By Rae Jefferson
As Halloween draws near, churches across America are gearing up for the holiday and are looking for ways to put a faith-friendly spin on things.
The historically macabre holiday has received plenty of criticism from churches in recent years, but some churches are finding ways to take the element of fear out of Halloween, said religion department lecturer Dr. Joe Coker.
There has been a noticeable shift in the church’s attitude towards Halloween over the last few decades, Coker said. While some churches remain neutral and allow congregates to choose whether or not to celebrate the holiday on their own, many churches have either adopted a negative view of Halloween or aim to create a safe environment for young trick-or-treaters.
“It’s a tricky question to answer ‘What are churches doing?’ because they’re doing so much.”
Coker said churches who refute the holiday do so under the belief that participating in Halloween supports ideas and practices that are contrary to Christian doctrine.
Many of these churches avoid what they believe to be “blessing” a pagan tradition, Coker said.
“That’s been a growing movement over the last 20 years,” Coker said.
Other churches host fall festivals or trunk-or-treats, events where children dress in unfrightening costumes and collect candy from the trunks of cars belonging to church members, as a way of providing safe alternatives to traditional trick-or-treating, Coker said.
Various forms of evangelism are often implemented at these events.
“A big trend is to provide a safe alternative,” he said. “Kids still go out, they dress up, but they do it in an environment where they are amongst people they know. It’s an alternative to wandering the streets.”
Nacogdoches senior Ashton Barber said she has seen firsthand the benefit of churches hosting Halloween alternatives.
Barber attends Acts Church, which is located in an urban community in Waco. Acts focuses on ministering to families in the surrounding area through community events such as its annual fall festival, she said.
“The fall festival is definitely beneficial, and the environment that’s created is one of love,” Barber said.
The event includes activities for children, such as games, face painting and a costume contest, as well a time of worship, Barber said.
“We believe everything is about Jesus Christ,” she said. “We’re clearly not exalting fear, but we also want to let everyone have the chance to have fun in a safe, non-threatening environment.”
Barber said she thinks one of the best qualities of the fall festival is its location.
“Everything takes place outside in the parking lot,” she said. “Some people have been so turned away from Christianity, but we never even set foot in the church building, so there’s no pressure of church on people who don’t feel comfortable there.”
Coker said these kinds of events allude to some churches making a shift away from the idea that Halloween is contrary to the nature of Christ.
“In some ways, that might fit into this idea of taking the scary out of Halloween,” he said.
Coker said Halloween did not become prevalent in American society until the 1950s. During this time, churches remained neutral toward the holiday. Congregations were not encouraged to participate in trick-or-treating, but the morality of doing so was not questioned.
“It was a bit more innocent, innocuous, even,” he said.
Initially, celebration of the holiday was light and fun. Children would travel around neighborhoods in hopes of filling up a candy sack. Costumes were simple and placed less emphasis on the gruesome details seen in many of today’s Halloween getups, Coker said.
Over the last few decades, the holiday has taken on a noticeably darker connotation. Coker said this is likely a reflection of the overall attitude of American culture.
“It’s not just an innocent Charlie Brown sheet-over-your-head-with-holes-for-your-eyes ghost costume anymore,” he said. “Movies, video games, music, everything is more graphic, so I think it’s just to be expected that our depictions of what is gruesome to get more graphic as well.”
In response, churches began to identify Halloween with witchcraft and demonic forces, placing special emphasis on the emerging Wiccan practices of the late 1980s.
Coker said churches succumbed to what historians called “the satanic panic.”
“During the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, there was a greater fear of Satanism and the occult and witchcraft,” Coker said. “They saw it as something rather dangerous.”
As haunted houses became staples to Halloween celebrations, churches started hosting “hell houses,” a haunted house-style form of evangelism, Coker said. Hell houses, which were popular in the 1990s, utilize fear of punishment in hell to convey the participant’s need for salvation.
“It presents the horrors of hell and damnation,” Coker said. “They’re tapping into the scary element of Halloween and using it as an evangelization tool, using it as witnessing.”
In an email to the Lariat, Dr. Doug Weaver, religion department director of undergraduate studies, said hell houses are decorated to look like “the fires of hell.”
Weaver said participants tour a building that aims to invoke a fear that “scares the hell” out of them, or cause them to accept hell as a reality and turn to Christian beliefs “before it is too late.”
Coker said hell houses are no longer prominent because of the fear-based evangelism that is used.