On his website, the notorious fundamentalist Christian cartoonist Jack Chick keeps his comic tracts neatly categorised. At a glance, we can see a number of the topics that cause him the most ire: Roman Catholicism, homosexuality, Islam, the theory of evolution… and Halloween.
Every year, Chick mounts a marketing push at Halloween. “Don’t hide in the back of your house with the lights off,” advises his site; “Share Jesus with the kids.” The page goes on to say “Simply drop a tract or two and some candy into their bags and you’ll be giving the gospel to kids,” adding that Chick’s fundamentalist tracts can be used as colouring books or containers for sweets.
All of this is an attempt to subvert typical Halloween activities: although Chick uses the celebration as a way of spreading his views to children, he certainly has no love for Halloween itself.
Anti-Halloween Chick tracts
Jack Chick’s campaign against Halloween goes back at least as far as 1991, when he published a comic tract entitled Boo!. Its story begins with a group of high school students renting a summer camp that had been abandoned, a killing spree having taken place there the previous Halloween.
The teenage thrill-seekers hatch a plan to perform an animal sacrifice. Come midnight on Halloween, one of their number – named Carrie, in an apparent attempt to appeal to any Stephen King fans who might be reading – is shown wearing a black robe and standing before an altar with an inverted pentagram and black candles; she holds a knife over a comically terrified cat. “O mighty Satan,” she proclaims; “we sacrifice this cat to you… on your birthday.”
The camp’s mass-murderer suddenly bursts into the cabin, wearing a pumpkin as a mask and brandishing a chainsaw. The sole survivor of the ensuing massacre runs to the police for help, but the cops themselves are left running in fear when the killer takes off his pumpkin to reveal his true identity: he is Satan, represented in typical cartoon form with horns and a pointed beard.
The Devil then heads to a nearby village; peering through a window, he is outraged to find a boy praying on Halloween. Upon seeing him, the boy drives Satan away with a prayer: “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! I hate you! And I hate your lousy birthday!”
This time, it is the Devil’s turn to flee.
So far, Boo! has been in large part a parody of slasher films. It is doubtful that Jack Chick seriously believes that Satan is in the practice of killing people with a chainsaw while wearing a pumpkin on his head. But the general message of the story – that Halloween is an evil time, and those who celebrate it are opening themselves to spiritual danger – is meant in all sincerity. This is made clear by the second, more didactic half of the tract.
The boy who has just seen off Satan asks his pastor about the origin of Halloween. The pastor explains that – contrary to previous dialogue – Halloween is not Satan’s birthday. Chick then uses the character to claim that Halloween is rooted in druidic acts of human sacrifice, a practice that is being continued by modern-day Satanists:
To satanists and witches, Halloween is no joke. It’s their most solemn ceremony of the year. And as we get closer to the Second Coming of Jesus… Satanism will increase. So will human sacrifice! […] Satan loves Halloween because it glamorizes the powers of darkness, drawing little kids into his camp. And it’s paying off! Witchcraft is exploding among teens today. The Lord hates Halloween…and its evil origin. Satanic human sacrifices are a slap in God’s face.
Chick returned to the theme of Halloween in his 1996 tract Happy Halloween, which is drawn in a more realistic style and does not have the humorous tone of Boo!. This comic starts with three children – Bobby, Timmy and an unnamed boy in glasses – visiting a lavishly-decorated Halloween haunted house attraction in their neighbourhood. Once again Chick riffs on contemporary horror films by showing Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees as a Halloween decoration alongside more traditional devils and witches.
The boy in glasses is scared (“my mom said not to”) but presses on after being taunted by Timmy. Inside, the three meet a woman dressed as a witch, who drops them through a trapdoor where they are confronted by a man in a devil costume: “Welcome to the Abyss…You will be spending eternity with us.”
The three boys are so terrified that they run out of the house and into the road, where Timmy is hit and killed by a car.
