Dr. Regina Hansen delves into the portrayal of religion and religious symbols in film, music, and pop culture trends– along with the controversy that always stems from this fusion, especially during this beloved, but quite controversial, holiday.
By Joela Goga
For many, Halloween is a chance to create an eye-catching costume that draws attention, wins contests, or simply makes one feel good about themself. Costumes have always been a key part of this ancient holiday that began over 2,000 years ago; the Celtic people would dress up in costumes and light fires to ward off spirits. But as the years went by, Halloween became the secular day of free candy, mischievous pranks, bar crawling– and appropriation.
Although Halloween began under religious origins, there are still religious groups who choose not to celebrate the holiday due to the surrounding themes of spirits, death, and witchcraft. To that point, tension and mayhem do arise when religious figures and symbols are used in costumes– dressing up as Jesus or the devil are popular examples of this. But Halloween isn’t the only time that the “misuse” of these figures is glorified.
Doja Cat, Sam Smith, and Lil Nas X are just a few recent examples of controversial performances that have caused outrage and disappointment due to the Satanic imagery used in the name of art. These artists aren’t the first, and definitely won’t be the last in the long line of questionable/problematic works of art that make their way to television, social media, and Grammy performances. Dr. Regina Hansen, a master lecturer of Rhetoric at Boston University’s College of General studies, weighs in on these controversies and their influence on the public.
Satanic conspiracies within pop culture has been a trending topic as of late, with performances from artists such as Doja Cat, Sam Smith and Lil Nas X making headlines for their demonic imagery. What are your thoughts on celebrities using these controversial displays in the name of self-expression and art?
My first thought is that it’s nothing new. Writers such as Aleisteir Crowley used Satanic imagery in their work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Heavy Metal bands starting with Black Sabbath also used such imagery, not to mention that there’s a 1979 country song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniels, all about a fiddle contest with Satan. To my knowledge, none of these people worshiped the Devil.
In your research, how often do you notice religious figures and symbols being utilized for modern art, whether that be music, television, or writing, and what do you think can stem from this use– especially in regard to the public’s reaction and influence?
Religious subject matter and symbolism are everywhere in the arts, and this goes way beyond Christianity. The influence really depends on the artist and what they are trying to achieve. Artists of different kinds often incorporate their religious traditions into their work as a way of honoring those traditions. Sometimes the same imagery is used as critique. Sometimes people just think it looks pretty, or scary or whatever. And symbolism can also be borrowed or appropriated from other people’s religions, also for a variety of purposes. Again, this has always happened, and the reactions and influence can vary immensely.
What are your thoughts on the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 80’s– and do you think there will be a resurgence of this fear as more public figures continue to utilize controversial religious imagery?
I’m not a historian of the era, but I did recently come across a 2021 report on NPR on the similarities between the Satanic Panic and the QAnon conspiracy. That certainly resonated with me. In general, there does seem to me to be an uptick in these anxieties lately.
It is no secret that kids today have an unprecedented amount of access to the internet– how do you think this exposure to controversial symbols and content impacts their worldview or how they understand religion?
Kids are bombarded with imagery of all kinds, and it can be overwhelming. Not for nothing, but I’m also overwhelmed by it all. I think the impact depends on whether or not kids are able to talk about what they are seeing. Kids need to talk to each other and also ask questions of adults — teachers, parents, friends. If a child is upset or concerned about something they see on the internet, it’s important for adults to listen to those concerns in a compassionate, non-judgmental way.
Do you believe public figures and/or celebrities have a responsibility to address their controversies to audiences who are offended by their “appropriation,” such as religious groups or concerned parents? Is there a line that gets drawn between self-expression and blatant disrespect?
First of all, it’s important to note that cultural appropriation — as well the appropriation of religious symbols — has happened throughout history, and is often part of a complex of colonial and religious oppression. It can be particularly offensive when it reflects an imbalance of power, such as when a white person wears Indigenous symbols as a costume of some sort. Again, with a power imbalance, such behavior becomes a kind of “punching down” that I wish people would avoid. Also, it’s fair to say that some people appropriating religious symbols (of any kind) are doing it specifically to be offensive or mean. So I see why people feel hurt. I have felt hurt by certain uses of my religious iconography. At the same time, these symbols can also be used in a critical and questioning way to say something about religion and society in general. In the United States at least, freedom of speech has benefitted both artists and religious people (and those who are both or neither). If the speech is not inciting violence towards a group, I feel I need to live with it, regardless of whether it hurts my feelings personally.
With Halloween approaching and the festive spirit that comes with it, many will go out in costumes that will be deemed inappropriate for their religious nature. In your opinion, is it harmful to use religious figures as costumes, or to wear costumes that have so-called “demonic” or “satanic” undertones?
That’s very funny to me because I have definitely been to Catholic churches where kids have been invited to dress as their favorite saint for All Saints Day (Nov 1). And, I’ve seen plenty of toddlers in jokey angel or devil costumes.
More to your point, people have a wide variety of interpretations of what makes a “demonic” or “satanic” costume. For some people, it’s about violence or portraying evil characters. For others, it could be anything that evokes the supernatural, like Dr. Strange or the Wicked Witch of the West. And honestly, many people won’t allow their kids to celebrate Halloween at all, because of what they believe to be its “satanic” nature. I disagree with the position very strongly, but it’s also none of my business.
Are there any misconceptions or falsehoods that people may have about your research or about this subject area in general that you would like to clarify or discuss?
The biggest misconception I notice in my work, and when people comment to me on it, is about the relative morality and intelligence of religious believers versus nonbelievers. Clearly I shouldn’t have to say it, but people who don’t adhere to a religious faith are just as likely as religious people to be moral and ethical, and to care about others and the world. At the same time, there is a stereotype in some circles that religious belief — especially a metaphysical understanding of good and evil as forces in the world — that this belief denotes less intelligence or the lack of a questioning nature. In fact many educated, thoughtful people have room in their worldviews for a conception of supernatural evil, even a devil figure. Moreover, believers and nonbelievers are able to discuss these ideas with kindness and respect. I have been part of these discussions. Trying to understand evil, where it comes from and why humans inflict evil on one another, is an important project for all of us.