An Atheist’s Halloween: Excerpts from John G. Rodwans Holidays and Other Disasters

On Nov. 15, Humanist Press will release Holidays and Other Disasters, a book that considers the major U.S. holidays from an atheist’s perspective. Author John G. Rodwan, Jr. uses his personal experiences in Detroit during the ‘70s and ‘80s for his chapter on Halloween.

The book’s remaining chapters also use personal stories to look at other U.S. holidays, including those that have a definite if not always acknowledged religious thrust (Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving) and secular holidays that had religious elements added on (Labor Day). Where other people have especially revealing holiday stories, as is the case with Jack Johnson (the first African American heavyweight champion) and the Fourth of July, novelist Salman Rushdie and Valentine’s Day or labor leader Eugene V. Debs and Labor Day, Rodwan tell theirs. Of course, holidays aren’t about religion alone, and Holidays and Other Disasters doesn’t look narrowly at them as pageants of piety. Rather, the book considers the various issues holidays raise, including race and class, and discusses other forms of expressive activity, such as literature, music and sports, along with religion and holiday rituals.

More information can be found about the book at

Detroit Undead

“What did they think they were celebrating?” Roger Micheldene wonders as his taxi passes “houses festooned with multi-coloured lights and orange-coloured turnip ghosts.” Although I might ask the same question of many other holidays celebrated in the United States, I never shared the incomprehension of Halloween that Kingsley Amis’s title character feels in One Fat Englishman. My father’s elaborate Halloween displays might not have solved the mystery for Micheldene, if he could have seen them, but they made the point of the festivities clear to me. Indeed, his witches and zombies (without a turnip ghost, whatever that is, among them) made peculiar but perfect sense when and where he created them.

During the 1970s and 1980s in Detroit, the night before Halloween – Devil’s Night – meant arson. Everything from the contents of garbage dumpsters to vacant buildings predictably went up in flames. People living next to empty houses – a common situation (then and later) – would stay home with garden hoses at the ready, intent on preserving their property amid the surrounding tinder. (I imagine Amis’s disdainful protagonist would regard such orgies of deliberate destruction as typically American.) Only when I left the city to attend college in a place where buildings with “demolished by neglect” stenciled across their faded fronts were not common sights did I discover that what I thought was standard practice did not occur around the country each October 30. Once I politely explained that when I said I was from Detroit I did indeed mean the city and not one of its more affluent and less feared suburbs as fellow students frequently assumed, those from other places were as surprised to learn about Devil’s Night there as I was to realize that setting fires was not how people elsewhere chose to celebrate.

Halloween in my hometown was another story. Despite the fiendish imagery, it offered positive relief after the smoke cleared. My memories of traipsing about the neighborhood – with parents when very small, with friends when slightly older but still young enough to spend hours gathering candy from neighbors – accorded pretty well with those of non-Detroiters. If Halloween itself had a sinister side then it took the form of widely circulating rumors of poisoned candy or razor blades embedded in apples. Cautious parents inspected wrappers for signs of tampering, but I don’t remember any of them every finding suspicious sweets. (Fruit never made it to the inspection stage, at least among my discriminating circle of little sugar junkies, since we left it in the bushes wherever neighbors substituted such nutritious tricks for true treats.) Actually occurring seasonal catastrophes, from kids’ perspectives, amounted to no more than cold temperatures requiring costume-covering winter coats. Though Halloween, like so many other holidays, may be haunted by pretend supernatural beings, no one really treats these specters, angels and demons as really existing or encourages others to do so. (Well, some Christians and Muslims do take seriously what they perceive as Halloween’s devilish or occult imagery and point disapprovingly to its origins in the ancient Celtic harvest festival Samhain, but they haven’t dissuaded many celebrants.) It’s about imagination and play-acting, not faith and belief. Children express their fears, hopes and desires by temporarily transforming themselves into what scares them or inspires them or fascinates them at that brief, uninhibited moment before mundane adult concerns curdle innocent wishes into frustration and disappointment.