Timmy’s soul departs from his body, carried away by hooded demons. He is taken to Hell and greeted by Satan, who delivers a similar line to the fake devil in the haunted house.
The story then cuts to the family home of the boy with glasses, whose mother addresses the two surviving children. Showing little sensitivity, the woman informs them that Timmy is now in hell: “he refused to repent of his sins and give his life to Christ. He was more concerned with impressing his worldly friends…so he quit Sunday school.” From here, the comic leaves the topic of Halloween and focuses on sin and salvation. The tract never comments directly on Halloween, although it implies that the holiday represents a safety hazard: “if I had listened to you, mom, Timmy wouldn’t be dead.”
Both Boo! and Happy Halloween draw direct parallels between real witches and devils (as Chick conceives them) and the witches and devils of horror films and Halloween decorations. The Nervous Witch, published in 2002, has a similar message – which perhaps explains why it is classified as a Halloween tract on the Chick Publications website, despite never mentioning the holiday.
This story fits into Chick’s “Bible Series,” a set of tracts in which a character named Bob Williams uses Bible stories to guide his friends and loved ones. As with Happy Halloween these are amongst Chick’s less deliberately comical tracts, showing a more realistic drawing style. At some point Chick uploaded a revised version of The Nervous Witch, with a number of lines of dialogue altered; the original can be seen (alongside much sarcastic commentary) on this blog.
The main characters are two teenage witches named Samantha and Holly. Samantha is Bob Williams’ niece, but she has no love for her uncle: “He makes me nervous because he reminds me of Jesus.” Her bedroom is decorated with posters showing a dragon, a wizard conjuring a devil, a grey alien, the head of the demon Baphomet, and Harry Potter. Holly, meanwhile, is sometimes drawn with a devil floating around behind her, presumably invisible to the comic’s characters. “Witches rule!” she proclaims. “God is dead and the churches are powerless. Old “Bible boy” won’t stand a chance against our black arts!”
When Samantha’s mother arrives with Bob, she announces that she has converted to Christianity. In the original version of the tract, Samantha’s response was a thought balloon containing a string of symbols to represent swearing; in the revised version she is given the line “what a muggle”, with a caption explaining that a muggle is a person who cannot perform magic. The comic implies that this is a term in serious use amongst Neopagans, rather than a word invented by J. K. Rowling that is only ever jokingly applied to anybody in reality.
Holly states that “Something inside me is screaming to get out of this house,” and Bob realises that demonic activity is afoot. He narrates the Biblical story of Saul and the witch of Endor, complete with a footnote repeating Exodus’ injunction that “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
“Lousy story, Bob!” replies Samantha upon hearing this account; given Chick’s limitations as a storyteller, it is hard to disagree. She then goes on to claim that “God is love, and he loves us witches,” although this speech balloon is strangely absent from the revised version of the tract – possibly because it contradicted Holly’s earlier claim that God is dead.
The dialogue in the following sequence is quite different between the two versions of the tract; the revised version goes into less detail about supposed occult practices and beliefs, suggesting that Chick decided that he was portraying this topic too directly. The basic plot remains the same, however: Bob continues to preach to the girls, with Holly storming out of the house in anger while Samantha allows her demonic spirit guide to leave her body.
After this, Samantha explains that she and Holly became witches after reading Harry Potter; in the revised version, she also mentions “other books” that taught her how to summon demons. Under Bob’s guidance Samantha then destroys the “occultic junk” in her bedroom in a bonfire, and the pair watch while demons fly out in the smoke.
The character of Holly returned in a later tract, Gladys, which ends with her perishing in a car accident. The dialogue in the original version of The Nervous Witch implies that her fate is the result of a curse she tried to place on Bob: “It can’t hurt me, but it’ll come back on you with a vengeance.”
