Over the years, in my family, we have arrived at an agreement on how to deal with Halloween. Leading up to the night, we decorate the house not with sinister images but with autumnal wreaths, chestnuts, bright yellow sycamore leaves, and other beautiful gifts of nature collected from the surrounding fields and woodlands. On that day we talk to the children about the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. We tell the children that one of the reasons they see scary images in other people’s windows is because, as a culture, we must affirm that nothing scares us—we are, or once were, a Christian people, and our mantra is “fear not.” On that day, I sit at the dining table and help the children to carve pumpkins—not as ghoulish faces, but as little fairy houses with windows, crumpled oak leaf roofs, and front doors with peppercorns for handles. Rather than taking our children out to ‘trick-or-treat,’ they dress up as fairy-tale characters and greet any trick-or-treating children at the front door with chocolates (all the while tucking into the chocolates themselves). Our children feel involved in the happenings of the occasion, but not so much that we as a family concede everything to the ghastly Hollywood nightmare that has utterly corrupted the once-beautiful celebration of All Hallows’ Eve.
I am not confident that we have achieved the balance that we wanted. Groups of children come to our door dressed in horrific outfits, accompanied by their parents who are often dressed up equally monstrously. Whilst my children get caught up in the excitement of it all, I can see that they are also disturbed by what they see. They know the tales of the Brothers Grimm and many other scary stories, and yet the visions on Halloween—stripped of their original meaning—come with no hidden moral to redeem the gruesomeness.
I have come to accept the nastiness of the day, as the alternative would be to sit with the lights off in the hope that people will think we are not home. Something happened this year, however, for which I was quite unprepared. A girl, probably about age 8, came knocking, shouting “trick or treat!” as we opened the door. There she stood with an ice-hockey mask over her face and covered in splashes of fake blood. “Who are you dressed up as,” my daughter asked her. “A killer from The Purge,” came the little girl’s reply. My son, age 4, dressed as a fairy-tale prince with a little knitted crown on his head, looked quizzically at the girl and without saying anything gave her a chocolate and closed the door.
We didn’t know what The Purge was. I later looked it up and it turned out to be an extremely violent horror movie franchise. We knew at the time, however, simply by what we observed, that the girl was referencing something dark and vile—but whatever she was referencing was not as dark or vile as the corruption of childhood innocence which she embodied.
In the same week, the local police sent out a message via social media encouraging parents to refrain from letting their children watch Netflix’s Squid Game. Apparently, it was all the craze among children to attempt to reproduce the exceptionally violent scenes of this television programme. Again, we had to look up online what this Squid Game was. The storyline is as follows: a large number of adults who are gravely financially struggling are offered a chance to play children’s playground games. Those who lose while playing the games are graphically and brutally killed. The games continue until one person is left alive, who in turn receives billions of dollars. Why children were watching this stuff remains beyond me.
The premise of Squid Game is different but not entirely dissimilar to the astonishingly successful films, The Hunger Games, or so I have read since I have not watched these either. As I understand the story, young adults are encouraged to kill each other as part of a television show established for the supposed high pursuit of national peace in a crumbling America.
The Purge, Squid Game, The Hunger Games, besides their remarkable success, all have in common the notion of authoritatively established violence and murder for the sake of some noble end—procuring social cohesion, alleviating financial instability, or encouraging national peace. Essentially, they all share a gladiatorial theme, that is, the good and pleasure of the community bought up with the gift of violence.
There may be something in human nature that needs to witness social violence. St. Augustine testified to this dark impulse when, in The Confessions, he reflected upon the widespread addiction among the youth to attending gladiatorial performances. His friend, Alypius, though at first never attending such gory spectacles, loved to listen to stories about them. As the Arabs say: he let the camel’s head into the tent and soon found the whole animal was inside. One day, Alypius allowed his friends to take him off to one of these events. To maintain his faith and commitment to the Prince of Peace, he shut his eyes and refused to watch. But at the roar of the crowd, as a gladiator was struck, Alypius couldn’t help himself and looked out to observe the fight. “And so,” Augustine tells us, “he was wounded in his soul more seriously than that gladiator, whom he wanted to see wounded in body, and fell more wretchedly than he did at whose fall the cheer was raised.” And Augustine comments, “afterwards he was thrilled with the crime of that fight and intoxicated with a bloody joy.” From that moment, Alypius became a violence-addict, never missing a show. As Augustine puts it, “he was not the man he was when he had arrived, but one of the mob he had joined.”
