Carving grotesque faces into pumpkins and lighting the cavity with a candle is a treasured American Halloween tradition. I can’t remember a October from my childhood without reliving the squeamish delight: burying my hands into the slimy guts of a big orange gourd, dishing out handfuls of wet seeds, spreading them out on newspapers to dry, picking them out and then roasting them on a flat pan in the oven, and of course sketching in pencil the outlines of a distorted face on the pumpkin then cutting the lines. It was one of the only times my meticulous and protective mother let me play with knives. Good and complete memories.
Why did we, and why do we do this strange tradition? Folk lore supposedly links the idea back to the legends that spooky faces would spook away the real spooks on the day of the dead. When ghosts or other uncouth spirits came-a-calling they’d be chased off by the toothy grins and scowls of jack-o-lanterns flickering on the threshold. The logic seems confusing from our post-modern enlightened positions. How can tamed evil – our gargoyles in the round – do our battles for us, chasing away purveyors of wickedness that come knocking. Can evil defeat evil? Why don’t we post depictions of angels as our sentries at the door? Mmm.
I can’t help but wonder if this mythic tradition has something to do with our deeply guarded instinct that evil really does have a face. I checked and there’s nothing unusually horrific about this morning’s news. Just another day of suicide bombings, a gang rape in a public high school, the arrest of 60 pimps for trafficking child prostitutes. Nothing new here. But if we dare step back and look again, we can be rightly horrified. This world is FULL OF EVIL. Like the frog in the boiling kettle, we’re accustomed – dare I say “normalized” – to evil. Just another day on the road “going to hell in a hand basket.”
For most of human history we’ve explained the nature of evil in the world by giving it a name. It’s no longer chic to believe that evil has a Persona, but that has been the long standing solution to the so called “problem of evil.” There’s a Devil out there screwing things over.
The contention is hard to refute, if we look at it honestly. Human evil is so pervasive and creative that seems to have a force of will and a mind capable of conceiving and plotting, then lying in ambush to execute its execution. Is there any other explanation for wickedness other than to assign responsibility to a Being who sources it? What other species on the planet has invented the equivalent of gas chambers or ritualistic sexual abuse? Seriously – What long term benefit explains the perversions in the mind that dreamt up waterboarding or crucifixion or water torture?
I once watched a nature documentary about a male African lion systematically killing lion cubs fathered by a rival. His work was merciless, purposeful and efficient, and in a begrudging, perfectly logical: He was defending his genetic line. The violence had good reason and while it seemed distasteful to me, I wouldn’t and didn’t call it “evil.”
But what reason explains the woman who burned her two month old child with cigarettes, or the teens from a wealthy suburb who stabbed a homeless man just to see him bleed, or the NFL quarterback who bred dogs to tear at the throats of other dogs,? There’s no evolutionary explanation for so such human behavior. The only answer is to call evil “evil” and to give it a face and a will, and name it The Devil. Yes, I believe in a personal Devil. I can’t see any other way to explain the likes of Charles Manson.
Identifying evil with a Persona does explain the woeful persistence, creativity and adaptability of treachery. Horror too struggles to survive in this do or die universe. Could it be that by cutting faces in pumpkins on the day of the year we “play” at remembering and agitating our instinctive revulsion to death and torment and fear is for us a subliminal act of putting a “face” on Evil? Maybe we all deep down the slimy heart of the cavity of our soul know that the Devil is real. Maybe too we know we need a light beyond our own power to shine out into the darkness and expose him for the fraud and usurper he is.
Follow me on Twitter