The Nervous Witch has a lot in common with one of Chick’s most infamous publications: his 1984 anti-roleplaying tract Dark Dungeons. Both portray fantasy entertainment as a gateway to black magic, and both deliver this message with stories of teenage witches casting spells on adult relatives. Each of them revolves around two witches: one a dark-haired girl who is a hardened occultist; the other a blonde who was simply led astray and, by the end of the story, is saved by a male Christian. Finally, both stories end with a cleansing bonfire.
The 2004 tract The Devil’s Night is part of another series that Chick ran in the early 2000s, this time drawn by his occasional ghost artist Fred Carter. The series follows a girl named Li’l Susy as she goes up against her secularist, hag-like teacher Ms. Henn, who tries to introduce Suzie’s schoolfriends to such dangerous concepts as evolution, same-sex marriage, and – in this instance – Halloween.
Ms. Henn forces all of the pupils to wear costumes for Halloween, but Susy plays a fast one by dressing up as Santa Claus (this is a curious detail, as Santa has also been condemned by Chick). After school, Susy meets a friend named Buffy (shades here of the character Carrie in Boo!). Buffy explains that she is scared of Halloween, “But my mom loves it. She watches all the vampire shows. But they upset me.”
Susy reveals that Halloween “belongs to the devil”: “It’s his night…and all the witches love it.” She goes on to claim that “Every year, cops find dead cats and dogs that were sacrificed for Halloween” and implies that children are also being sacrificed. As per Chick’s standard formula, Buffy is shocked by this information and converts to Christianity on the spot. The story ends with Susy handing Chick tracts to trick-or-treaters; this self-promotional element can be found in a number of Chick’s anti-Halloween tracts.
The Little Princess, published in 1998, involves a terminally ill girl who wishes to go trick-or-treating before she dies. Her parents, who are implied to be agnostics, allow this – although is notable that the girl and her brother wear non-supernatural costumes, dressing as a princess and a Western bandit respectively. One couple give the girl a copy of Chick’s Happy Halloween tract along with sweets; reading the tract, the girl converts to Christianity before succumbing to her fatal illness.
In 2001 came The Little Ghost. This story shows two boys in Halloween costumes (a ghost and a devil) trying to scare a little girl, who is unafraid of them because she is a committed Christian; she then preaches the Gospel to them and successfully converts them to Christianity.
Stinky, published in 2010, has a little devil heading out to Earth on Halloween in order to find a present for “our master’s birthday”. He disguises himself as a trick-or-treater and joins two children who, again, wear non-occultic costumes: a cowboy and an angel. The demon merrily gathers sweets with the children, but along the way the group reaches a Christian household that hands out copies of Boo! and Happy Halloween. The two kids read the tracts and convert to Christianity, while the demon fails to pay attention and ends up handing them to Satan – who is outraged to find Christian publications in Hell.
The Little Ghost and Stinky are both light-hearted tracts which use Halloween as a setting without directly condemning the celebration. Chick took a similar approach in First Bite, which was published in 2008. Like Boo!, First Bite is a horror parody; it was clearly designed to take advantage of interest in vampires arising from Twilight. It is also amongst the most bizarre tracts to have been published by Chick.
The comic starts with a gathering of vampires at a gothic castle. The gang includes Gandalf and Marvel’s Blade; later panels depict Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter’s Professor McGonagall. By casting these fantasy heroes as vampire villains, Chick is clearly restating his belief in the evils of fantasy fiction while simultaneously indulging in the kind of reference-based humour familiar to the Family Guy generation. One panel includes Osama bin Laden in the motley crew, offering an ironic vision of real-life religious fanaticism mixing with the products of Chick’s imagination.
The leader of the band announces that “Vampira…is with child”. As often the case with Chick’s villains, this bulbous-nosed individual looks suspiciously like a Jewish caricature from Der Stürmer. Chick has, to his credit, denounced antisemitism in his tract Love the Jewish People, so one can only assume that he has simply failed to notice how many of his antagonists resemble antisemitic stereotypes.
