonder if the mentality of the Dark Ages is quite as far behind us as we like to imagine. We may not be ready for the Enlightenment quite yet.