The Zombie Zoo and Trick-or-Treat Theology
The dead children were especially cute. But it wasn’t just the children; all the dead people walking up and down the streets of downtown Wilmington were captivating in their own way. Or maybe they weren’t dead as much as they were undead, whatever that means. But whether they were dead or undead, they walked with their arms stretched straight and legs locked. Rigor mortis had grinded their joints into a harden, fixed position. Eyes had flattened and looked ghostly vacant. Even though flesh eating bacteria scavenged their faces for scrumptious morsels, and dried blood had splashed on the corner of mouths and cheeks and throats, even though they shared a pasty, pale jaundice, and their garments suffered dry rot, no one could deny the beauty and joy the dead people shared.
Not that dead people speak English, or speak at all, they seem to grunt and snarl more than talk – like cable news – but I was led to believe by more than a few of these undead-dead people that they were in fact zombies. Now, I’m not an expert on the ghoulish, demonic under-worldly stuff that surfaces annually during autumn, but I take it that zombies are reanimated corpses. How a corpse is reanimated is subject to interpretation. Magic, radiation, viruses, freaky scientific accidents, all these and more can bring the dead back into this world. Was Gollum a zombie, maybe; was Michael Jackson in Thriller a zombie, probably; Bill Murray’s greatest cameo ever in Zombieland, absolutely, he was a zombie.
The point is, zombies are our friends. They’re nice people who are a little bit down and out and a lot hungry. And we Christians should be up with that given our own body and blood proclivities. The question lingers, though. Is the Zombie Zoo something good, church going Christians can participate in?
Early on, Halloween assuaged my fears of fall. That might seem backwards for a child, but it is true. I hated fall and everything it meant. The falling leaves, the bobbing for apples, corduroy blue jeans, hay bales, cooling temperatures, but mostly the brand-new school year. A year’s worth of spelling test, bible memorization, math homework – long division, fractions, even numbers, counting by fingers – even recess was a grisly affair for a socially awkward child. There was nothing at all good about fall, except Halloween.
At first Halloween was that cutesy holiday my mom inflicted on her new-born children. I remember that first costume, the polka dotted clown outfits she made for my older brother and me – complete with polka dotted clown hats with a tasseled top. She had bought the fabric and the clown patterns at Handcock Fabrics on the corner of Brainerd and Airport Road. Then with her Singer sewing machine she had worked for days stitching the costumes together. My younger brother lucked out and got to wear his Winnie-the-Pooh onesie with a matching clown scarf.
This is why so many adults today have nightmares about clowns. Parents dressing up their children as clowns on Halloween cripples a new brain into an associative nightmare. Clowns with fangs. Zombie clowns. Murdering clowns. Clowns hiding in the sewers. Presidential clowns. Clowns are terrible monsters that should be eradicated, and I know all of this from that first Halloween costume that itched.
Straightaway, Halloween took a dark turn. When my mom checked my collection for tampered wrappers and razor-blade apples and laced candy, I knew the world was a dangerous place. The stack of candy that was deemed safe to eat was just as high as the candy that was discarded. The message was clear. The neighbor who pinched my cheek and told me how adorable I was, the neighbor who insisted my brothers and I stand together for a photo while our clown costumes scratched us, the neighbor who called her beer drinking husband to the door to see the “darling children” might be trying to kill us. The entire neighborhood was suspect.
It seems reasonable to think that if Halloween were so overtly dangerous we wouldn’t participate. But the only thing worse than the neighbors’ clandestine homicidal intentions was the fear of offending these same neighbors by not ringing their doorbell.
As we grew, though, either my mom decided tainted candy wasn’t as big of a concern as she thought or we had driven her crazy enough that she just couldn’t mount the effort anymore. That is to say, I was free to dress myself for Halloween and run around, not with my insufferable brothers, but my neighborhood friends. For at least that one night, I could forget about school, homework, Mrs. Gailick, and being called to the chalkboard. I didn’t have to worry about why I couldn’t pass a spelling test or the anxiety stew called the playground. I was on my own turf, after hours, and if Halloween meant anything, it meant that the school year wasn’t brand-new anymore. Thanksgiving was close. And Christmas was after that. And then the school year was half over.
