It’s October again! The nights are getting longer and a chill is creeping into the air as we approach the darkest festival of the year – Halloween! Three years ago, this series began with an overview of the ancient origins of the holiday; a Celtic celebration called Samhain. I alluded at the time that a future installment would discuss the “the story of how a pre-Christian New Year’s celebration evolved into the second largest commercial holiday in the United States”. That future installment is here.
When Christianity became the dominant faith in Europe, the Church wisely avoided banning “pagan” rituals and instead opted to absorb them into its own liturgical calendar, changing the focus from local deities and spirits to the Father, The Son, and the Holy Ghost. In 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV moved the feast of All Saint’s Day from May to November 1. By all accounts this move was made to replace the veneration of dead ancestors with that of the Christian saints. In 1000 CE, All Soul’s Day was added to the calendar giving believers a time to honor non-beatified ancestors and loved ones who’d passed on. The three day period from October 31 through November 2 became known as Hallowtide. However the theology might have changed at the level of Church orthodoxy, common people maintained many of the folk customs and old practices that were sacred to their non-Christian ancestors. I tend to believe that for most people, it is the ritual aspect of any celebration that animates their passion for it more than the names of the gods to whom the rituals are dedicated. In England, All Saint’s Day was called All Hallow’s Day and the night before All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowmas. In popular parlance, this was shortened to “Hallowe’en”. Just as pre-Christian Celts saw the day as one in which the normal borders of reality were thrown open, so did medieval Christians in the British Isles believe normalcy was inverted during this period. They felt the same spiritual impulses as their non-Christian ancestors and believed that spirits of the dead were especially active on the night before All Saint’s Day. As it still does today, Halloween also involved a bit of social disorder.
The Europeans who settled in what would eventually become the United States came mostly out of Protestant traditions that eschewed saint worship and festivals that reeked to them of “pagan” idolatry. Outside of Catholic Maryland and the Anglican south, the word “Halloween” or any of its derivatives were absent from the old colonies and the new republic. Nonetheless, the same seasonal work patterns affected people all across North America regardless of religious denomination, and as a result, autumn festivals were ubiquitous. Across the young nation, after a long season of planting and harvesting, celebrations that were often called play parties became a popular way of letting off steam. These communal events might include games like bobbing for apples, dressing in costumes, parades, and firing rifles into the air (a pretty universal holiday tradition across the young USA). Almost everyone, Protestant or Catholic saw the longer, colder nights of late October as a perfect time for telling of spooky stories. German and Dutch immigrants to the new world were known for their tales of ghosts and witches who were especially active in the autumn chill. According to Halloween historian, Lesley Bannatyne, Washington Irving’s classic horror tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” may have been inspired by such stories told in upstate New York.
Protestants from the British Isles brought another rowdy celebration to the calendar as they continued to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th. The holiday is a commemoration of the failed Gun Powder Plot that was foiled on that date in 1605, in which English Catholic radicals led by Guy Fawkes were thwarted in their attempt to bomb the House of Lords and assassinate England’s Protestant King James I. The holiday was instated soon thereafter as a national celebration of the defeat of the “popish menace” and included large bonfires, burning of effigies of Fawkes and his co-conspirators, (or anyone who was seen as an enemy of England at any given time). The annual celebration quickly evolved to feature all sorts of crazy hijinks from widespread vandalism and pranking to costumed processions. Bonfires seem to bring something wild out of most of us. By the twentieth century the November 5th celebration had been largely forgotten stateside and become absorbed into Halloween, but some Americans rediscovered Guy Fawkes when Alan Moore published his classic mini-series, V for Vendetta beginning in 1982. The story featured a superhuman anarchist protagonist who donned the famous mask of the Catholic revolutionary while fighting against a totalitarian regime that had taken control of the UK. Many more became aware of him when the series was adapted as a film in 2005 and the Guy Fawkes outfit has become a popular Halloween costume ever since. His likeness has also become the public face of the loose network of hackers known as Anonymous.
