From where I live, Salem, Massachusetts, is about a forty minute drive by car. Salem is famously known as the site of the “Salem Witch Trials,” when in the late 1600s over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, and about two dozen people executed, for the crime of witchcraft. Today, Salem promotes itself as “The Witch City,” and has numerous stores devoted to New Age and Wiccan materials. (See Wikipedia for more).
A few years ago, I visited Salem for their famous and popular Halloween celebrations. I met a wide variety of people, from throngs of somewhat inebriated, fun-loving party-goers to a group of very friendly Christians who gave away chocolate and made themselves available to talk about Jesus. I also wandered around a store for witches, which sold items for casting spells, brooms (presumably for flying through the air at night), crystals, and other Wiccan materials. This store, and many others just like it, were packed out by curious tourists, each intrigued and open to tapping into the promised spirituality of the goods for sale.
Walking around the self-proclaimed center for occultist activity, at the high point of the Neo-pagan calendar, provided clarity about our enduring fascination with the spiritual world. Halloween is a good time of year to reflect on the magnetic pull we feel towards the paranormal and mysterious side of life.
What is everyone looking for?
From what I saw and heard, I think most people browsing the Wiccan stores of Salem were looking for some combination of the following:
- Practical help for life
- Escape from the ordinary and boring
- A new and unusual experience
- Special knowledge
At least, that’s what the packaging promised to give its purchaser! Certainly the marketers of these New Age goods know their audience’s desires and longings. It makes sense that they would tap into such primal longings when selling their products. In fact, this is what some would argue is part of the problem.
A simple matter of evolution gone awry?
Maybe the fascination with the spiritual, whether occult or Christian, either sorcery or prayer, is all of the same kind. One theory is that these religious phenomenon are just our evolutionary systems going haywire. To take seriously the idea that crystals can heal your physical ailments means your neurons are misfiring in colossally misguided ways. Likewise, to believe that singing worship songs on Sunday will do you any good is as crazy as trying to use a broom for transportation. And if you’re a sucker for such weirdness, well, a fool and his money are soon parted.
I think these explanations are certainly appropriate for an atheistic or naturalistic worldview. If there’s no supernatural realm, and everything is some combination of space-time, matter, and energy, then it is inevitable that all our spiritual longings will need to be explained away and repackaged into scientific terms. In the meantime, there will be a disdain for the benighted dunces who cling to their silly little superstitions, and real opposition to them whenever they want to bring their strange beliefs into the public square.
Or are these clues to something greater than ourselves?
Another explanation, equally coherent, is that we are spiritual beings, made for something greater than ourselves. Given the challenges we face, the frustration of our limits and inadequacies, and our desire to be happy and feel complete, is it any wonder that there remains a persistent interest in magic and the paranormal? The pitch is typically quite simple: get a hand-reading, know more about your future! For $10, that’s a pretty good investment. And, we might ask ourselves, if some pretty crystals can put us in touch with supernatural power, what harm is there in that?
In this scenario, our endless fascination with spirituality derives its ongoing allure from our very identity as spiritual beings. It deepens its hold on us insofar as we experience our spiritual involvement as being helpful and providing answers to our problems and questions. So then the real question becomes: what kind of spiritual beings are we, and which supernatural power can solve our problems?
The articles on this site give a variety of reasons to believe that we are made in the image of God, and that Jesus is the only one who can fix our greatest problem. Therefore, anyone or anything which promises to do the same can only be a false, and therefore dangerous and misleading, alternative to the source of true power, love, and human flourishing. Counterfeit money is a problem because it creates a diversion and distraction from the use of real money.
Christianity declares that the resurrection vindicated Jesus as God, and therefore warns against the attempts to find replacements or to deny our spiritual longings altogether. The opposition to the fake is driven by a passionate love for the real, the good, and the beautiful. The Christian message continues to be proclaimed because Christians have experienced spiritual renewal in Christ, and want others to benefit from a similar relationship with God.
Coming to a conclusion
None of these suggestions has been conclusively demonstrated. But Halloween is a time of spiritual curiosity and a heightened transcendental awareness. The festive decorations, the elaborate costumes, the eerie glow of candles, and the surprise of haunted houses can all serve as an introduction and a reawakening of our souls to the reality of a substantial spiritual world.