T’is the season it seems for jack-o-lanterns and black cats, grim reapers and menacing skulls. The cobwebs and the hype are slowly building up to that one night of the year during which we flirt with the unreal and pay homage to cackled laughs and crooked noses, hairy moles and bloody nooses. The bizarre, the aberrant, the downright evil are condoned, even encouraged. Carte blanche, and the scarier the better.
Flipping back through history, it is funny to note that there was nothing scary at all about the original Halloween, or as the pre-Christian Celts called it, Samhain. The first of November marked the end of the harvest for them and the beginning of winter and the new year. It was also believed that on that particular eve, the souls of the dead mingled one last time with the living before traveling to the underworld.
Samhain metamorphosed into All Hallows Eve when Catholic missionaries reached the Celtic shores. Guided by Pope Gregory the First’s 601 A.D. edict, the missionaries undertook the Christianization of the Celts by smoothly incorporating Christian elements into their pagan traditions and purposely coinciding Catholic religious days with their Celtic equivalents. That is how, for instance, Christmas came to be held on the 25th of December, day of the midwinter celebration.
Slowly but surely, Celtic deities became associated with the devil, druids were labeled as his worshippers and called witches, and the underworld became synonymous with hell. The indigenous population eventually turned its back entirely on Celtic paganism. Today, old women with pointed hats are evil and Christianity is the dominant religion in the United Kingdom. Fact.
Reality is what you make of it: it is shaped by perception. Perception is molded by ideas.
‘A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.’
- Antoine de Saint-Éxupéry
If enough people share the same idea, it becomes true. In the field of international relations, this is called the systemic theory of constructivism. Identities and relationships are constructed based on shared ideas. That makes ideas the most powerful tool in the world: Nationalism was an idea, so were Fascism and Aryanism. Communism and the Free Market. Human Rights and Mutually Assured Destruction.
Frederic Nietzsche predicted that the twentieth century would be the century of great wars between the rising ideological movements of his own time. He was right: over the course of a century, in the words of Roger Waters, ‘the Germans killed the Jews, and the Jews killed the Arabs, and the Arabs killed the hostages, and that is the news, and is it any wonder that the monkey's confused.’ More than one hundred million people died in interstate wars, and almost as many died at the hands of their own governments. One wonders what ideas could possibly be worth two hundred million lives.
An idea is a dangerous thing, and nothing spreads a dangerous idea faster than fear. German anti-Semitism began with the perception of Jews as ‘a people with definite racial characteristics’ and ended with the Holocaust. For centuries, the Hutus and the Tutsis were religiously, linguistically, and culturally indistinguishable until German and Belgian colonizers emphasized the differences between them (tall Tutsis, squat Hutus), with tragic consequences. And no one is quite sure anymore what idea justified the 147,593 civilian deaths (to date) caused by the US war on Iraq.
You are responsible for your ideas: 'Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions.' – Margaret Thatcher
An idea can destroy or create a reality. And ultimately, it is only as powerful as your belief in it. In 1942, around the time when Adolf Hitler was calling Jews ‘the enemy’ and blaming them for Germany’s economic misfortune, a young Anne Frank was hiding in an attic, scribbling in her diary that ‘in spite of all things,’ people were truly good at heart.
Reality is what you make of it. Once upon a time there was a little boy whose older brother died in an ice-skating accident on the eve of his fourteenth birthday. The little boy knew that for the rest of his life his brother could no longer exist in this world. So he created another one, an island, inhabited by a boy who never grew up and lived forever.
‘Neverland. It’s a wonderful place.’
– J.M. Barrie
I believe in the power of ideas, but I also believe in power over ideas. I choose not to believe in horror stories. I choose not to believe in the prevalence of evil and the inevitability of war.
I choose to believe that people are truly good at heart, and that there is a place, as real as you or me, where a little boy I once loved is safe and happy.
I was never one for graveyards and haunted houses anyway.