Celebrating Halloween as an ex-Evangelical: The conflicting highs and lows of reclaiming youth

Navigating the space between wanting to reclaim your childhood while realizing some moments have passed you

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published October 14, 2023 4:01PM (EDT)

Jack O' Lantern, carved with a cross (Getty Images/Elizabeth W. Kearley)
Jack O' Lantern, carved with a cross (Getty Images/Elizabeth W. Kearley)

I celebrated my first Halloween when was 22. I had just moved to New York City a few months before in the summer of 2021 and was a green, anxiety-ridden transplant. I was alone and scared of this major life change post-college, but I also thought that it was maybe time for a reinvention — move to a new city, meet new friends, and experience parts of my adolescence on which I'd missed out. 

My first Halloween party was a Bushwick house party, where I went dressed as a Black female lead in a '90s drama think in the vein of Janet Jackson in "Poetic Justice." It was filled to the brim with indie transplants trying too hard to make Halloween seem cool. Not going to lie, I wasn't really sold after that experience and I don't remember much of it because I showed up halfway through the night as I was working a weekend reporting shift, which I absolutely despised. 

I was late to experiencing Halloween because I grew up in an Evangelical African immigrant community. It's the type of bubble where God comes first above all else and, hilariously, Halloween is seen diabolical. As a child, my siblings and I were banned from watching or reading the "Harry Potter" series, listening to secular music on the radio and watching the morally abhorrent MTV — which was blocked on our TV until my older brother found the code to watch "Jersey Shore." My Gen Z childhood never involved magic or "Harry Potter" until I binged the series with my best friend in college when I was 21. 

There were many moments in my childhood when I was taught to believe that Halloween was evil. It was "shaytan," which means the devil in my parent's mother tongue, Amharic. It was the devil's holiday and we would never participate in it, something I never thought to challenge. To me, if they thought this, then they must be right — they're my parents, after all, and what they say is almost as sacred as the Bible by which they lived and breathed. 

When I think back to that time, I see a repressed childhood version of myself, a parentified child who never rocked the boat, who existed to be the perfect, obedient child. 

In reality, I longed to be one of those kids on my neighborhood streets with ridiculous costumes, running from door to door, buzzing to see what massive mega-Halloween candy they would score. Instead, I watched those same kids from our large front windows with our lights off and blinds drawn closed. I secretly pined for that experience until I aged out of really caring about it.

Then I became a sullen, chronically online teenager. I spent some of my formative years obsessing over One Direction and funnily enough, all those years on Tumblr and Twitter opened the gateway into deconstructing my relationship with my strict religious upbringing.

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While I was online, I was exposed to left-leaning progressive ideals and that blew holes in everything I was ever taught in home and in church. It was a major turning point. It was then when I stopped going to church and I was going to a lot of church every week. On Wednesday, I went to my white youth group with friends from school; on Saturday evening I went to a white megachurch; and on Sunday I went to my Ethiopian Evangelical church. By the time I was 16, I was pooped out on religion.

But this newfound progressive consciousness and agency didn't mean that my relationship with Halloween changed. It stayed the same and I was mostly indifferent about the holiday all throughout high school and college. The years I spent not celebrating the holiday made it harder to jump into it in my adulthood because I felt somewhat alienated from the joy and nostalgia people have about it now.

Again, it felt like I was watching those kids from my childhood window, unable to connect to a community that felt so distant and unreachable.

But if we fast-forward to 22, I made sure that because I moved to a new city with no sense of community, I would participate in everything I could so I could feel connected to people again. Since moving to New York City, I realized how the city comes alive during October and it has created a space for me to reclaim what was once a completely lost celebration to me.

Last year, I went to my first haunted house at Universial's Halloween Horror Nights with my best friend from college and it was an exhilarating experience. I will be going again this year, too. It's definitely a conflicting and unmooring feeling because I am healing a part of my childhood as an adult who has no real keen interest in the childhood aspects of Halloween.

But here I am watching the creepy childhood horror film classic "Coraline" for the first time at 24 and enjoying it. Since then, I've really leaned into the spirit of Halloween and the season. I've even fallen in love with the iconic horror film series "Scream."  Every passing year, celebrating Halloween may not be the same as it would have been as a child but bit by bit I'm understanding the immense joy people have in masquerading as an entirely different person for an evening and coming alive.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Essay Evangelical Halloween Harry Potter Religion Youth