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Treat or trick?


This is not an easy time of year for anyone who would like to believe in the optimistic prophecies of the Enlightenment. According to those prophecies we human beings will take the next step forward in our evolution by banishing all fantastic supernatural beliefs, and building a world based on scientific knowledge and humanistic principles.

On Halloween we take several steps backwards. Voltaire, the great 18th century rationalist philosopher, confidently expected that superstition —-"That infamous thing" as he called it — would soon vanish, and that humanity would move into a golden age of reason and science. How disappointed he would be to see us now, still captivated by some of the oldest and silliest superstitions and magical beliefs, and preparing to celebrate All Hallows Eve, the Eve of Witches.

The desire to believe in mystical forces of good and evil seems almost to be hard wired. Our modern mythmakers, whose dream factories are strategically located in Los Angeles and in Washington DC, lose no chance to remind us that the universe is divided between the powers of light and the powers of darkness. Batman has the Joker; Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort; Superman has Lex Luthor and so on more or less ad infinitem. Every good witch of the north must contend with a wicked witch of the east. For every Force there must be a Dark Side, or where’s the story line?

At this fading time of year, we seem to like the Dark Side especially. It speaks to us with its tales of vampires and werewolves, hobgoblins and bad fairies, unquiet spirits and tormenting demons that still haunt our dreams and provide the imagery for some of our most popular entertainments. It has been slyly suggested by some European critics that, due to an unfortunate confusion between standard Hollywood story lines and real life, these myths of good and evil also provide quasi-mystical justification for a lot of our modern politics.

If we imagine that mighty forces of good and evil are loose in the world, instead of just ordinary human beings in an ordinary human muddle, there’s always danger of succumbing to the Superman Syndrome. It’s a reminder of how deeply these ancient superstitions that Voltaire despised two hundred years ago are rooted in our “modern” minds. “Doubt is not a pleasant condition,” he wrote, “But certainty is absurd.”

Of course, Halloween is not really — or at least not consciously — a celebration of the forces of darkness. It’s mainly about amusing small children, and marketing chocolate and orange plastic objects. But when millions of kids and adults, at a cost of billions of dollars, adorn themselves and their homes with medieval death symbolism on the eve of the traditional Day of the Dead, it does make you wonder if the mentality of the Dark Ages is quite as far behind us as we like to imagine. The Enlightenment is more than two hundred years in the past, and we may not be quite ready for it yet.

But tomorrow night, when those ghosts and goblins and strange spirits in plastic costumes come begging and threatening to your door, rational arguments about the history of western philosophy will not save you. Only chocolate can banish the emissaries of the Dark Side.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.