It’s that time of year again – a season in which the weather, the temperature, the colour of the sky, all of these elements conspire to create a general ambience that I think of as “spiritual”, “adventuresome”, “ethereal”, “otherworldly”. For that reason it’s one of my favourite times of year.
But why do we, in this age of “hyper-rationality” (so-called, of course – see end note!*) celebrate Halloween, anyway? Most moderns have not heard of All Hallow’s Eve, and view Halloween chiefly as an excuse to dress up, maybe get a little drunk, and get a bit scared. That’s too bad, because I think Halloween fills a very real purpose; it address a certain longing of the soul, and it’s only been this year that I’ve really been able to articulate what this is. Just as, for example, Christmas is the time of year for celebrating Christ’s birth, and Remembrance Day commemorates the sacrifice of our soldiers, so Halloween is a time of the year for coming to terms firstly with death, but also with the numinous, and the fear of the numinous.
I’ve lately been reading through Classic Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories (which I highly recommend if you like that kind of thing – the tales are great), which has reminded me of a discussion we had at Bonald’s old blog a year ago. In the comments there, I quoted this page:
The mysterium tremendum implies three qualities of the numinous:
a. its absolute unapproachability,
b. its power,
c. its urgency or energy, a force which is most easily perceived in the “wrath of God.”
It has been suggested that Gothic fiction originated primarily as a quest for the mysterium tremendum.
The numinous grips or stirs the mind powerfully and produces the following responses:
Numinous dread. Otto calls the feeling of numinous dread, aka awe or awe-fullness, the mysterium tremendum. C.S. Lewis’s illustration makes clear the nature of numinous dread and its difference from ordinary fear:
Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a might spirit in the room” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.
The writer suggests that Gothic fiction originated as a quest for the numinous. I find that very plausible, and argue that in fact *Halloween* today represents a quest for the numinous – and not just a quest to encounter or evoke the numinous, but to grapple with the fear of the numinous.
Modern man has attempted to eject God from conscious thought – but we cannot escape God, not really. Because the knowledge of God is written on our hearts, the mysterium tremendum is a defining characteristic of the human experience, and if we exclude it from conscious thought it comes back to haunt us on a subconscious level. We can’t escape the fear of the numinous realm, and our need to grapple with it.
Modern Halloween, and the enthralment many of us feel with “ghost stories”, graveyards, scary experiences, with death in general, is thus a sloppy, kindergarten-grade effort (sloppy because we don’t allow ourselves to fully or accurately appreciate the numinous; because *consciously* we deny that there could be such a thing as a “numinous” experience) to understand death – not just to understand death, but to understand the numinous, terrible feeling we get when we contemplate death.
*It’s been quite interesting, reading through the 19th-century ghost stories, that more than one of them contains variations of the idea that one character experiences something apparently supernatural, and another character disbelieves him, citing grounds of “rationality”. Plus ca change – modern arguments about the “irrationality” of spiritual belief are much older than some may think!