The cult leader then says that the baby will be born on “our most holy night,” Halloween. Amidst arcane references to “room 13,” “the ancients in the dark world,” “dragon masters,” “grand lodge leaders,” and “the mysterious 9 unknown men,” the leader proclaims that the Chosen One will bear the name Igor. This last detail is obviously a joke on Chick’s part, but at least some of this narrative appears to be drawn from his personal beliefs: the mention of “grand lodge masters” recalls his hatred of Freemasonry, which he regards as a Satanic conspiracy.
Once Igor comes of age he is presented to the vampires, who are eager to see him for the first time. As a punchline, the Chosen One is revealed to be an innocuous, acne-faced individual somewhat resembling Alfred E. Neuman.
The villains choose a clean-cut young woman named Faith to be Igor’s victim; we learn that Faith likes to “pass out candy and comics” on Halloween, another advert for Chick tracts being given as trick-or-treat prizes. Igor arrives at Faith’s house, soaking wet and shivering from the rain. The girl cheerfully wards Igor away from her with a prayer, and then preaches the Bible to him.
“No witch, vampire or Satanist could ever change,” protests Igor, but Faith assures him that “Jesus can fix anyone.”
Igor returns home, his fangs having disappeared with his conversion to Christianity. The vampire leader personally complains to Satan that the prophecy of the Chosen One was false, and the Devil admits to lying: “that’s what I do! Get over it!”
“The coven never recovered,” says a caption.
The tract raises the question of how much is meant in jest and how much is sincere. After all, the story of a vampire converting to fundamentalist Christianity may seem too outrageous for even Jack Chick to take seriously. However, it should not be forgotten that Chick publishes books by Bill Schnoebelen, a fundamentalist Christian who claims to have once been a vampire – complete with fangs.
Spooky, a tract from 2013, comes across as a “greatest hits” summary of Chick’s previous anti-Halloween tracts. Like Happy Halloween, the narrative is centred on a child’s visit to a neighbourhood haunted house attraction ruled over by a man dressed as Satan. Again Chick includes a hip-for-the-kids reference to horror cinema – specifically, a Beetlejuice dummy in the haunted house. And again, the comic brings up the notion that Halloween is Satan’s birthday, which is presented as a common belief amongst witches. The story ends with the owner of the haunted house – who is portrayed as a bully – being converted to Christianity, reaffirming First Bite’s message that even the worst of us can be redeemed.
Throughout these stories, Chick repeatedly uses a distinct set of tricks to convey his anti-Halloween message.
One is to portray Halloween as a time in which literal monsters – demons and vampires – are abroad in the world. He consciously blurs the lines between these supposedly real entities and the make-believe of Halloween: a demon disguises himself as a trick-or-treater; a man dressed as the Devil talks like the real Satan; and characters from popular horror and fantasy films turn up first as mere decorations, then later as members of a Satanic cult.
Another of Chick’s tactics is to present Halloween as a physical danger to children. Timmy in Happy Halloween is so scared of a haunted house attraction that he runs out into traffic and dies, while Li’l Susy warns readers about children being sacrificed on Halloween – not that Chick provides any actual data to back up these claims, which the kids reading are expected to take at face value.
Also evident is the equation of Halloween with bullying, an evil with which most children will be all too familiar. Characters who enjoy Halloween – Timmy in Happy Halloween, the boys in The Little Ghost, Ms. Henn in The Devil’s Night, the haunted house owner in Spooky – are portrayed as bullies, while the reader is encouraged to empathise with timid, put-upon children (such as Li’l Susy’s friend Buffy) who find Halloween scary. When Chick is forced for narrative purposes to show good little children trick-or-treating, he dresses them as angels, princesses and cowboys rather than vampires or werewolves.
Finally, and most obviously, we have Chick’s claims that Halloween started out as a demonic sacrificial rite. Boo! contains a lurid description of what is purportedly the true history of Halloween:
Halloween started in the British Isles with the Druids. Those guys were really spooky. October 31st was a night of terror called “Samhain.” That night the Druids went house to house, taking victims for human sacrifice. In exchange for the victim, they left a Jack-O-Lantern which was supposed to prefect the home from death demons that night.
