Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Spirit of Halloween

Raphael, Eusebius of Cremona raising Three Men from the Dead
 with Saint Jerome's Cloak (c 1502-3)


Seven Scary Themes

1. Surprise! That delightful toddler experience on being found or finding a hiding grandparent; The squeal of faux fright when a family member pops up unexpectedly; The ability to hide within a dinosaur costume or some scary character and get a reaction from play-along adults.
     I’m lost! This is a closely related childhood fear of distress when a child can’t find his or her parents. Especially for a child alone in a mall or who wandered off in a large store. Now this fright is available in a corn maze or the darkened halls of a haunted house.

2. I’m scared! What fun to trot out the usual fear-inducing spiders and snakes, create faux thunderstorms, or move people into an enclosed space. Fun, unless you are one of the 27,000,000 Americans that have a specific phobia.

3. Yuk! Blood and gore and icky stuff. Blood and other bodily fluids evoke a disgust response in many people. No wonder ancient people had rules about blood and things that come out of the body. The very thought can make you want to wash. And experiments show that people do want to wash when exposed to disgust-inducing imagery.

4. Aaaaah! Don’t shoot me!  Murder and destruction. The stuff of nightmares and horror movies works to create insomnia among other effects. Not surprisingly, we pay attention to news about shootings even though the action took place thousands of miles away involving people we do not know. We naturally respond to threats with alarm.

5. Oooooh!  Sexuality. For millennia, humans have created laws and regulations to reign in sexual urges. Not surprisingly, some scary themes play up sex in not so subtle ways. 

6. Oh my God! Angels and demons, witches and evil spirits. A few are fascinated by seemingly unexplainable happenings like turning tables and Ouija boards. Some famous people like Abraham Lincoln joined his wife at a séance. The Bible contains warnings against seeking mediums. There are stories of demon possession and exorcism and megabattles involving supernatural powers.  Americans know of the witches of Salem and the time when fear ran amok and 20 people were executed. Some connect Halloween to the Druids. People fear the powers of the universe as much greater than the power of mere mortals.

7. You will die!  Death. Tombstones, caskets, zombies, and the troubled dead evoke primal fears of our own mortality. Something we’d rather not think about.

Four Frights that are not Delights

1. Distress. Although some people can learn to confront their fears, others dread being dragged into painful situations. The kin to the fright response is fighting. Expect a fight or withdrawal when pushing too hard.

2. Desecration. The views of religious conservatives seem quaint and strange as they quote ancient scriptures and warn of pending doom and destruction. They flee from any hint of Halloween for fear their loved ones will be exposed to Satan or participate in anything that glorifies evil and portrays supernatural experiences as playful and fun occasions.

3. Disrespect. Scattered amongst us many who have lost real limbs fighting for our freedoms. The psychological wounds of war trouble the memories of those who have loaded the corpses of friends onto trucks and helicopters. The blood seeping out of a bullet-ridden friend opens sores that never heal. War is hell. And many have had similar experiences in their hometown.

4. Dehumanization. While some sexy outfits can be playful and others border on cultural acceptability, there are always extremes of in-your-face sexuality that exploits, intrudes, and is downright offensive. But worse than offensive ploys are those portrayals that trigger trauma responses in millions of rape victims worldwide. Most victims of sexual violence are women.

Seven Lessons from Psychological Science

1. Illusions can be explained. The brilliant demonstrations by Derren Brown reveal how easy it is to deceive us. We quickly believe supernatural activity rather than natural phenomena explain unusual events. In the 1850s, British scientist, Michael Faraday created tests to show how turning tables could be explained by human expectations rather than some spirit force. Other events like spelling prophecies with a glass on an Ouija board have been explained by psychological scientists who show how minds search for patterns and anticipate responses before other parts of  our brain become aware of our actions. To learn more, read The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel Wegner. You can get a summary from former paranormal researcher, Susan Blackmore. Our minds can trick us into thinking some external unseen agent made something happen because of the way our brains function.

2. Mental illness often gets a bad name. At times, the unusual behavior patterns of people accused of being a witch or possessed by a demon have been documented well enough to match known mental disorders such as a seizure disorder. As to the witches of Salem, one psychologist, Linnda Caporael, has a theory that the phenomena were substance induced. Some symptoms of mental illness are rare so we do not see them often. Attributing hard-to-control behavior to a devil or a demon adds to the negative stereotypes that continue to create barriers for people with a mental illness.

3. Support systems work. Facing our fears in a group setting with friends and family is a great way to lessen their debilitating effects. We don’t always need a professional psychotherapist to cope with distress.

4. Defeat fear and anxiety with incompatible responses Learning to laugh at fearful and anxiety producing stimuli is a great way to fight any fear. It doesn't always work but the principle of pairing fearful stimuli with a different response like laughter does work for some.

