When I was little, I wasn’t allowed to watch the “Night on Bald Mountain” portion of Fantasia. It had everything to do with my own anxious tendencies as a child and not because my parents were uptight about the holiday. Actually, my parents’ embrace of Halloween deviated from the cultural norms of the religious community we belonged to at the time, one that looked askance at anything remotely spooky, even in one instance (I wish I was making this up) expressing concern over the use of magic by one MARY POPPINS. [Pause for laughter. Or therapy. Or crying in the arms of Julie Andrews.] All that to say, thanks to my parents I grew up loving Halloween and basically everything about autumn, but I didn’t get around to seeing “Night on Bald Mountain” until I taught an interdisciplinary humanities course.
Our Halloween class was one of my favorite traditions. My co-teacher would talk about the historic origins of the holiday, and I would cover the music history side. We would listen to such favorites as Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre”, and then I would teach a little lesson on Modest Mussorgsky, and we would watch “Night on Bald Mountain.” With each viewing I found the animation weirdly moving, and the more that the tumult our current age intensifies, the more meaningful the piece is.
It takes place Halloween night where Bald Mountain opens up and a satanic looking devil-fellow summons all the ghosts and ghouls and other demons, and they have a little rumpus in the flames that he conjures. It grows increasingly frenzied and disturbing until suddenly the devil flinches, and all goes silent. He grimaces and flinches again. The demons too, wince and recoil, and a rhythmic pattern to their movement emerges. It becomes clear that what is having such an effect on them is the tolling of a bell. As the bell grows louder, they shrink back, and eventually the demons and ghosts and ghouls begin to swirl back to the realms from which they came. Even the devil-fellow wraps himself in his wings, throwing his hands up in defeat and becomes part of the mountain once more. The music grows softer and more sacred, and a line of lights appears against Gothic arches as a line of saints. The bell reveals itself to be a church bell and the lights, the torches of church-goers processing in prayer. Ultimately, a ten minute romp of wickedness was powerless against the prayers of the saints.
Obviously this is a Halloween cartoon, but in the days when turmoil, tragedy, and societal decay seem to grow with the same frenzied intensity, the idea of an evil battle swirling above our heads doesn’t seem entirely implausible. But that also makes the image of that line of lights carried by the gathering saints as well as the incapacitating power of the church bell so much sweeter. I think of the simple zoom call my church has done every Wednesday since the pandemic hit in March. On my very worst days I can listen to the faith-filled prayers of people who have lived a lot more life than I have, and my own sense of strength and hope is renewed. I picture the glowing lights carried by each saint that may feel small and insignificant on its own, but combined, sends the shadows scattering.