A similar but more in-depth sequence occurs in The Devil’s Night:
[I]t started back in old England. They didn’t know God. And the people lived in fear. The pagan priests were in control. These men were totally evil. They were deep into the occult and were the priests of Satan. It was a terrible time in history. Today, kids celebrate Halloween on October 31st. But back then, it was a horrible night. The pagan priests taught that Saman (the Lord of Death) called back all the souls of the dead who had entered into animals. They believed those souls visited their families for a few hours. The people were terrified. They lit huge fires, put on masks and animal costumes and danced around the fires to drive those evil spirits away.
Pagan priests would go house to house demanding an offering of food for their gods. The trick was to take their kid for human sacrifice. They left something like a pumpkin with a face on it… to show that no one else would be harmed there.
Where to begin?
First of all, notice that Boo! refers to a festival named Samhain, while The Devil’s Night mentions a death god named Saman. In actuality, both Samhain and Saman are different spellings for the same thing.
Samhain is a festival held on 1 November in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man; literary references to it can be found as far back as the middle ages, and it underwent a revival during the nineteenth century when romanticised interpretations of Celtic culture were in vogue. Samhain marked the point at which summer ends, the harvest season comes to a close and winter arrives – a key moment of the year in an agricultural society. Folklore associated Samhain with the spirits of the dead, who were thought to return on that night. The Coligny calendar shows that the Gauls recognised a month called Samon or Samonios; the historian Françoise Le Roux took this as evidence that the Samhain which survives in Ireland and parts of Britain had counterparts elsewhere in Celtic Europe.
While Boo! is at least partially correct when it identifies Samhain as the name of a festival, The Devil’s Night perpetuates the mistaken notion that Samhain is the name of a Celtic death god. This is, in all fairness, an error with pedigree.
The eighteenth-century historian Sylvester O’Halloran wrote that the principal deities of pre-Christian Ireland were a sun god named Bel and a moon god named Samhain, an interpretation that was quoted by various authors well into the nineteenth century. Over time, the idea that Samhain was the name of a moon-god morphed into the assumption that it was the name of a death-god. Halloween Through Twenty Centuries, a 1950 book by Ralph and Adeline Linton, speaks of rites performed “by the Druids in honor of Samhain, Lord of the Dead, whose festival fell on November 1.”
Even if Samhain were the name of an Irish deity, it is unclear why this figure would be worshipped in “old England.” This phrase (in contrast to the broader “British Isles”, used in Boo!) suggests that Chick is talking about the Anglo-Saxon period – but the Anglo-Saxons did not have druids, nor did they observe the festival of Samhain. Of course, as Boo! depicts a druid inexplicably holding an Egyptian ankh, one feels cultural accuracy was not high on Chick’s agenda.
The tract’s artwork depicts this “lord of death” as a black-cloaked figure with a scythe, obviously modelled around the Grim Reaper. Chick is possibly drawing upon Pastor David L. Brown’s book The History of Halloween, published in 1998; here is Brown’s visual description of “Saman:”
You probably have seen a modern day version of SAMAN without even knowing it. This pagan god was shown as a ghostly, skeleton holding a sickle in his hand. He later came to be known as THE GRIM REAPER.
Both Chick and Brown have it wrong. The familiar image of the scythe-wielding skeleton was popularised in the fourteenth century as a personification of the Black Death; the idea that the artists portraying this figure had suddenly rediscovered a centuries-old pre-Christian deity is hard to swallow.