5. Disgust promotes purity. The disgust response is a primal emotional response linked to moral rules about purity and holiness. People have a long history of disgust in response to blood and other bodily fluids. Some forms of sexual expression also invoke disgust. Sometimes people have a hard time coming up with reasons to explain why something is wrong. Moral psychology researchers like Jonathan Haidt call this phenomenon moral dumbfoundness. 

Unconsciously, people exposed to disgusting stimuli want to wash their hands. It is no surprise that some forms of sexuality were labeled dirty or filthy. Perhaps All Saints Day is an important "clean up" event following some Halloween activities.

6. The Macbeth effect is real. Like the famed Lady Macbeth who cried, “Out damned spot,” people who recalled unethical behavior unconsciously preferred handwipes to other options at the end of the study. Halloween activities that border on the unethical can link to guilt and the need to come clean. Coupled with the disgust-purity lesson we may have a good basis to celebrate November 1st, All Saints Day.

7. Death reminds us of our own mortality. The theory is known as terror management theory. Such thoughts of death promote a sense of greater connectedness to our ingroup (church, kinship, nation) and a stronger disapproval of outsiders. You can predict moral condemnation and reminders of what God hates when this response pattern is stimulated. Just thinking of the theory reminded me of hellfire sermons from childhood. Scary stuff at church for sure.

Seven Benefits of Halloween Celebrations

1. A Time to Laugh. A good scare among friends and lots of laughter is good for the soul... especially when sprinkled with treats and games.

2. A Time to Play. Watching children try to scare their neighbors, prance proudly in a fine costume, or count their treasures has always been a great part of the American Halloween tradition.

3. A Time to Care. When children face mild but common fears with a loving parent or in the context of a kid-friendly event, they can learn the value of family and friends. We all need a support system when real distress hits.

4. A Time to Strengthen Faith. Christians and others who object to some Halloween themes have an opportunity to create their own traditions and help children make wise choices that respect the tenets of their faith yet still enjoy life events.

5. A Time to face common fears within a supportive community. Facing spiders and scary costumes whilst holding a hand can send a good message about facing the stresses of life with others.

6. A Time to share. When adults offer fun and games and treats in a safe setting, children learn to share by example.

7. A Time to learn virtues. When parents and organizations set limits on acceptable costumes and activities, all children can learn to have fun within the moral values of their community while avoiding that which degrades.

R. I. P.


Disgust and Morality- Learn more about the psychological foundations of Sanctity and Degradation based on research on the basic human response of disgust and the work of psychological scientist, Jonathan Haidt and colleagues.

Macbeth effect- Learn more about the need to cleanse oneself following an impure or unethical act. It's part of human nature. Here's one link. You will find more studies on moral purity in the research literature. Here's an npr story featuring psychological scientist, Spike W S Lee
Terror Management Theory - interview with leading scientist Sheldon Solomon in Scientific American. The theory explains how people react to an awareness of their own mortality.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

How Metaphors Mess with our Minds and Destroy Lives

Messing with Malevolent Metaphors

Exploring the role of metaphors in Christian teaching about purity and sanctity.

As a child I learned that sin made my heart black. I learned this lesson by means of small plastic hearts dangling from a chain. Hearts are red, white and black. You start with a black heart. All have sinned. Red hearts mean Jesus' blood cleanses, White hearts are we're all cleaned up.

For many Christians, white is good, pure, clean and holy. Cleanliness is next to godliness.

Black is bad, evil, and linked to sin. We’ll never measure up—the good things we do are but filthy rags. Outer darkness is where you go if you die without Jesus.

So what's the problem with such metaphors? Is it possible that metaphors, which glorify whiteness and link blackness to sin influence, racist attitudes? Do religious metaphors guide our thinking about people?


My task this week is to teach a lesson at church about metaphors and morality based on the third chapter of Richard Beck’s book, Unclean. By chapter three—the one on metaphors— Beck has already reviewed the broad foundation of research on disgust and its link to morality. Since childhood we have learned to avoid that which is unclean, yucky, and disgusting and if something disgusting gets in our mouth, on or near our body, we forcefully reject it.

Early learning appears to occur when two events occur together. Sometimes the contiguity is helpful as in hot things burn. But at other times, the association suggests a false conclusion about nature. Unless challenged, two things that occur together are often thought to be causally related. And strangely, humans sometimes think causality is bidirectional.

Chen-Bo Zhong and his colleagues study moral psychology. They have illustrated the problem of morality and causality using an example of the beliefs of the Nuer people from South Sudan and western Ethiopia. One belief is that a woman’s adultery will cause a husband to feel back pain. And conversely, a husband’s back pain is evidence that his wife committed adultery.

Experiments in U.S. psychology labs reveal the often unconscious connection between various unethical activities and an irrational desire for physical cleansing such as when participants select mouthwash after lying.


So what’s the bridge between life experience and moral judgments? Beck's answer is metaphor. In Beck’s words, “The link between disgust and morality is mediated by metaphor (p. 33).”