As it does with so much of its cultural history, The United States owes the modern celebration of Halloween to the contributions of immigrants. The nineteenth century brought a wave of migrants from the Celtic world, Irish and Scottish who probably couldn’t name a thing about Samhain or the pre-Christian beliefs of their ancestors, yet whose autumn rituals maintained many of the traditions of the old festival even if the window dressing had been updated. Where they settled, the seeds of today’s holiday were planted and while rabidly xenophobic politicians were shouting about the cultural pollution these Catholic Irish and Presbyterian Scottish immigrants were bringing into the country, their neighbors were absorbing just how cool the new arrivals’ celebration of Hallowmas really was.
Though the Scots were formally Protestant and thus not disposed towards “popish” feasts, among common people, believers by and large were not willing to give up the rites and festivals that gave meaning to their existence when they converted from Catholic to Protestant. Halloween rituals persisted throughout Scotland as captured so eloquently by the nation’s national poet, Robert Burns in his 1785 poem, “Halloween“. The twelve stanzas spoke of the night as one in which “a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are abroad on their baneful midnight errands.” Within these festivities, a body of folklore, evolved from ancient beliefs was bandied about. For rural Scots the belief in witchcraft continued well into the modern era as did suspicions that these evil doers were particularly active during the pagan festival of Halloween. Women in the farmhouse took particular care on that night to watch the keyholes of their outside doors, as any bug that flew inside might be a witch in disguise. The witches’ master might make an appearance, too, as in the folk tale in which the devil appeared on the steps of the local church to read the names of everyone who would die on All Hallows Eve. These legends spread throughout rural enclaves in the United States.
In the urban areas where Irish Catholics settled in much larger numbers than their Scottish brethren, October 31 celebrations were a given. Irish young and old could be seen in cities like Boston and New York on Halloween parading in the streets with faces blackened by burnt cork, celebrating the night of mischief with vigor. One ancient Celtic folktale carried over by Irish immigrants blended with local tradition and became the face of the modern holiday. The word Jack-o’-Lantern originally denoted the mysterious lights that hang over the peat bogs dotting the British Isles. Properly known as will-o-wisps, these strange lights were caused by chemical oxidation that our ancestors understandably regarded as mystical in origin. They might be mischievous fairies attempting to lead travelers to their doom amidst the thick swamp lands, or – especially on Halloween – they could be the visible components of the spirits of the dead, especially those who lingered in Purgatory.
Going all the way back to Samhain, these spirits were represented by carving out root vegetables (usually turnips) and illuminating the chiseled faces by placing lighted candles inside. These small idols may have been used to represent loved ones who’d passed on, or they could be carved with scary faces and placed in window sills in hopes of scaring away any wandering malicious spirit who might want to enter the home. Another legend from Christian era (though very conceivably with pre-Christian roots) was that of Stingy Jack. Jack was said to be a trickster so sly that he tricked the devil on multiple occasions. When he died, the devil, fearing he would be tricked again, wouldn’t take Jack into hell and his mischievousness kept him out of heaven, so he was forced to wander the Earth for all eternity, carrying a lantern in the dark. He thus became, “Jack of the Lantern” or Jack-o’-Lantern for short. In America, Irish immigrants found a new and improved vessel for carrying on their tradition, the native pumpkin. I can’t imagine what Halloween would have been like as a kid without our annual Jack-o’-Lantern carving, a tradition that I’ve happily passed on to my own children. We love to walk around our neighborhood looking at all the other carved pumpkins that take over our neighbor’s porches and lawns. What would the season be like without Jack Skellington, The Pumpkin King from the The Nightmare Before Christmas, or the surrogate noggin used by the Headless Horseman in Disney’s adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow? I always pictured that Linus’ unreliable Halloween hero, The Great Pumpkin, must be a giant Jack-o’-lantern, but I guess the world will never know. Either way, The Great Turnip or Jack the Turnip King just don’t have the same ring.
