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Last Updated: Friday, 31 October 2003, 11:16 GMT
The quest for an alternative Halloween
By Steve Tomkins
for BBC News Online Magazine

For millions of youngsters, Halloween is a chance to dress up, hollow out a pumpkin and goad the neighbours. But parents who see a dark side to it are trying something different. Welcome to the world of alternative Halloween.

Last year on 31 October, I bought a big pile of sweets. I then spent the evening answering the door, doling them out in a genial manner to children in skeleton masks, reassuring my little boy about scary people, and having positive thoughts about Halloween being a time for children to visit their neighbours and be given goodies.

In the morning I found a broken egg on my window-sill, and spent the rest of the day fantasising about what I'd do if I ever got my hands on the little so-and-sos. What is our society coming to when children can't understand the grammar of "trick or treat"?

For most parents, any fears about Halloween will focus on the safety of their young 'uns on the streets after dark - and this year they will certainly have something to fear from 49 Sandrock Road.

Ghouls with a pumpkin
Dressing up as ghosts and ghouls has a dark side, some believe
But for some Christians, Halloween is a danger because it flirts with the powers of darkness, and encourages children to explore the occult.

Feelings run strong in some quarters. Christian bookshops in the US fill their shelves with titles that caution against celebrating Halloween. When Gary Grant, owner of The Entertainer, the largest independent toy shop chain in Britain, became a Christian in 1991, he burnt all his Halloween stock.

At Crofton Park Baptist Church in south London, they mark the day in a different way. The church throws an All Saints and Superheroes fancy dress party on Halloween, offering children "a healthier alternative to ghouls and witches". Kids come dressed as angels and Bible characters - a chance to re-use those nativity costumes - or, perhaps, Spiderman.

Why precisely are they so spooked by Halloween?

Playing with the occult

These parents hold traditional Christian ideas about demons, spirits and witchcraft, considering them very real influences in the world.

It alarms them that children should be taught to think of such things as fun. (From the same stance, a reviewer on London's Premier Christian Radio called Harry Potter "a large doorway to the occult", and, in 2000, Christianity and Renewal magazine alleged Sabrina the Teenage Witch attracted girls to witchcraft.)

Halloween is a celebration of evil, and evil really exists. Halloween has become a celebration for impressionable kids
Leaflet: It's all just a bit of harmful fun
"I'm not keen on the idea of playing games with occult and evil," explains Carol Bostridge, the minister behind All Saints and Superheroes. "I'm not keen on turning witches into cuddly things, on masked children being out at night, knocking on strange doors."

Even so, she doesn't want to be too negative. "We don't just want say no to Halloween. We're offering a positive alternative, concentrating on the Christian feast of All Hallows."

Admittedly, All Hallows is not until the following day, but if Tesco can start celebrating Christmas in September I think we can let them be a day early.

Pumpkin parties

Other churches and Christian families explore different alternatives to Halloween. Some have pumpkin parties where they carve letters instead of ghoulish faces, so the pumpkins spell out Bible verses.

Big owl
Harry Potter: harmless fun or a doorway to the occult?
Others go from door to door (dressed unsatanically, of course), but instead of demanding sweets with menaces give out leaflets about Jesus.

Of course many Christians celebrate Halloween happily. So why won't some touch it with a broomstick?

"There is a tendency to paranoia among some Christians," explains Professor Christopher Partridge of University College Chester. "They have a dualistic worldview - if something is not of God then it's of Satan. And Halloween is invested with a lot of negative imagery for Christians - witches and demons etcetera. It just looks evil."

The fact that Halloween has been embraced by modern pagans particularly gives them the creeps.

"The veil between this world and the spirit world is supposed to be very thin at Halloween," says Mr Partridge, "which is a very positive thing in paganism. It's a time for reflection. But to some sections of the church this can look as if they're communicating with dead spirits.

Halloween party invite
"No witches/devils" reads this alternative Halloween invite
"There's a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories in some Christian books about new forms of spirituality, I'm afraid."

Yet when it comes to Halloween alternatives, surely the strangest is the Hell House, at Trinity Church, Cedar Hill, in the Texas Bible belt.

There, an actor made up as a demon guides teenage visitors round re-enacted scenes of Aids funerals, botched abortions and genuine flame-grilled damnation, to impress on them the consequences of sin.

Which seems to bring us full-circle to dressing up as ghouls and frightening people.

Steve Tomkins is an author. His latest book, John Wesley: A Biography, is published by Lion Publishing.

Some of your comments so far:

My kids are going to a Saints Alive party at the local church today, dressing up as saints or biblical characters to celebrate All Hallows tomorrow. However they also enjoyed a Halloween school disco. I believe Christians are able to enjoy traditions of wherever they live without getting hung up on the "dark side.

Children don't associate Halloween with the occult any more than they associate Christmas with the birth of Jesus.
Paul Duggan,England

As a practising Pagan, I find these attitudes to Hallow'een (or Samhain) saddening. For me, Samhain is a time that I can remember family and friends who have died during my lifetime.

One of my happiest memories as a child is going to the Halloween party at my local Baptist church one year. The pastor turned out the lights and passed around cold spaghetti and peeled grapes, and told us they were worms and eyeballs. Talk about screaming! What fun.

Our church in Lincoln is having a children's "Hallelujah Party" instead, where children can come in friendly (not scary) fancy dress and have a great time playing games etc.

My mum is a Christian and always used to do a halloween party for us kids. I think Christians who are worried about halloween being evil are barking up the wrong tree. If you want to see the evils of the world, just watch the news.
Helen,Exeter, UK

Brilliant piece. I also admire the owner of the Entertainer shops for refusing to sell occult material to children. We are holding a saints and sausages party tonight at our church
Stephen Sizer, UK

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