There's been a considerable amount of research on morality and metaphor since Beck published his book, yet researchers continue to refer to the work of Lakoff and Johnson to illustrate how our early sensory motor experiences structure cognition, including the metaphors we use to organize thinking.

"The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another." (#60 158) (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980)

The idea of cognitive embodiment of morality is based on the words we use for that which is good or bad. For example, UP is good. We stand up when we are healthy and working. We lie down when we are tired, ill, or dying. Good things like heaven are up and the earth is down with hell even lower.

Things above us are superior and those below us are inferior. God is a Supreme Being who lives above us. Good people are on a pedestal. Being called to be a pastor or priest was said to be a higher calling. And those persons were held to higher standards of moral conduct. In their high position, they were considered closer to God than their congregants. And some were found to have feet of clay.

People who do not live up to certain standards or expectations must step down from their position. In some societies, inferior people bow before leaders. A more subtle embodiment can be seen in eye-contact that is made or averted depending on one’s perceived status. Politicians know that uncovering or even alleging sexual wrongdoing can destroy the progress of a competing candidate.

Evil is opposite to good and brings people down. Evil people cause good people to stumble and fall. Evil can be a spirit or force that acts like gravity to pull people down. We want the force to be with us and not against us. Good forces, like good people, appear white and evil is conveniently displayed as black—so we can tell the difference.

Face metaphors abound. We face our equals. We are shamefaced when we have done wrong. Our faces are saved when wrongdoing is hidden or pardoned or in some way not made public.

Dirt has its place. Dirt is of course the stuff of play and some dirt produces good food but dirt belongs outside. Dirt does not belong in a house. People with dirt floors are dirt poor—a very low position indeed.

People who know someone's sin have "dirt on them." As children soil their diapers, some adults "soil their reputations." Wet dirt is mud and alleging people have done wrong is "mudslinging."

Unclean people are “dirt bags” or pigs—animals that wallow in mud. People who tell jokes about sex have dirty minds that are also so low that their minds are in street gutters.

Dirt as a metaphor can be helpful because we can wash and be clean again. A shower can help people feel clean from wrongdoing. Baptism in water cleanses souls. We wash our hands of dirty matters. (Remember Pilate and Macbeth.) Oddly, a corpse is washed and clothed before placed in the dirt when given a proper burial.

Inside a house, dirt must be swept up or vacuumed up and placed outside so the house will be clean. Dirt should not be swept under a rug or hidden—it has to be outside. When leaders do wrong, new leaders are expected to clean house. The dirty rotten scoundrels must be removed. Wrong doing is to be exposed not covered up.

Fighting is a good thing for boys to do but a low blow is not allowed under the rules of correct fighting.  Like sex, fighting can be dirty or clean. Censors are mostly concerned about two things--sex and violence.

Metaphors of Salvation and Redemption

The biblical language of salvation makes use of metaphors and symbolic rituals to help people develop a relationship with a holy God. Christians are baptized in water and are thus symbolically clean. They are also metaphorically washed in the blood of Jesus--the sacrificial lamb.  Christians celebrate the salvation experience in the Eucharist-- eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus.

The newly redeemed can feel clean, forgiven, and worthy of helping others connect to God. They are on the right path headed toward a glorious reward. The cleaning process involves the expression of certain beliefs, confession of sins, repentance or turning away from sins, and participation in various rituals such as prayer, bible reading, baptism, and good works. 

New Christians are born again. Like babies, they are wrapped, protected, and nurtured. They are vulnerable to diseases. 

Like recovering addicts, the redeemed must avoid their weaknesses and former associates. And some are called to warn others of disastrous living.

On the one hand, we observe the joy of the one who is clean, guilt-free, and in relationship with a Holy God; on the other hand, we observe that happy, holy people are often distant from the tragic and downtrodden denizens displayed on city sidewalks.

The metaphors of salvation also mark the boundaries between those on the inside and those on the outside.

Some people are clean and some are dirty.
Some people are worthy and some are unworthy.
Some people are living in sin and some are not.
Some people are heaven bound and some are hell-bound.

Religious creeds divide large societies into small tribes.

And each religious tribe has different lists of that which is clean, worthy, and sinless.


Metaphors are important to negotiating daily life in any culture. Cultures vary in their tolerance for deviance. Some metaphors are helpful when they point out important similarities between what we know and what we do not know.

Some metaphors are harmful. Metaphors identify some groups of people as evil. Some people are marked for avoidance and others for destruction.

When Christians do not evaluate and rework the metaphors governing their morality, they will often teach others to alienate or destroy rather than love their neighbors.


Does the black and white language of sin and cleansing influence racism?
What metaphors encourage Christians to embrace those who are unChristian?
What additional metaphors identify people as unclean?
What metaphors identify the use of quarantine or containment strategies?
What metaphors encourage avoidance?
What metaphors encourage us to do nothing?
What metaphors suggest destruction of those who are evil?


"Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God" Jesus (Matthew 5:8)

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”  Mahatma Ghandhi

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”  Mae West