As these customs began to take hold in Anglo-Saxon high society, the customs of American harvest festivals began to merge with Celtic immigrant practices. Starting in the late 1800s upper-class adults began to throw large private celebrations on October 31. Victorian-era Halloween parties were supernatural affairs, centered as they were on divining from the spirit world what the coming year would bring. This was especially true for young girls whose holiday games often involved trying to learn the identity of their future husband. By looking for his initials in apple peels that had been thrown over their shoulders or eating certain blends of nuts and fruits intended to make them dream of his face on that night, single girls imagined they might identify their future Mr. Right. The tradition of bobbing for apples that was still popular when I was little (though I haven’t seen anyone play it in the last thirty years or so) was meant to decide who would be next to get married. This game may be as old as Samhain, during which apples were considered sacred objects, a belief that may have been absorbed from the Roman harvest feast of Pomona, named for the goddess whose name often means “apple” or “fruit”. Other harvest treats played in role in the search for eternal love, as when nuts carved with the initials of a potential suitor were tossed into a fire. The first nut to explode would undoubtedly be the man. The host of a party might bury a ring in a pot of mashed potatoes. The man who found the ring, presuming he was single (and that he hadn’t choked to death on the unexpected piece of jewelry in his mashers) would surely be destined to marry her. Perhaps most “Halloween-like” of these games was to look into a mirror in a darkened room hoping to see the face of one’s future husband. I did the same thing as a kid, but rather than looking to meet my future spouse, I was simultaneously trying to and hoping not to see the face of the devil.
I might come across as somewhat nostalgic in some of holiday history pieces, and there is some truth to this charge, but there are few ways of making my eyes roll faster than by spouting off about how much better the good old days were. Every time I hear about how the new generation just doesn’t have the same level of respect as those of the past I hang my head in frustration with the lack of honesty, self-awareness, or both. Human beings seem to be hard-wired to believe that our current society is in a state of rapid decay and that young people are to blame. So many imagine that they were so much more virtuous in their youth (they probably weren’t) and that kids these days are unprecedentedly awful (they aren’t). The error in this sort of thinking is well demonstrated by a look at the history of Halloween celebrations. We owe our current practice of trick or treating almost entirely to the fact that yesterday’s youth saw the harvest fests of October and Hallowmas as times to raise holy hell and terrify their communities in a way that most kids today would probably shrink from.
Up until the end of the nineteenth century, holidays in general were chaotic affairs that gave license to collective rowdiness and widespread intoxication. I’ve written about the taming of Christmas elsewhere, and the same process of reining in other public holidays like Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and turning them to family-friendly events took many decades and concerted community effort. But there has always been a particularly dark side to Halloween night.
Processions on October 31 go all the way back to Samhain. Celtic Halloween rites were marked by costumed celebrants called “mummers” who wore animal skin masks or decorated cloth and traveled from home to home performing songs and dances in exchange for newly harvested gifts of apples or nuts. The medieval church sanctioned parades on All Soul’s and All Saint’s Days in which parishioners would dress as saints and angels (and sometimes as demons) and march around the parish collecting alms and praying for the dead. Poor English peasants took the opportunity to go “souling” that is a ritualized practice in which they offered to pray for the dead relatives of the more well-to-do in exchange for “treats”. The treat of choice for these processions of beggars was the “soul cake” a small spiced pastry baked and topped with the sign of the cross (very akin to the hot cross buns eaten on Good Friday). Similar types of processions remained a part of Halloween tradition in the nineteenth century United States, especially among Irish and Scottish immigrants who marched in various forms of costumes, but these sorts of parades were not unique to Halloween. In fact, the last recorded Thanksgiving parade in which youngsters went from door to door begging for treats was in 1928. Parades and the ruckus that accompanied them were pretty standard behavior on all American holidays, especially on October 31.
