Dark Halloween nights vs. bright All Hallows' Eve rites

It's Halloween in suburbia and most of the houses are decorated and glowing, waiting to serve treats to Disney princesses, superheroes, movie pirates, zombies. Minions and tiny people disguised as puppies, pumpkins or other innocent options.

But a few houses are dark because, for reasons of safety or theology, their inhabitants have made the countercultural decision to avoid contact with a season they believe has grown too dark and dangerous. Others believe "pagan," evil influences have shaped Halloween, deep into its roots.

"It's hard to know precisely what people mean when they use a word like 'pagan.' For many people it means anything that's ungodly or disturbing. … That's what some Americans think Halloween has become -- a clash between good and evil," said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research.

A recent LifeWay telephone survey, he said, found that 21 percent of Americans have decided to avoid Halloween altogether, while another 14 percent specifically try to avoid "pagan" elements of the festivities. Nearly 60 percent said Halloween is "all in good fun," while 6 percent of survey participants were "not sure" what they thought.

While some people are worried about ghosts, goblins, devils and other images of death and decay, Americans are much more likely to see Hollywood symbols of "good and evil" arrive at their doors shouting "trick or treat."

Even when people are "acting out their fantasies with iconic images from pop culture," these choices still hint at what they value in life, said McConnell. "Some want to be cartoon heroes and some want to be villains," he said. "Some people want to be princesses and some prefer to have a more slutty alter ego on Halloween."

Religious beliefs and practice affect this discussion, with Americans who attend church once a week or more being the least likely -- at 44 percent -- to say Halloween is "all in good fun." Those who identified as nonreligious were the most likely -- at 75 percent -- to embrace Halloween and the least likely to avoid it.

Among Christians, Catholics were more likely to choose the "all in good fun" option than were Protestants, with 71 percent favorable as opposed to 49 percent. Church history almost certainly plays a role in those numbers since Halloween is actually All Hallows' Eve, a festival the night before the liturgical celebration of All Saints Day.

Thus, while parents face decisions about how to handle Halloween, church leaders also face questions about whether to shun or embrace the modern version of this holiday that, according to the National Retail Federation, has turned into a nearly $7 billion juggernaut. There's plenty of future growth potential, with eight in 10 members of the trendsetting millennial generation planning to party.

Catholic leaders need to find a way to affirm what All Hallows' Eve meant in the past, while rejecting the "violent, macabre" themes that dominate -- along with waves of pop-culture images -- today's secular holiday, according to Father Steve Grunow, CEO of the Word on Fire Catholic ministry based near Chicago.

"People are going to give you back what they know. If all modern Americans know is secular superheroes and zombies, that is what you're going to see at Halloween," he said. Rather than hiding from the holiday's Christian roots, Catholics need to "celebrate them and offer something different to the secular world."

Yes, this would require priests to talk to their flocks about "what it really means for Catholics to party" and, perhaps, offer some suggestions for how participants in these festivities should and shouldn't dress, he said. Digging into their own traditions, people could dress as saints, kings, queens, bishops, martyrs and other heroes of the faith.

Rather than "locking our churches up and going dark on Halloween" Catholics could return to the streets in festive parades and processions with candles, incense and religious art, said Grunow. These festivities would then flow into the liturgical rites of All Saints Day, building a positive bridge between "reverie and the reverence."

"We used to be good at this. We were really good at this for centuries," he said. "Rather than being trapped in all the negatives that we see in the secular Halloween all around us, why don't we start doing something positive and then offer that to the public? We could try."