Trick-or-treaters are more than “ragged groups of people or children … cavorting about,” as Amis’s overweight Brit dismisses them, and Halloween is not just for kids. Around the time I learned of other areas’ fire-resistant autumns, my father began nurturing an enthusiasm for Halloween. One night a year, this usually not very demonstrative man would simultaneously don and doff a mask and gleefully provoke the squeals of happy fright that only children can make. When I was still young enough for trick-or-treating, my family’s decorations consisted of the usual carved pumpkins, which would be placed inside the living room windows (and never on the front porch, where they’d likely have been smashed). Later on, my father added many other ornaments to his perennial winking jack-o’-lantern. He stationed an ax-wielding, grayskulled giant with glowing red eyes near the stairs leading to the front door. Nearby a cape-wearing witch in red wool socks would hover on a broom. On one side of the turret, a large, fuzzy spider lurked noiselessly and patiently in a web; on the other side, a black cage held a skeleton that would, as my father twisted a knob on a repurposed train-set transformer, stand up to startle approaching confectionary seekers. Among the crooked, white, wooden crosses on the front lawn, Frankenstein’s monster would sit up at similarly selected moments.

Situating the man-made man in a casket, as my father did, might not jibe with Mary Shelley’s story of the new Prometheus, but the act of sparking animation in an assemblage of cast off bits and pieces evokes something of a place endlessly struggling to resuscitate and rebuild itself. Called a dead or dying city when my parents moved there, at a time when other families of the same complexion were leaving, Detroit subsequently coagulated into a municipal memento mori as the industry that once attracted so many workers died and more and more people (including, temporarily, me) departed.

My father commenced building ghouls in his basement workshop at a moment when fewer and fewer children walked door to door collecting candy from their neighbors. Instead, parents drove their small ghosts, princesses, athletes, celebrities and superheroes to certain parts of the city, carefully selecting where to let them solicit sweets. The kids who remained close to home stopped ringing every doorbell like their predecessors used to do; instead, they only went to the houses where people they knew and trusted lived. Nevertheless, on Halloween several hundred children still stopped by my parents’ place. It became something of an institution, a miniature tradition of its own. Individuals who years earlier went there for a treat would return years later to accompany the next generation among my father’s home-made monsters even though they did not live in the neighborhood, or in the city, anymore.

Around the same time my father formed his army of the undead, the Renaissance City, as Detroit in an episode of desperate optimism dubbed itself, starting having some success squelching Devil’s Night. If my father set out to revive anything with his holiday activities, it was not so much the city as his own imagination. While having a mechanical creature arise from a coffin might suggest resurrection and renewal, the black box also conveniently concealed the jury-rigged system of weights and gears that perform the work of lifting the monster’s visible torso and head. Because of these things my father fabricated, mostly from found objects, Halloween for me is synonymous with the pleasure of creativity. The witch, the spider, the Frankenstein’s monster and the other figures first arrived when he began seriously pursuing another, year-round artistic endeavor, one closely aligned with both his Halloween devices and the city where he created them. Near the end of a career as a computer systems engineer he immersed himself in photography. After accepting an offer to retire early and closeting the costume of white shirt and business suit, he intently, even passionately, pursued image-making. He joined a photography club and collected more awards than he knew what to do with. While taking the sorts of pictures of lighthouses, wooden bridges, waterfalls and flowers that appeal to tourists visiting the northern Michigan galleries that agreed to sell his work, he did not confine himself to any single style or subject matter. He also started exploring dilapidated buildings – Detroit’s once-grand train station, stalled former car factories, shuttered schools, those empty houses and burned-out buildings – and chronicling shattered scenes of urban decay.

In what had been a darkroom until digital cameras displaced film and it became a place to store his work, he hung a small picture of the precise point where his various interests intersect: a photograph of a house in Detroit in full-fledged Halloween mode. His visual imagination yields two- and three-dimensional results, but the motivation behind both remains the same. In addition to composing scenes of blossoming nature and of a collapsing city, he developed something of a specialty in staged shots of things. Using the same skills he applied to materializing monsters, he produced pictures like the one purporting to have captured a baseball just as it crashes through a window or a strawberry on a spoon presumably held by an out-of-frame hand. (The latter became one of his top-sellers, and he does like generating crowd-pleasers.) My father would play around with methods for manipulating pictures (many of which predate the digital era) and insert a moon in a sky where there hadn’t been one, place a person in what had been an empty window or add a few extra yellow cabs into an only partially congested street. Still, I think he formed a real fondness for the photographs that involved skills not only with a camera and a computer but also with a hammer and wire cutters. These creations permitted him to indulge most fully his too-long-deferred impulses to make things for people to see – and to do so in a disintegrating metropolis where they, like an Amis character, don’t expect to find anything worth admiring.