The word “Scary” might seem redundant when describing Halloween, but I don’t think so. Given how Halloween is treated these days, as a child-centered celebration of smiling ghosts and witches, it might seem difficult to comprehend that All Hallows’ Eve began far differently, and that not all of its modern-day permutations are as puerile as the mainstream media might have you believe…
The Pagan Origins of Halloween
The Festival of Samhain (pronounced Sah-win), which has been called the “Celtic New Year,” was a Gaelic custom with Pagan roots. Commencing at sunset on October 31 and concluding 24 hours later, it was observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man up until the 19th Century. The festival marked the beginning of winter, and involved ritualistic bonfires set in expiation to the fairy-like Aos Sí (“people of the mounds”), and also feasts at which places were set for and food offered to the spirits of the dead. Another popular Samhain practice was that of Souling/Guising, in which people went from door to door in costume, offering prayers to the dead in exchange for food (see below).
The degree to which Samhain influenced Halloween remains a point of debate among historians, but most seem to concur that the Halloween we celebrate today is a combination of Samhain and the Christian observance of Hallowmas. Speaking of which…
Hallowmas lasts three days: All Hallows’ Eve, which falls on the night of October 31, followed by All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2. As with Samhain, the celebration of Hallowmas involves various rituals meant to honor the dead, in this case the Christian saints and martyrs.
Of particular interest to us is All Hallows’ Eve, a.k.a. Hallowe’en, during which it was believed that the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead was opened. Thus, people wore masks and costumes so they wouldn’t be recognized by errant spirits.
Yet another pre-Halloween celebration that occurred on 31 October, Hop-tu-naa is apparently still celebrated on the Isle of Man. Among its more archaic rituals was the spreading of ashes in which a footprint was expected to show up the following morning; if said footprint faced the front door it meant someone living in the house was soon to die, while if it pointed away a birth was imminent.
There was also the Soddag Valloo, or Dumb Cake, made jointly by a houseful of young women. After dividing up and consuming the cake, which took place in total silence (hence the “Dumb”), the gals would walk backwards to their respective beds, which was supposed to result in their future husbands appearing to them in dreams.
This Cornish festival with alleged pre-Christian origins was once again celebrated on October 31, and contains many divinations similar to those of Samhain, Hallowmas and Hop-tu-naa. The major difference was that Allantide pivoted on large “Allan” apples, used in a macabre game in which four candles were placed on a suspended wooden cross with Allan apples hanging from each point; participants would then try to bite the apples, getting hot wax in the eyes or face if their aim wasn’t perfect.
The Real Origins of Trick or Treating
According to the historian Ruth Edna Kelley, “All Hallowe’en customs in the United States are borrowed directly or adapted from those of other countries.” Example: the conceit of going from door-to-door asking for candy, which derives from the medieval practice of souling, in which people would knock on neighbors’ doors on All Saints’ Day to beg for “soul cakes” (small roundish cakes topped with crosses) in exchange for prayers for the deceased.
This led to the practice of Guising, which began, reportedly, in late-1800s Scotland. It consisted of costumed revelers who carried scooped-out turnip lanterns (prefiguring today’s jack-o-lanterns) and went door-to-door begging for goodies. Thus, people who bitch about trick-or-treating teaching kids to become beggars really aren’t that far off.
Oh, and the phrase “trick or treat?” It was meant literally by children in late-1920s Alberta, in which, according to one account, “youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word ‘trick or treat.’” If their demands weren’t met the brats would respond with mischief, resulting in frayed tempers by those unfortunates who “had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street.”
In many parts of the world October 30 is designated as Mischief Night. If you’re a resident of America’s east coast you’re probably familiar with Mischief Night, possibly under alternate names like Goosey Night or Cabbage Night (as it’s known in Queens, NY, where at one time rotten fruit was lobbed at anything that moved).
Like a watered-down version of THE PURGE, Mischief Night gives people license to indulge in harmless (if obnoxious) acts of vandalism. Sometimes, however, these acts escalate into far more dangerous actions, as occurred in Camden, New Jersey, where a reported 130 incidents of arson took place on the night of October 30, 1991.
The TRUE Facts of Amusement Park Halloween Mazes
An Alternative Halloween Celebration
Described as “the greatest Halloween celebration anywhere on the planet,” the seventies-era Halloween parades that took place in San Francisco’s Castro District remain legendary. The event was outlawed years ago, but photographs, displayed in the pages of Ken Werner’s adults-only photo book HALLOWEEN and elsewhere, give a good indication of how wild, weird and plain scary the Castro revelries truly were.
Halloween in the Media
The viewing of scary movies is a longtime Halloween staple, with the most popular choices being an appropriately titled 1970s film and its many sequels. Other Halloween themed horror films of particular interest include TRICK ‘R TREAT, MAY, PUMPKINHEAD and HELLBENT (not a very good movie, but the only one to be set during a gay Halloween parade, and so probably the closest any of us will ever come to experiencing the Castro Street revelries).
In the book world Halloween was the subject of Norman Patridge’s brilliant horror novel DARK HARVEST. There’s also the eighties anthology HALLOWEEN HORRORS and much of the output of Al Sarrantonio, who in books like HALLOWS EVE, HORRORWEEN and TOYBOX has pretty much claimed the Halloween horror field for himself.
Beyond those examples, however, Halloween-set horror is surprisingly scant. Possibly writers and filmmakers feel it’s too obvious a setting. Another reason may be that Halloween has grown so watered down from what it once was, but let’s not kid ourselves: the season is rife with horrific potential, as I believe the above examples conclusively demonstrate.