What Augustine witnessed in his friend—that interior opposition between fidelity to the peace of Christ and addiction to violence—Joseph de Maistre presented at the societal level. Why was it that, prior to the arrival of Christianity, every culture practiced sacrifice, including human sacrifice? The reason, for Maistre, was that every society was seeking in nature what could only come by supernatural intervention. Maistre argued that the one people who did not practice human sacrifice, the Israelites, had brought forth into a world of human sacrifices a human victim for a sacrifice that would end all human sacrifice. The cross on which Jesus Christ was killed would turn out to be a throne from which he would rule, crowned, bringing into the fallen world a new order of grace for the establishment of a civilisation of love.
If, however, the world rejected that new order of grace, it would revert to the old sacrifices. For Maistre, then, the violent frustration of the modern world was really the ongoing struggle between two models of sacrifice: the old bloody sacrifices of unredeemed man and the new unbloody sacrifice of the liturgy of redemption. Maistre was horrified, but not at all surprised, that with the rejection of the social role of Christianity at the French Revolution came the Terror followed by endless war, tearing up the nations that once comprised Christendom. The world, he argued, was reverting to the bloody sacrifices of old.
What worries me is that it is plausible that the remarkable popularity of the films and television programmes to which I referred above is due to their overtly cathartic character. It may be that, deep down, we all know that bloodbaths are real and tested solutions to social ills. Humans have long known that when faced with a problem in their societies, they can either prudentially fix the problem or start killing, and the former is always much more difficult. The last century was largely an experiment in how far the latter solution can be taken. Perhaps, having emancipated ourselves from the religious settlement that may have offered the only tenable alternative to bloodbathing, we are once again having to entertain violence as a conceivable way of dealing with our problems. The sheer popularity of gladiatorial media entertainment ought to profoundly trouble us, and the fact that it is inspiring the Halloween costumes of little girls indicates that such content is now deemed a part of polite society.
True, in these shows there is always a good guy or girl for whom the viewers are meant to be rooting, and these goodies are usually working against their situation and those who have orchestrated it. This is particularly obvious in The Hunger Games, I am informed. But it is the presence of a goodie—a hero or heroine—that makes the hyperviolent killing of the other participants—the not-so-good guys—in the gladiatorial arena not only good but morally upright in the minds of the viewers. In turn, those who watch these shows can participate in the sadism, titillated by each mutilation and murder, and simultaneously feel morally righteous. It should be quite obvious why this is a recipe for increasing barbarism.
The last two years has left the world with no small list of possible candidates for sacrificial offering for the good of the community: the financially dependent and unstable, the geographically displaced, those who have failed to keep up with the rapid technologization of our societies and businesses, the unjabbed. Austria, for example, recently introduced quasi-apartheid legislation to distinguish between the jabbed and the unjabbed. This legislation will not reduce the social rage of which it is symptomatic, but affirm that this rage is blameless and respectable.
From the standpoint of a Maistrean analysis, trouble is brewing. And from such a standpoint, mass violence is always just one event away, that event being anything that might delay the establishment of the utopian, technologized, geometrical, sanitary, perfectly regulated societal abstraction of the passion-filled dreams of modernisers. Or, in the Maistrean idiom: the apostate world is ever ready to offer as a sacrifice for the procuring of an earthly heaven—sought as compensation for losing the eternal heaven—anyone who stands in the way of its founding. That we, as a culture, are enjoying a certain catharsis by theatrically exploring as a possible solution to our problems such social and authoritatively established violence should cause us to shudder.
Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.