Kids and scary stuff: where to draw the line?

This is the time of year when my kids start begging to visit those pop-up Halloween shops that appear in vacant store fronts. We let them go, but we use caution, because the aisle with silly wigs and spooky skeletons is right next to the aisle with ouija boards and pentagram necklaces. One minute you’re having fun, and the next minute you’re literally summoning spirits.

Like so much of parenting, dealing with issues like magic, occultism, and plain old spookiness is a balancing act; and like most balancing acts, there’s danger on both sides. 

My more conservative friends think I’m dangerously lenient. They believe that hanging fabric bats and telling ghost stories by the light of a jack-o’-lantern glorifies evil, and if we’re going to be that careless with our children’s souls, we might as well just sign over to Satan when they’re born.

My more progressive friends friends think my caution around magic and the occult is laughable. They reason that if a ouija board is made by the same company that makes Monopoly and Hungry, Hungry Hippos, how perilous could it possibly be? It’s just a game.

So here is what we tell our kids: There is nothing inherently dangerous about spookiness, at Halloween or any time. It’s psychologically healthy to explore our natural human fascination with death. When we tell ghost stories or watch scary movies, we turn our normal fear of darkness and the unknown into something manageable, even enjoyable. As Catholics, we don’t need to run and hide our faces from any encounter with death and darkness, because Jesus conquers death. 

But there is a line. Lighting a jack-o’-lantern isn’t going to summon demons, but that doesn’t mean demons don’t exist.

The Church forbids superstition and divination, and that includes trying to summon spirits of the dead, trying to tell the future, or any other practice that reveals, in the words of the catechism,”a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings … They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”

The Church also forbids “[a]ll practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others,” even if it’s to help other people.  It’s not that God is afraid of losing his power to us; it’s that he knows how  how easily we can be hurt in spiritual warfare. 

So, if so much spiritual danger is truly out there, shouldn’t we lock our kids down completely to keep them safe? Avoid even the whiff of anything otherworldly, on the off-chance that it’s something harmful?

There are two dangers with this approach. One is that our children will become stunted and fearful, and won’t enjoy the wholesome riches of the imagination that God has given us for our enjoyment. 

The other is that our children will eventually see that no one ever got possessed by eating candy corn. From there, they may easily and logically go on to doubt other things we have taught them — things like the malice of Satan or the goodness of God. Teach kids that everything is dangerous, and they grow up to believe all caution is foolish, and all limits on their behavior is an offense against their right to be happy. And that’s the short path to misery.

So here’s a good rule: It’s not objectively wrong to pursue an emotional thrill, a shiver, a scare. It is objectively dangerous and sinful to engage in an activity that goes beyond a feeling, and is meant to actually make something happen in real life.

The caveat to this rule is that some things are designed to make something happen whether the participants believes in them or not. So if I have a seance with friends just as a goofy joke? I might actually be put in touch with something dangerous. If I rest my hand on a ouija board planchette, and I believe with all my heart that it’s just a stupid game? I’ve still opened a spiritual door, and something demonic could come through. Even if I don’t believe in it, and I’m just doing it for fun, if the thing itself is designed as an invitation for spiritual forces to come into my life, it should be shunned. The forces of evil are real, and they are not fussy. 

The other caveat is that some kids are susceptible to a slippery slope. Most kids can play Dungeons and Dragons, read stories about magic, watch scary or gory movies, or dress up as witches and monsters for Halloween, and their interest remains safely in the realm of fun and thrills. They know the difference between games and stories and fantasies, and reality. But some kids’ interest in the magic and the macabre goes from a fascination, to an obsession, to an entrapment with something objectively dangerous. This depends on the child in question, and should be managed on a case-by-case basis, with the advice of a sensible priest.  

And if your child is already involved in unsavory things, don’t despair. Ask a priest for help, and pray. Spiritual warfare is real, but it can be won, if we keep going to Jesus. 

***

This column was originally published in Parable magazine in 2020. Reprinted with permission.

Image by Petr Krotochvil (public domain)

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6 thoughts on “Kids and scary stuff: where to draw the line?”

  1. A Catholic Polish neighbor of mine once told me her thoughts on horror movies, which I thought was excellent sense: she didn’t let her kids watch them because while she was teaching them on an intellectual level that Christ has conquered death in the Resurrection, horror movies would teach them on an emotional level that it’s death that conquers life, and she didn’t want there to be any confusion about the truth at any level of their being. I always admired her take on that.

    1. I guess it depends what you mean by horror movies, and if you’re making a distinction between horror and slasher, etc etc. A lot of horror films are actually pretty moralistic. (Which is not to say that anyone needs to watch them! Just that you shouldn’t draw conclusions based on the trailers or the movie posters.)

      1. Good point. Hmmm…the conversation was so long ago that I don’t recall her definition of “horror movie”.

  2. Good guidelines. Regarding the last bit, in addition to contacting a priest if someone is involved in something spiritually dangerous, there are also deliverance prayers approved for the layity that can be said for someone.

  3. Growing up in the urban northeast, I never thought of Halloween observance as a conservative or progressive thing. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had a Halloween thing and they most definitely did not approve. But those poor JW kids had enough problems without the Catholics (or the Publics) dwelling on their lack of Halloween observance. But I’ve never personally known any Catholics who didn’t observe Halloween. Growing up, we thought of Halloween as a semi-religious holiday where we had one last chance to act like crazy banshees before the saints came marchin’ in.

    One of my boys doesn’t do Halloween. Never has. I have a photo of his 2 year old self sobbing in his cute (to me) Cookie Monster costume. That’s the last Halloween costume he ever wore. He’s never done trick or treating either. Or gone in a Halloween store. He says when he’s grown he’ll leave bowls of candy outside his door so he doesn’t have to interact with the trick or treaters. It’s funny too, because I LOVE Halloween. But I always have to temper my love for it with how it freaks out one of my kids.

    And then there’s my husband, who likes his candy and would rather die than deprive eager trick or treaters of their share. But my husband doesn’t do ghost stories, while I’ve always enjoyed hearing them. My sister and I even have a few of our own. Including two really freaky (hand to God true) ones involving the same mean old grandma (or was it just a plain old raven)?

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