By Clover Carroll
What is it that makes Halloween so much fun? Is it the guilt-lessened candy and sweets? Is it the thought of a sojourn with dead loved ones? Is it the fun of dressing up and pretending to become our alter ego? Or is it that we love the adrenalin rush of being scared out of our wits? Answer: all of the above!
One of my more vivid childhood memories is the elaborate haunted house my theater-loving mother would create in our basement for all the neighborhood kids to visit. She’d stuff clothes with crumpled newspaper, top them with horrible masks, and prop them up with broomsticks around the bedsheet-draped maze, or dangle a witch or skeleton from the ceiling pipes. My father would rig up dim, spooky lighting and background clanking and moaning. As unsuspecting visitors crept through the carefully planned pathways, suddenly one of the figures would reach out and grab them! Or groan softly, or sit up in the coffin. The screams of terror could be heard for blocks! To add to the fun, my mother had simply enlisted a few friends to don masks and pose quietly among the fake figures. Needless to say, our petrifying Halloween party was a much-desired invitation! But as for me, I would rather have attended “Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party” at Disney World.
As the ghosts and goblins, fairies and superheroes prepare to haunt our streets on the night of October 31, it is interesting to reflect on the origin and history of this most imaginative of holidays. First, this post-harvest celebration marks the darkening of the year, the shorter hours of daylight, the temporary death of flowers and trees, and the onset of colder days and frosty nights—all of which stir a natural fear in the human heart.
Halloween is believed to have its origin in the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain (pron. sah-win), named from the Old Irish for “summer’s end.” Samhain was celebrated on the eve of the Celtic New Year on November 1, and similar festivals were held throughout England, Scotland, and Wales in pre-Christian times. This was seen as a liminal time, when the veil between worlds was dissolved and spirits, fairies, witches, and the souls of the dead could more easily visit our earthly sphere. The festival included mumming and guising, in which children would go from house to house in costume, usually reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. The disguise served both to imitate the spirits believed to be abroad on this night, as well as to confront death and ward off evil. The spirits were seen as pranksters, so tricks might also be played. Hollowed out turnips or mangel wurzel (field beets), carved to look like ghosts and goblins, would serve as lanterns to light their way—later replaced by pumpkins to become the jack-o-lanterns of today.
This pagan festival of the dead was gradually Christianized, with the designation of November 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor saints and martyrs of the church, and November 2 as All Souls’ Day to honor the souls of all the dead, particularly those who had died the previous year. To hallow means to make sacred or holy (as in “this hallowed ground”), so a saint may be called a hallow. J.K. Rowling borrowed this resonant term for the last book in her series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (with the hallows in question being the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Invisibility Cloak). Since in olden times, All Saints’ Day was called All Hallows’ Day. October 31 became All Hallows’ Eve or Even(ing), later contracted as Hallowe’en. In England and Ireland, guising on this spooky night was replaced by “souling,” when poor children would go from door to door to be given soul cakes (cakes filled with raisins and spices and topped with the mark of a cross). These days, by exposing ourselves to these trumped-up fears and simulated horrors, we are reminded how safe and cozy our lives really are. And by observing these traditions, we connect with our European ancestors in more ways than simply honoring their memories. The tradition of trick-or-treating dates from at least medieval times!
As Longfellow reminds us, “all houses wherein men have lived and died/ Are haunted houses.” While children are bobbing for apples and thronging the crisp fall night in search of treats, many adults will be communing in their hearts with long departed friends and family. To get in the mood, you might pick up the classic All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams (1886–1945). A British poet, novelist, and member of the Inklings—an Oxford literary group that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien—Williams was admired by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. This supernatural thriller features ghosts as the main characters in a plot that dissolves the barrier between the living and the dead through both black magic and divine love.
However we celebrate Halloween, we would do well to remember the old Scottish prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties, long-leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us!”