What is it with our zombie fetish? Who can count the number of zombie movies, TV shows, Playstation games, and t-shirts, bumper stickers, lunch boxes, even zombie jewelry? I’m sure there have been all kinds of articles explaining our zombie fixation but this isn’t one of them. The zombies I found in downtown Wilmington were raising money for the hungry, which seems a tad ironic for zombies but nonetheless honorable.
They gathered at The Calico Room, paid their five dollars to support the food bank, and splattered themselves with make-up, fake blood, and oatmeal. (The oatmeal made their skin look like a rat had been gnawing on their face.) When the make-up artists were done, zombie clowns, zombie brides, zombie nurses, zombie cowboys, zombie vampires, and your run-of-the-mill zombie, packed the bar and sidewalk. It was a zombie apocalypse for a good cause.
By the time I was in Divinity school, Halloween was out. I had matured in my faith, put away childish things, and set about a humorless life. Halloween rivaled the Church – pitting the forces of darkness against the Light. When my son’s school did Halloween events, he didn’t get to dress up as an itching clown or a Ninja Turtle or Darth Maul. Instead, we took the opportunity to explain that Christians were different. There was us and there was them. And then when the church started doing Trunk-or-Treat, we had to explain that even the best churches were compromised by the world. We were hard-core.
On Halloween night, we turned off the lights on the porch and all the lights inside. We did our best to make the house look uninviting and empty. And for the most part, our efforts worked. But there was always one person, the optimist, who would knock on every single door.
And sure enough, tink, tink, tink, a tiny fist knocked on the sliding glass door. He was a little blond-headed ghost, covered in a white sheet with a hole cut through for his head. His face was white with dark rings around his eyes. Maybe he was four or five. He held his mother’s hand and in the other was a plastic jack-o-lantern for collecting candy. Both his shoes were untied.
If they had gone to the front door, we would have just sat quietly until they left. But they were at the sliding glass door looking at us. Right there. Before I had finished opening the door, the little ghost said, “Trick or Treat.”
I had no candy for the ghost and even if I did my convictions would’ve allowed me to give him any. I opened the door and explained to the mom that we didn’t celebrate Halloween, and she apologized for the intrusion. But the little ghost just stood there with his candy basket raised. As his mom ushered him away, a look of confusion came over his face. He didn’t understand that my holiness had made me so different and disapproving that I couldn’t give him a piece of candy. I shut the door and walked away from the little boy.
Now that I’ve grown out of my Christian maturity, I’ve taken up Halloween again. Last year and the year before and the year before that hundreds and hundreds of ghosts, vampires, zombies, princesses, football players, pirates, wonder women, witches, batmen, cats, and one blow-up dinosour have come to my door with a threat: Trick or Treat. And I give them treats every time. We spend hundreds of dollars on candy and sometimes make an emergency trip to the store to get more.
I wish that little boy ghost would come by. I would fill up his jack-o-lantern and tie his shoes. I would tell him to be sure to come back next year so I can fill up his basket again. And I wish I could dress up my son and take him around the neighborhood. But I can’t. So instead I overindulge the others who may be out for that one night to help them forget that a spelling test or math test is coming soon.
It is a hard thing to know where the world ends and where the church doors begin. Should Christians participate in Halloween? Uh, probably not. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem that important now. But I suspect that Jesus would sooner be hanging out with zombies in a bar, raising money for the hungry than he would show up for a Trunk-or-Treat Christian alternative to the supposed forces of evil. And when Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t care if they were dressed as a ghost looking for a piece of candy.
I think if we are really going to sit out Halloween because we object to the forces of evil, we should be sure that we are fighting the real forces of evil in this world. Hunger, hate crimes, poverty, mass incarcerations, rampant abuse of opioids, white supremacy under the guise of partisan politics, sexual assault, the list goes on and on and on. The devil, demons, darkness and principalities are harmless monsters compared with monsters of real life. Rather than worrying about whether Jesus disapproves of make-up and a chance to forget about life’s troubles for a moment, raising money for charity and giving a child a piece of candy seems more Christian than dressed-up piety.