Is there any truth in Chick’s claim that pre-Christian Samhain was a time of human sacrifice? Possibly, but the case is nowhere near as strong as he makes it seem. In her book Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery, Miranda Aldhouse-Green covers the archaeological evidence for the practice of human sacrifice in Celtic Britain, the most prominent being preserved bodies found in bogs. Here is the evidence she provides relating to the time of year in which the sacrifices took place:
It is not easy to determine the time of year in which bog victims were killed because many of the seeds, nuts and cereal grains found in their intestines could have been dried and used much later than when harvested. But there are hints that some of the bog people, such as Grauballe Man and Tollund Man, met their deaths in the wintertime. The condition of Lindow Man’s body suggests a cold-weather death. The absence of fruit and fresh berries in the last meals of all three victims makes this quite likely. By contrast Clonycavan Man died at a time of plenty, probably in later summer or very early autumn, and perhaps during a harvest festival such as Lughnasadh.
This is about the most solid evidence we have as to what time of year human sacrifices took place in pre-Christian Britain. From this sparse data, Chick has concocted a whole narrative of Samhain as a dreaded night of occult murder.
The two tracts attempt to connect human sacrifice to trick-or-treating. The origins of the trick-or-treat tradition are obscure, but various folk traditions in Britain provide rough counterparts: souling, the practice of asking for soul cakes on Allhallowtide, a precursor to Halloween; mumming, which involves dressing up in costumes; guising, a specifically Scottish tradition in which children wear costumes and ask for food; mischief night, which emphasises tricks rather than treats; and the penny-for-a-guy tradition, in which children ask for money after completing their Guy Fawkes effigies, ready to be burnt on 5 November. It is hypothetically possible that some of these customs are pre-Christian in origin, but there is simply no hard evidence that they can be traced back to any particular pagan rite – let alone one involving human sacrifice.
Next we have the claim made in both tracts that jack-o’-lanterns were left by druids at the homes of sacrificial victims. The tradition of carving vegetables (turnips, rather than pumpkins, which are indigenous to the Americas) into jack-o’-lanterns did indeed exist in Britain and Ireland prior to reaching America, but this supposed connection to druids is a product of Chick’s fertile imagination.
In folklore, the name “jack-o’-lantern” is a term for the mysterious lights which, today, can be explained away as ignited swamp gas. Other names for this phenomenon are Will-o’-the-wisp, ignis fatuus, hinkypunk and Hoberdy’s lantern. The overlap between these terms is worth emphasising: the nineteenth-century folklorist Jabez Allies wrote that, during his boyhood in the late eighteenth century, he saw boys carving turnips into “Hoberdy’s lanterns;” this would suggest that the lanterns originated as an attempt to imitate swamp lights. Allies says that the point of making a lantern of this type was to place it “upon a hedge to frighten unwary travellers in the night;” he does not associate them with any sort of festival or celebration.
Far from being a relic of Druidic ritual practice, the jack-o’-lantern seems more likely to be the autumnal equivalent of a snowman: something that children made for fun during a time of year that allowed them to do so. It became associated with Halloween in the same way that snowmen have become associated with Christmas. And just as magical snowmen are a fixture of festive stories, vegetable lanterns inspired colourful tales of damned souls and evil spirits. They are not relics of sacrificial rites; they are the playthings of children.
Jack Chick’s horror stories
In his book Killing Monsters, Gerard Jones makes a persuasive argument that the consumption of make-believe violence, aggression, and horror in fiction forms a vital part of a child’s emotional development: the process helps them to confront negative emotions and explore often frightening realities.
Chick clearly disagrees with this hypothesis. In his world, horror iconography is primarily the preserve of bullies, and good children either shrink in fear or renounce it. And yet, Chick has no trouble with delivering some lurid horror stories of his own: car accidents brought on by Halloween decorations; invisible demons haunting adolescent Harry Potter fans; children sacrificed by the descendants of druidic Grim Reaper-worshippers.
The intention of this is obvious. Chick wants to scare his young readers into siding with his own hardline religious perspective. Once they have consumed his anti-Halloween tracts, they can move on to his tracts condemning non-Christians, gay people and various other groups – often using the same shock-story tactics.
There is a distinct irony running through Jack Chick’s anti-Halloween tracts. Although they condemn the spooky fantasies of Halloween, they are themselves no more than horror fiction.