Halloween is no fun for me anymore. I just can’t bring myself to make fun of ghosts and goblins and devils when there is so much real horror around us. To quote the kid from movie The Sixth Sense, “I see dead people” and I can’t seem to stop.
I started thinking in very literal terms especially about ghosts when all those nooses started appearing post the Jena 6 protests. First, of course, there were the three nooses (in the school colors!) found hanging from the “white student’s tree” in Jena, La., and then a noose on the campus of the University of Maryland, a police locker room in Long Island, NY, a Pittsburgh bus maintenance garage, and other high schools. These twisted ropes are the ghosts of an unburied past in America that is coming back to haunt us.
I see devils too. Now while I totally disagree with Mel Gibson’s theology in The Passion of the Christ, I have to admit that he’s a brilliant filmmaker, able to convey his point in what is nearly a silent film. One of the most astonishing scenes in the film is during the flogging of Jesus, where the onlookers, especially the Jewish leaders, watch this flailing of Jesus’ flesh go on and on with every appearance of enjoyment. Gibson portrays the Devil walking in and out among the Jewish leaders. How anybody could have said this film was not anti-semitic is beyond me.
What Gibson got right, however, is that the Devil is always in the crowd that stands by and in so doing abets horrific mass torture and death. I see devils walking among us today in our failure to confront the ghosts of our past in the real horror of lynching.
If you are uninformed about the extent of and the white community’s participation in the lynching of African Americans in American history, go here to view an extraordinary collection of photos and postcards of the lynching of African Americans. Without Sanctuary is also available as a book.
Go to that Web site. Look at the crowds. Look at the huge crowds. There is a circus-like atmosphere in many, some with giant crowds. Often the photos show the onlookers looking at the camera, some even smiling. There are plainly children in these crowds. If you look at the pictures on the Without Sanctuary Web site you can almost see the Devil among the onlookers. This is real evil and it is haunting us as a nation.
When I wrote a piece for a Chicago paper on the first pictures of torture that appeared from Abu Ghraib, I called it “Can A Nation Lose its Soul?”. An African-American student at Chicago Theological Seminary pointed out to me that the picture the paper ran alongside my article was of a hooded man standing on a box. “This is lynching,” he said. He was right.
How did we get to Abu Ghraib? We got there through slavery, lynching and the whole history of racism in this country that has been choaking and destroying the moral fiber of white America for a long time now. We’ve got to see these ghosts of an unburied past and deal with them. White America in particular is afraid to look at this history and in shunning it continues to be gripped by it.
Oddly enough, this is what Halloween is all about. It’s not in its origins a candy-fest, but originally a Celtic ritual at the time of the year when dark approaches and death becomes more frequent. The Celts recognized a day when the boundary between the dead and living became blurred. On the night of October 31, the ghosts of the dead returned to earth, causing all kinds of trouble. While the church tried to Christianize the Celts and turn this festival of the dead into “All Saints” day, the holiday continued to be about the undead, about ghosts and devils and ghouls and how close to us they really are.
The haunting of America is the reason I don’t find Halloween fun anymore. Specifically as a white American, I say we need to recognize these ghosts and turn and face the devil of racism who has us in his thrall.
Or maybe what I’m doing this year is getting Halloween right for a change. The dead come back and when they do they cause a lot of trouble. I’m beginning to think the Celts were right.