But until around the middle of the twentieth century, trick or treating meant something different than it does to most of us today. The focus of the day was not on the procession or getting candy from strangers. Some Halloween fun was just harmless pranking, the likes of which I may or may not have taken part in myself: soaping windows, ding-dong ditch, or throwing eggs at cars and houses. Others were more disruptive like when groups of boys dumped bags of flour on immaculately dressed party-goers, or blockaded people into their own homes by nailing boards across doors or setting up tripwires on porches. When people young and old began tossing bricks through windows and setting fires to shops, Halloween was a damn near insurrection. In rural communities, going all the way back to medieval times, Halloween night was considered a time to mete out justice and for redistributing community wealth by stealing from the rich. This trend continued in the United States when groups of youth took the opportunity to settle scores that had accumulated since the previous October. Riots were not uncommon. In the early 1920s Chicago-area police stations were filled every year with intoxicated teens who had gone on a tear destroying sections of the city. From the late nineteenth century through the 1940s Toronto was the scene of annual October madness that sometimes resulted in pitched battles between youth and local police. The Guy Fawkes Day tradition of lighting bonfires was absorbed into Halloween, and revelers looked anywhere and everywhere for fuel, including their neighbors’ gates and fences. Hundreds of kids were arrested every year and some were injured or killed when angry homeowners shot back at rioters and looters. The catchphrase of Halloween night, “trick or treat”, now considered a pleasantry designed to ask politely for a few pieces of candy, was once an ultimatum in which the costume figures stood at the door demanding something sweet to eat (or drink) lest the the inhabitants suffer their wrath.
The night before Halloween has long been known as a bastion of mischief going back to 1700s England where switching street or shop signs. In New Hampshire and Vermont the night before Halloween was called “Cabbage Night” on account of the fact that girls used cabbages as a means of divination. After the vegetable was picked and fortunes were told, the only reasonable thing to do would be to eat them. But let’s face it, kids aren’t reasonable, and many of them would rather see the devil in a mirror than eat anything green and leafy. So instead, heads of cabbage became great projectiles to throw at neighborhood doors. Mostly the night involved the same harmless pranks that happened on Halloween, but from the 1930s on there have been cases of violence, sometimes resulting in death. In 1934 a fourteen-year old boy was beaten to death in Connecticut and an eight year old in Chicago was murdered while attending a large bonfire gathering the same year. Though the night has mostly been reclaimed as a harmless family one, in Detroit where it is known as “Devil’s Night” was a scene of utter chaos through the 1990s. Starting in 1967 when a peaceful demonstration against police racism and brutality in the inner city was met with a forceful response from the authorities that turned the gathering into an uprising in which over a fourteen hundred building were set afire. Every year through the 1990s, it became a regular practice in the Motor City to set dumpsters, cars, and buildings on fire. The dreaded night was immortalized in the 1994 film, The Crow in which a young rock star and his fiance are murdered by a street gang on Devil’s Night in Detroit.
Late October mischief was no minor issue for communities. For nearly a century public officials at every level of government wrestled with how to contain the problem of Halloween unrest. As recently as 1950 The Senate Judiciary Committee under President Truman sought to re-brand October 31 as “Youth Honor Day” in order to curb incidents of vandalism and public rowdiness. During the first decades of the twentieth century, several cities across the country tried to tame the spirit of the holiday by holding large public festivals. The first documented municipal Halloween gathering was held in Anoka, Minnesota in 1920 and featured a large parade and free treats as well as a massive bonfire. Civic organizations like the Boy Scouts or local veterans organizations began to sponsor similar events across the country featuring costume contests, decorating, and other entertainment. Over the next decade it became increasingly common for individual families to hold Halloween parties or organize neighborhood processions and national magazines and local radio stations started to celebrate the idea that trick or treating was a family, child-friendly event. Oftentimes community leaders tried to discourage “occult” costumes and promoted popular movie and comic strip characters over witches and vampires, but the folk-horror elements of Halloween never went away. By the 1950s the trend had caught on nationwide and the central ritual of our modern holiday was etched into our collective consciousness as the “traditional” means of celebrating.
