Hallowe’en: Numinous Dread


It is the part of men to fear and tremble,
When the most mighty gods by tokens send
Such dreadful heralds to astonish us.
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (1599)

There is something eternal about Hallowe’en, and the smug old canard that Hallowe’en is an American import is not actually true. Certainly for the only two rituals in which most people participate—carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating—we have our trans-Atlantic cousins to thank, particularly since it used to be the humble turnip that was carved and lit from within. Nevertheless, Hallowe’en endures with much the same basic character as it has had since time immemorial.

Often thought to lie in the Gaelic harvest festival Samhain (which remains the word for November in the Irish language), which itself may well have Pagan origins, the origins of Hallowe’en are complicated and disputed. But it is no coincidence that it is a time when winter is approaching and darkness falling.

“Hallowe’en” itself is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve”. The day that follows, All Hallows’ Day (or All Saints’ Day), is a Christian festival focused on the communion of the saints. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer includes a collect for this day, containing a plea to God for help “to follow [His] blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living”, “saints” or “hallows” being the deceased in Heaven. Whatever form Hallowe’en celebrations have taken, they have always had this lingering fixation on death, and an embracing of the otherworldly, the uncanny and the numinous.

Professor Rudolf Otto, upon whose work many men have built, analysed the “Numinous” experience—the feeling of transcendental, shivering awe that tingles up to the tip of every human spine from time to time. Immanuel Kant said that he felt it whenever he contemplated “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”. The author Vladimir Nabokov thought that it was the highest achievement of art, and so the main purpose of the artist, to trigger this feeling in one’s audience. Professor Otto concluded that the Numinous had three components, commonly expressed in the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or “fearful and fascinating mystery”.

This is the surprising thing about the Numinous—that this essential human experience, which so often breathes life into the mind and knocks the wayward heart out of joint, may have fear as an essential element of it. But it really ought not to be surprising—we all know that fear has vital functions. Who is better off, the timid doe who scarpers at the slightest rustle, or the fearless dodo who struts under the huntsman’s knife? Fear is instructive, warning us to avoid what we ought to avoid, and to do what we ought to do.

But Professor Otto’s tremendum does not simply denote fear of danger or negative consequences. In fact, it is not sufficient simply to label this feeling “fear” at all. It is not merely a difference of magnitude – it is an altogether different thing. C. S. Lewis attempted to describe that difference using this thought experiment:

“Imagine being told that there is a tiger in the next room. You would feel fear. Then imagine being told that there is a ghost in the next room. You would also feel fear, or what we call fear, but it would really be something different, not borne out of knowledge of danger, but out of the mere fact that it is a ghost. The special kind of fear it excites may be called dread”.

This dread is and always has been the blood and viscera of Hallowe’en and its various rituals, from the dark and deathly costumes and décor to the supernatural horror genres. The cleverest directors of horror films know how to exploit their audience’s sense of numinous dread, with darkness, silence and the inexplicable. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton on another subject, these dreadful horror movies succeed because they float easily in an infinite sea. Gritty, gory, worldly horror films attempt to cross that sea, so making it finite and failing to have the same dread-inducing effect. Indeed, these films, where they do succeed, often only succeed by clothing themselves in numinous dread—John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is a skilful example of this. But for the most part, our modern Hallowe’en has eschewed true dread and turned into a shallow, unwholesome festival of consumerism, gluttony and pretence.

So this is my suggestion to you. Do not fall unthinkingly into the arms of this sordid modern Hallowe’en culture. Rediscover dread and make it your own. It is part of what might loosely be called the “human condition”. Indeed, I believe that there is much wholesome and instructive dread and fear to be found in the world, if you know where to find it—and not in plastic ghoul masks or gory slasher flicks, but in the Numinous, the Unspoken and the Eternal.


Second-year philosophy student minoring in Russian.

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