The Harrowing of Halloween

Accidental Salvations Through Unmarked Graves

Ian Olson / 10.28.21

Marshall Cordell didn’t set out to become the Skeleton King, but intentions are regularly not what matters most for history. The Sanhedrin didn’t plan on furthering Jesus’s mission; Saul didn’t plan on encountering the resurrected Lord on his way to root out a dissident sect. But the intentions they did have were always nested within God’s intentions, and his aim was to set those captive to sin and death free. In a world tyrannized by darkness he has commandeered darkness’s devices to serve his salvific purpose.

Marshall Cordell’s medical chart company had sought to provide physicians and schools with something more tangible than the illustrations to which they had been accustomed. So in a shrewd entrepreneurial move (and ethically questionable, to say the least) he began buying skeletons from India. The problem was that there was no way to account for how the skeletons were obtained — apparently grave robbery became prevalent in response to buyer demand, and after India outlawed their sale he turned, instead, to plastic models. 

Many curses were undoubtedly sidestepped by making this move, to say nothing of all the skeletons that had already been shipped and sold stateside. The new arrangement avoided controversy by eschewing any human remains whatsoever. But what was to be done with the inevitable broken parts? The beauty of direct purchase of actual skeletons was their cheapness, but the plastic manufactured skeletons weren’t as cost effective. So Cordell took his unsellable bones to a Halloween show and began selling them as decorations. And when a new market was unearthed in this way, Cordell made a killing with his replicas, contributing to a surge in Halloween’s visibility. The homes in our neighborhoods adorned with cobwebs and skeletons and tombstones are a testament to the savvy of the self-styled Skeleton King.

The boom in Halloween decorating birthed an industry of mass manufactured symbols of death and darkness and, in turn, unintentionally became the pretext for an incredible story of deliverance for a prisoner named Sun Yi. Sun Yi was a political prisoner detained in a Chinese labor camp, a camp in which he and others were forced to make Halloween decorations that were sold across the world. After long seasons of repeated efforts to break his spirit, he turned in desperation not to a message in a bottle but a message within a tombstone.

In time, a woman in the United States named Julie Keith bought one of the decoration kits Sun Yi had helped to create. Julie had left it to languish for years until her daughter wanted to hold a spooky birthday party. Retrieving the tombstone kit, Julie discovered a note stowed away within the packaging. Sun Yi’s message had at last found its receiver. It read:

Sir, If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly send this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.

Sun Yi’s message went on to describe the working conditions of the camp and the punishments laborers received for failing to meet expectations. The note had miraculously made a voyage all the way to, of all places, Damascus—albeit Damascus, Portland. Julie was astounded it had not been discovered by camp officials and sought to help the note’s author. Two stories, utterly unaware of each other, intersected at this point in a way neither could have foreseen. 

And the outcome was no less miraculous. After the note was publicized, Chinese authorities took notice and announced they would end the labor re-education program and freed some 160,000 prisoners. What is particularly apt is the eucatastrophe of this scene:

Five years earlier, Sun Yi looked out of a window into the darkness as he ate his meager dinner at Masanjia prison camp, and saw a group of people moving through the gloom outside. He couldn’t see well, but they appeared to be carrying human skulls and thigh bones.

Sun Yi was horrified. He’d only recently been sentenced but already he’d heard rumors that some of his fellow inmates were tortured to death. This appeared to be confirmation.

Another inmate told him the group he’d seen were known as the Eighth Team, and they worked on what was called the “ghost job”.

Not long afterwards, in June 2008, a guard called out Sun Yi’s name. He was taken to a building and sent to a room on the fourth floor. He realized he’d been assigned to the Eighth Team — the very last thing he had wanted to happen.

When he entered the room, Sun Yi saw what looked like a tombstone in front of him. He picked it up and realized it was made of white polystyrene. It would soon be covered in black dye, and it would be Sun Yi’s job to make it look old by rubbing it with a wet sponge until the white underneath began to show through.

Sun Yi had no idea what Halloween was, though it came as a great relief that no actual dead bodies were involved — it was baffling to him that anyone would want these morbid decorations.

To approach what you believe will be your own tombstone and find it is a harmless polymer counterfeit is an exquisitely fitting reversal. It is a parable of the paradoxical grace of God, taking rise in that which appears utterly antithetical to life and light and love. Halloween renders this grace visible in a way the “nicer” holidays might not.

 

Empty tombs aren’t always good news, but on at least one occasion an empty tomb was. And make no bones about it, Christians are fascinated by a particularly morbid decoration themselves: the cross. For whatever value we ascribe to it now depends upon the unforeseeable event of resurrection to render it anything more than a grisly instrument of torture. Short of that, it is the symbol of Roman might to erase human particularity from history. But the fact that Jesus is remembered at all is a testament to its negation. That by which imperial supremacy was meant to be enforced and assured was converted to the instrument of its own irrelevance and passing away. The Romans never intended to save the world—at least not like that. 

The way to life is only ever through death; our adoption into Jesus’s beloved community is only in sharing his grave with him. We fear the darkness and what it can do to us, but Jesus assures us he has subverted it from within to sever Death’s hold upon us.

Salvation has come by way of an unmarked tombstone. Halloween may be harrowing, but it has been harrowed by the Living Lord. He’s not the skeleton king, but the the king of the living: the One who died but now lives evermore and has the keys to death and the world of the dead (Rev 1:18), Halloween without end. 

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