But Halloween has never been completely tamed. Even well into this period of domestication, any resident who dared to answer a doorbell could not be sure whether she would meet costumed children looking for candy or a dead animal hanging up outside her door. During the 1920s and 30s, a time time when the so-called “greatest generation” were growing up, teenage street gangs emulated their favorite gangster films and sought to shake down neighbors for the best treats. Many fundamentalist Christian leaders began to warn about public acceptance of the Satanic holiday and public intellectuals warned that trick or treating was a certain pipeline to communist sympathy. By the time that trick or treating was finally made suitable for family consumption, the tables began to turn and the prey became the predator. Since October of 1964 when a prank played by Helen Pfeil of Greenlawn, New York in 1964 in which she passed out items like bug poison and steel wool pads to teenage trick or treaters resulted in a minor panic, rumors of candy tampering became rampant. How the tables turned. Suddenly parents who’d tamed their children’s celebration and made it safe for homeowners, now had to contend with rumors of sociopathic neighbors poisoning their candy that persist to this day. I’ve written a longer account of this phenomenon here.
For most people, the more controlled fear of dressing up in slightly trangressive costumes, decorating their homes with sanitized monsters, and visiting walk-through haunted houses is a more common means of enjoying the inherent desire for danger that seems connected with the holiday. The most common way to enjoy Halloween frights has increasingly been through the realm of fiction.
The link between Halloween and the horror genre may seem obvious to most of us; I’ve exploited it to the fullest extent throughout this series. In fact, this connection is a fairly recent one. As horror-movie historian David Skal noted, the early Universal horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein never tied their films to Halloween (the latter was released in November and actually had a Thanksgiving tie-in with some of its marketing campaigns!) Halloween specials go back to the early days of cinema, though they generally highlighted the mischievous nature of the holiday and used it as a back drop for crime dramas or for festive farces more than associating the day with scary monsters or psychotic humans. The 1933 Betty Boop classic Halloween special featured the heroine throwing a large bash featuring Jack-o’lanterns, witches, black cats, and an uninvited guest in a gorilla suit who is frightened away by a gang of ghosts and devils. In the 1960s Universal began to specifically market its horror films during Halloween and began to schedule opening nights in October. In 1966 It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown set the standard for holiday television specials; family friendly but a bit spooky, too.
Ray Bradbury who usually manages to weave a bit of creepiness and some wholesome childhood magic into any single tale, wrote what is perhaps the definitive piece of Halloween fiction in his 1972 novel, The Halloween Tree. The story sends a group of Midwestern trick or treaters through time to visit Halloween history in ancient Egypt, the bogs of Celtic Britain, medieval cathedrals beset by gargoyles and flying witches, and Mexico, guided by the creepy, and most excellently-named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud. Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel, Hallowe’en Party is not one of her most shining examples of mystery writing, but it does provide a window into how mid-twentieth century Brits celebrated the ancient festival. The victim is found drowned in a tub where revelers had been bobbing for apples and detective Hercule Poirot’s investigation reconstructs the events of the party that featured activities like snapdragon and old-fashioned Halloween divination games. It ultimately uncovers a murderer who has constructed a pagan sacrificial altar. Arguably no book better captures the modern Halloween mythos than Roger Zelazney’s dark fantasy, A Night in Lonesome October. Written in thirty-one chapters – one for each day of the month preceding Hallowmas (and believe me, it’s most fun if you read a chapter every night). It follows a group of strange characters that include Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Larry Talbot (the Wolfman) as they prepare for a secret ritual that has apocalyptic implications for the future of the Earth. The story is narrated by Jack The Ripper’s dog, Snuff who is more than he appears to be and whose ground eye view of the world reveals so much excellent Halloween imagery.
