Halloween: Like a zombie, our belief in spooky stuff refuses to die

Senior Research Fellow, Natasha Moore writes for The Sydney Morning Herald about Halloween and whether we really believe in the supernatural.

Got your Halloween costume sorted?

The Australian Retailers Association projects that 5.3 million Aussies will celebrate this 31 October – 300,000 more than last year – to the tune of $490 million.

They also have tips as to the most likely costume choices for 2023. For kids, the top 3 are set to be Spiderman, princess, and ghost. For adults: witch, vampire, and Barbie. And not to leave out the pets – willing or not – plenty of whom will apparently be pounding the neighbourhood footpaths as pumpkins, hot dogs, or bats.

While pop culture references wax and wane in popularity (Mario, various superheroes), the Halloween staples are the supernatural spookies. Ghosts and witches appear in the top 10 for all three categories; zombie, vampire, and devil are also popular.

Of course, the face paint and the jump-scares, the scary movies and front-yard displays, are only fun because it’s play – because we don’t believe the ghosties and the ghoulies are real.

But actually … lots of people do believe just that.

The default position in public in the contemporary West is that we live in a naturalistic world – governed purely by the laws of physics, with belief in the supernatural consigned to a superstitious past. But that position does not seem to be the norm either globally or privately.

Exorcisms are on the rise, from hyper-secular France to the US. In Indonesia, the world’s largest democracy, it’s still routine to consult with shamans before an election. Witchcraft persecutions are not merely the stuff of historical drama, but remain horrifically common around the world.

Many Australians, whether religious or not, also believe in a spirit world of some kind. A 2021 survey found that 60 percent of Australians either believe or are open to belief in miracles; 53 percent to belief in angels; 48 percent to belief in ghosts.

Australia’s Generation Z Study, from 2019, spoke with 13-18-year-olds and discovered that 50 percent of them “definitely believe” in karma, 31 percent in ghosts, and 25 percent in the possibility of communicating with the dead.

In her recent memoir Nothing Bad Ever Happens Here, Australian novelist Heather Rose writes:

“For decades now, I’ve asked strangers if something ever happened that they couldn’t explain. Something outside the normal. To my surprise, I discovered that everyone had a story of a guiding hand, a strange connection, a reassuring presence, something life-saving or life-affirming, something more than a coincidence. Everyone had experienced something that gave them a sense that there was more to life than could be seen, touched or verified.”

Rose describes her own encounters with the supernatural, including seeing her older brother on more than one occasion after he’d died. It’s apparently a common experience – shrouded in silence. A Swedish study on bereavement from the 1990s asked 50 people who had lost spouses in the previous year whether they had experienced any form of contact with their dead partner. At first, only one said yes; however, after the interviewer mentioned that this was a normal part of the grieving process, 25 of the 50 admitted they had. (The study refers to these encounters as “illusions” or “hallucinations”.) Rose says that many, many people have written to her about their own experiences with the dead or with the unseen in response to her book.

I once heard another beloved Australian author, Helen Garner – a Christian – tell a packed City Recital Hall about her own encounter with an angel, years before. It was a Sydney Writers’ Festival crowd, probably about the most secular slice of humanity you could conjure, and though my read on the audience was that they were not about to dismiss the personal experience of this favourite writer, they were not exactly comfortable with her account either. It takes a kind of fearlessness, in our culture, to admit to not only belief in but experience of the supernatural.

Still, there seems to be a shift underway. In 1962, the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor could already characterise the cultural gatekeepers of her own day as “those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment”. That same year, a Pew Research poll found that only 22 percent of Americans had had what they would describe as a religious or mystical experience; by 2009, that figure had more than doubled, to 49 percent.

Perhaps we are living in a new age of spiritual interest and exploration; perhaps there are good reasons to be cautious as well as curious. In its folk and Christian incarnations, before the hype and commercialism, Halloween was a time for feasting and community (as now), but also a time for solemnity, for attending to the thin veil between the living and the dead, the world of flesh and blood and the spirit world.

There are potential pros (neighbourhood festivities) and cons (plastic, excess in a cost of living crisis) to the ways Australians are embracing Halloween. How would we mark it differently, if we believed – or acknowledged that many, even most of us do believe – that we live in a supernatural universe?

Natasha Moore is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Public Christianity. This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Image source: Maya Holt. “Teenager in a Halloween Costume.” Canva, 13 November 2023.