The Halloween party was a recurring feature episode of The Office, as it is in many American TV shows. At his first Halloween party as CEO of Sabre – Dunder Mifflin, Robert California walks the office getting to know everyone, asking them about their fears. Towards the end of the episode, this strange and enigmatic character crafts a ghost story weaving in everyone’s fears – fears of dying alone, mummies, not spending enough time with their children, an unresolved disagreement. Without knowing the episode, let alone the characters’ backstories and where this part of the nine seasons story finds them, the text and the clip probably don’t make that much sense. In other words, watch the whole episode if you haven’t seen it. But if you have seen it, I reckon the episode is a great, albeit fictional, case study on how to connect to your audience’s heart through the power of story:
Robert California : When I was a boy, there was an empty house just up the hill from my family’s. It was rumored a man committed suicide there after being possessed by the devil. One day, a young woman, Lydia, moved into the house with her infant child. That very night, Lydia was awakened by a loud, heinous hissing sound. She walked to the nursery and there in baby’s crib was a snake wrapped around baby’s neck, squeezing tighter and tighter. The crib was full of dirt. Baby struggled to free itself from underneath, reaching and clawing, gasping for air. Embalmed bodies rose from their sarcophagi, lurching toward the baby, for they were mummies. Amongst them was a man, tall, slim. Almost instinctively she turned to her husband. “Oh, wait,” she thought, “I don’t have a husband.” For Lydia and her husband had had an argument, one they couldn’t get past. Each night they slept one inch farther apart until one night, Lydia left. It was about this time she lost herself in an imaginary world. She had quit the book club, the choir, saying something about their high expectations. Her lips slowly grew together from disuse. Every time she wanted to act and didn’t and other parts of her face hardened until it was stone. And that fevered night, she rushed to the nursery, threw open the door, “Baby, are you ok?” Baby sat up slowly, turned to Mother and said, “I’m fine Bitch. I’m fine.”
Robert California’s story connects everyone in the branch, and it connects with everyone in the branch. And he preaches as through story about their fears. We all have our fears and we are ruled to a greater or lesser extent by our fears – some fears are rational and some really are irrational – and so he tells them this silly absurd story to help them confront their fears. We are given the insight:
Robert: Fear plays an interesting role in our lives. How dare we let it motivate us. How dare we let it into our decision making, into our livelihoods, into our relationships. It’s funny, isn’t it, we take a day a year to dress up in costume and celebrate fear.
In a sense the Gospel is a story like that; it speaks to our deepest fears of death and our place in the world, our relationships, our identity. But it extends beyond the office to connect all people in all places with a common story of our history and our future. And although that history may seem bleak, we don’t need to be ruled by our fear – fear of God, fear of ourselves or our past, or fear of anyone in the world. We live in the knowledge that we are accepted by the God whose perfect love casts out fear.
So the next time you’re worried or scared, think about Robert California and laugh; or about a God of love and smile inside. Either way, don’t fear.