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By Lesley Bannatyne excerpted from A Halloween How-To
“I hate Halloween,” exclaims an elderly caller on an AM radio talk show in Maryland. “They should get rid of it. Kids today are just destructive.”
“Halloween glorifies Satan,” warns a preacher on national cable television. “Kids shouldn’t dress up as devils, period.”
“I would never let my children go out trick or treating alone,” confides a D.C.-area mom of her six year-old and ten-year old. “I’d never forgive myself if something happened.”
People hurl invectives at Halloween like bullets. It’s dangerous. Bang. It’s Satanic. Bang. It’s commercial. Bang. It’s too scary, too corrupted, too sanitized. Bang, bang, bang.
But when people rail against Halloween, they don’t really mean Halloween. What they usually mean is let’s get rid of vandalism, or begging, or slasher movies. (The actual holiday serves a need so human we’ll probably still be celebrating when the ice cap melts and we’re all trick or treating in powerboats.) And the more popular Halloween gets, the more we hear about the down side: razor blades in apples, black cat kidnappings, Satanic rituals. What’s true, exaggerated, or just plain made-up? Let’s turn on the light and see what’s a monster and what’s simply a coat tree casting a shadow on the wall.
Halloween Myths: True or False? Halloween is a Holiday for Witches. True. Samhain (sow-en), celebrated on October 31st, is one of eight major seasonal holidays marked by many contemporary witches and neopagans.
Modern-day pagans use solstices and quarter days to mark the turning points of the year. Samhain’s reserved for honoring ancestors and remembering loved ones who’ve died, and for acknowledging the cyclical nature of living and dying.
Although practices vary widely, most will gather for a ritual. There’s nothing Satanic involved. Nor are there sacrifices, invocations of evil, or naked orgies. The meeting place (be it inside or out) would likely be lit with candles and jack-o-lanterns, and decorated with harvest fruits and vegetables. People would enter quietly and gather in a circle. There might be a brief invocation of a goddess or god to provide wisdom, or a guided visualization to help participants understand the process of death and rebirth. Participants might remember people in their lives who have died recently, express grief, and share memories. The ritual might include some scrying (looking into the future) and conclude with everyone dancing to the beat of a drum and chanting. Samhain is a time of death–of the summer and the fields–but within the frozen ground are beginnings of new life, and the goddess will return at the appointed time. The earth will green.
Satanic cults use Halloween to perform ritualistic crimes. False. There are two questions to address here. First, to what extent do Satanic cults or ritualistic crimes really exist? And secondly, what’s Satan’s connection to Halloween?
Encyclopediaist J. Gordon Melton calls Satanism “the world’s largest religion that does not exist.” The largest organized Satanist-style cults such as the Church of Satan or the Temple of Set (never more than a few hundred members in their heyday) are now largely dormant, and Melton has discovered that most practicing Satanic cults usually number three to five people and last only a few months. There is no religious denomination or even any cult today celebrates the Devil on Halloween, not even so-called Satanists, since they don’t acknowledge the existence of any higher power including Satan. In addition, there are no confirmed statistics, court cases, or studies to support the idea that serious Satanic cult crime even exists (for a good study of Satanic cult activity in America today, read Jeffrey Victor’s Satanic Panic). It turns out that most of the devil-worshipping activity reported in the media is perpetrated by teenagers based on what they’ve read in church literature or seen in movies.
So how did Satan get tied to Halloween? Satan didn’t come into the formula until the 14th through 17th centuries-loosely, the time of the witch craze-when witches were thought to make a pact with the Devil at their rituals. Fears of witchcraft and Satanic rituals had abated with the Enlightenment, and by the 20th century, pointy black hats and red horns were simply part of the fun of Halloween. But films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and all the Halloween movies (among many, many others) have etched a more detailed, modern persona for the Devil in our imaginations. When Hollywood started to mine Halloween imagery for terror, churches become more vocal about celebrating Halloween, and rumors of Satanic rituals grew rampant.
It may simply be that Halloween’s symbols are incendiary. In our image-based society, somewhere along the line we began to confuse symbols of death with those of Hell. I suspect it’s Hollywood, more than anything else, that helped put the hell in Halloween.
Black cats are in danger on Halloween. Rarely, but yes. Over the past decade or so newspapers have run several stories about black cats being abducted and used in occult rites on Halloween–there’ve been reports of mysterious animal bone graveyards and satanic symbols drawn on and around cats. What you don’t usually see is the terse follow-up story, several weeks later and not nearly on the front page, explaining that no abduction occurred, or that the bones were part of a known animal graveyard.
Around 1997, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) instituted a better-safe-than-sorry policy and advised against the adoption of black cats three days before and after Halloween. In that year, the organization got suspicious when a woman adopted a black cat, but when the ASPCA made a follow-up call to see how the cat was doing, the woman reported the cat was dead. When ASPCA workers came to pick up the body, they discovered she’d given a phony address. The investigation of the case halted there. Was the cat harmed? Was it somehow related to Halloween? We won’t ever know. But taking a proactive approach seemed the Society’s safest choice.
As of 2001, the staff of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) had not personally witnessed a case of black cat abuse at Halloween (in fact, most shelters report no such cases). It has, however, reported hearing stories, and so recommended protection of black cats around Halloween.
The threat is not all smoke and mirrors. There have been a few, highly publicized incidents of black cat abuse around Halloween–I was able to find and track a dozen reported incidents between 1992 and 1999 (for comparison, in roughly the same time period, an estimated 2500 dogs and cats had died or suffered during air travel, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Upon further investigation, some cases turned out to be unrelated to Halloween or black cats: two of the cats were unharmed, only seven of the incidents involved black cats (as opposed to brown cats or tabbies), and it’s difficult to document how many happened on or near Halloween (either the shelters had gone out of business or the staff could not remember). In the only case that was prosecuted, the perpetrators were teenagers. Oftentimes, confusing the issue, journalists report examples of animal abuse that have taken place at other times of the year in articles about black cat abuse at Halloween. As a result, the sense of a crisis exists where there are only unrelated, isolated incidents, none of them involving ritual sacrifice by Satanic cults, but rather cruelty and crimes committed by individuals.
The increased media, however, does give the shelters and humane societies a chance to educate the public about pet safety. For those who love and care for cats, saving even one life makes any effort worthwhile.