In 1978, a young director named John Carpenter was surprised to learn that the title “Halloween” was never used for a horror movie and he quickly re-titled his script, “The Babysitter Murders” to take advantage of this fact. Most of you are probably familiar with the story of Michael Myers, the evil child now grown up and escaped from an asylum to return home to Haddonfield, Illinois for a murderous rampage on the night of October 31. As the brilliant film devolved into a bumbling franchise, it began to incorporate the trappings of the holiday’s mythology. In the 1981 sequel, we see the word “SAMHAIN” scrawled across a chalkboard in blood. In the third installment, Michael Myers takes a break from the series and instead an Irish businessman committed to the preservation of the ancient Celtic festival unveils a worldwide plan to make a Samhain sacrifice when the immensely popular Halloween masks he sells cause children to burst into flames. We learn in Halloween 5: The Curse of Michael Myers, that Michael is actually connected to an ancient cult that is presumably dedicated to the ancient Celtic holiday.
Since Carpenter’s classic, lots of horror movies have been made set on or around Halloween and movies that have nothing to do with the holiday whatsoever yet feature macabre storytelling are well-loved by many come October. Henry Selick’s Nightmare Before Christmas is perhaps the most notable of these, set in the town from which all Halloween horrors spring. Michael Dougherty’s 2007 anthology Trick ‘r Treat, is a true love story to Halloween in the vein of Creepshow, Tales From the Crypt and other great horror anthologies. It is an homage to both the horror genre and to the holiday, exploring its ancient and contemporary mythology around a set of interwoven tales that center around a creepy character named Sam (short for “Samhain”). Other films like the psychological thriller, May, The Amityville Horror, Ginger Snaps, Carrie, and The Exorcist are all set on or around October 31 and use the season to great effect. As a teenager, I always made it a point on Halloween night to stay up as late as I could, eat lots of junk food, and watch scary movies that I rented from the video store until I passed out. Today, there are very few video stores left, but a number of cable stations like AMC and Freeform run horror movie marathons throughout October and no one in 2018 should doubt the link between the spooky holiday and horror fiction.
I don’t think it’s accurate to draw a straight line from the ancient Druidic practice of Samhain and its inherently creepy focus on the spirits of the dead to our penchant for watching horror movies and dressing like monsters on Halloween. It is, however, worth looking at how the fractured chain of history got us from there to here. The institution of a Church-sanctioned alternative to the Celtic festival kept many of the autumnal practices that predated Christianity alive, even if it changed the focus and transformed some of them into something that Samhain celebrants would not have recognized; the immigration of those who carried on the old ways to the new world where more diverse communities allowed for a blending of traditions; the creation of a mass media and a shared national culture that collected these strands into a cohesive shared holiday; Community leaders who sought to tame the holiday’s wilder elements making it safe to enter mainstream culture; and ultimately, a capitalist economy that fully exploited every grain of the tradition to turn Halloween into an engine of economic activity exceeded only by the Christmas shopping season.
Today, Halloween is immensely popular. Since the beginning of September, my own kids have begged me almost daily to take them to Halloween superstores like Spirit of Halloween, or even the local drug or hardware store where there are always significant holiday displays full of gravestones, ghosts, vampires, and witches. Candy and costume sales, as well as increasingly elaborate home decoration displays and visits to haunted hay rides and other fun houses will undoubtedly top last years total of an estimated nine billion dollars in sales and around the world people will carry on the ancient tradition, reinvented through the quirks of American history and exported to places as far flung as Colombia, Japan and Dubai. And, of course, people like me with rich memories of childhood experience and a primal joy of everything related to the October buildup to All Hallow’s Eve will continue to pass on traditions, and catalog the trappings of the holiday.
Thus concludes the 2018 season of Synaptic Halloween History. I will be back next October with more essays on the history and folklore of the holiday. And of course, I have plenty of other topics to discuss throughout the rest of the year! If you haven’t already, please subscribe! Have a Merry Hallowe’en!