As surely as turning leaves herald autumn, seasonal stores selling all things Halloween are here. Not only kids’ costumes are for sale, but also eerie props, decorations, and costumes for adults. Front yards boast pumpkins and hay bales, as well as make-believe spider webs, skeletons and gravestones. Scary, it seems, is the order of the day. Even our local drugstore has a display in the entryway that is so ghoulish, it would discourage me from entering if I still had a young child.

Halloween is big business. Spending on the October holiday is catching up with Christmas, with an expected $7.4 billion this Halloween, according to Fortune magazine. Year round, contemporary popular culture sees legions of books, videos and movies about the undead – vampires, zombies, and the like. Of course, interest in “the dark side” and the spirit world is nothing new.

Ancient and contemporary Pagan spiritual traditions celebrate Oct. 31 as Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”), the most sacred day of the year. The halfway point between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice, it marks the end of the harvest season and the start of a new year. It embraces the advancing darkness and inward focus of this time of year and is believed to be the time when the veil between this world and the next is thinnest, so that the spirits of those who have died are nearest to us.

As the Pagan Roman Empire was Christianized by fiat on the part of Emperor Constantine, Samhain was “baptized” to become All Souls/All Saints Day, the eve of which would have logically become “All Hallows’ E’en,” thus, “Halloween.” It became a time to remember and celebrate the lives of departed ancestors in the faith, early on by dressing up as “saints” and proceeding through the town, rewarded with sweet treats. The rest, as they say, is history.

But why this contemporary resurgence of Halloween enthusiasm, this interest in death and darkness, and life beyond this “vale of tears?” It may seem morbid, but there’s more. Humans have a universal desire for meaning beyond the material, and a natural curiosity about death and what lies beyond. In this season, with daylight waning and night advancing, death and darkness are all around us, from our gardens to the woods and treetops. We are reminded that dying is part of the natural order of things, darkness too, calling to mind for many the life of the spirit.

But spirit, that part of each of us that animates our deepest selves and that cannot die, is given short shrift in our material world, our death – and darkness – denying world, our 24/7, artificially illuminated world that has chased darkness to the margins and made it something to be avoided, even difficult to experience should one want to.

Contemporary Western religion casts goodness as light and evil dark, leaving us as scared of the dark as when we were little, sure there were monsters lurking. Our clamorously noisy world makes silence such a rarity that it, too, makes us uncomfortable. So we are inundated with light and noise, unable to find a dark and quiet place to contemplate life’s (and death’s) deepest mysteries.

The wisdom of ancient traditions teaches balance as the highest good, and that means balancing light with darkness, sound with silence, life with death. Perhaps this is what we intuitively seek at this darkening, quieting, dying time of the year, knowing somehow that without each, the corresponding opposite is diminished.

Between the gruesome and the grave, along with costumes and candy, maybe we can take a longer and deeper look at what’s going on here, described by diverse religions with diverse but strikingly similar vocabularies. And maybe we can accept the invitation of this seasonal marker to welcome the growing darkness, embrace the silence, accept death as part of life, and find the balance that characterizes the annual turning of the wheel of the world.

Andrea Thompson McCall is a retired United Church of Christ minister who served as interfaith chaplain at the University of Southern Maine.