Rants & Essays

Ooh, I'm Very Scared

By Julian Draven

Autumn is the time when the world begins to die. Trees lose their leaves, animals end their life cycles, and people bury themselves in holiday depression and stave off the cold with egg nog. It's been this way since the dawn of time. Fall has always signaled the start of the most desperate time of year for mankind, the time when one must prepare for a harsh winter, a killing frost, and Halloween. The time when we celebrate the simple act of dying.

Halloween nowadays isn't as grim as it used to be. Children play in the streets, going door to door in search of candy delights sure to please the young palate and upset the young stomach. The crass commercialism of most holidays doesn't really seem to be able to infect Halloween. Instead, it seems to add to the mystique and creepiness surrounding the holiday. Most of the nation's school systems don't actively promote Halloween, and this spirit seems to infect most big business when it comes to the usual selling campaigns that spring up around holidays. The endeavors that are most likely to succeed around Halloween are the grass-roots ones - the local haunted house, or the Halloween party. For this reason, Halloween seems to have remained, over the centuries, a holiday for the common folk.

Halloween wasn't always called Halloween. There are many different names for it, and the most curious mystery surrounding October 31st is the fact that so many disparate cultures choose this time of year to worship those things creepy and dead. The ancient Egyptians worshipped their dead on this day, as well as the pre-Spanish peoples in Central America, but the holiday we know as Halloween has its roots in a decidedly European culture.

October 31st has always been the traditional start of the Celtic New Year. The Celts called it 'Samhain', which means 'summer's end' in Gaelic. The Celts didn't have four seasons as we do. Rather, they had only two seasons, summer and winter. End of winter was marked by Beltane, the celebration of life and fertility. Samhain was Beltane's dark and brooding sister, a macabre indulgence in death and sterility. Samhain is pronounced (depending on where you're from) as 'sow-in' (in Ireland), or 'sow-een' (in Wales), or 'sav-en' (in Scotland). When viewing the word, most Americans have an urge to pronounce it 'sam-hane', which most Gaelic folk will laugh at.

Samhain was the day on which the veil between the spirit world and the real world was at its weakest. Souls of the dead, supernatural monsters, and just plain icky things were said to wander around on this day. Samhain existed outside of ordinary time to the Celts - it was a perfect time to do divinations and readings of the future, because you could look at any point in time from this day. Many women attempted to divine the names of their future husbands by placing chestnuts on the hearth of their fires. They would place one chestnut for each suitor, and bless it with the incantation "If he loves me, pop and fly. If he doesn't, burn and die."

Many of today's traditions date from the early Celts. The tradition of dressing up in costume comes from this source. In the beginning, it was actually cross-dressing that was encouraged, inspiring men and women to dress in clothes of the opposite sex for a night to experience life as the other sex. This tradition didn't have much of an effect in Scotland, where men usually wore colorful kilts. Later, as the Christian Church appropriated the holiday, costuming became a more important part of the holiday because of the otherworldly aspects of the day.

Samhain was the date on which the spirit world and the real world melded, in a sense. For this one day, spirits of the deceased could come back and visit their families. The huge sidhe mounds were thrown open, and their corridors lined with torches so that the dead could find their way back to their loved ones. Extra plates were set out so that relatives could enjoy a meal with their desiccated family members. It was a thoroughly morbid affair, a strange worship of the specter of death who will eventually claim us all.

When the Church attempted to spread its influence throughout the UK, it met with resistance from the Celts living there. In order to win over the natives, the church decided to adopt several holidays of the natives as their own. One of these holidays was Samhain.

Samhain was celebrated by the Church as All Hallows Eve, a pre-celebration of All Saints Day. The souls of the dead were no longer worshipped, but only those that were truly holy (and dead) were revered on this day. Try as it might, the Church couldn't get the notions of a thin veil between the land of the dead and of the living out of the minds of the natives. So they adapted several of the traditions into their holiday.

Costuming became a way to hide yourself among the dead. To the Church, shambling mounds of rotting relatives were an obscenity, and something to be feared. To this end, they used the costuming as a fun way for the natives to celebrate, eventually convincing them that the purpose was to hide themselves from the spirits, specters, and monsters that haunted the night world of Samhain. Ghosts and goblins wandered the countryside, along with those in costume. How could one tell if that was a person behind a mask or a monster? You couldn't and this added to the mystique of the holiday.

Trick or Treating was another tradition that was bastardized by the Church. Originally, trick or treating was a thoroughly adult affair, with the treat more often than not being a potent alcoholic beverage. The Church frowned upon adults getting drunk and causing general mayhem, so they slowly converted the tradition into an event for the kids.

There are others. Bobbing for apples recalls a Celtic baptismal rite that was often performed on Samhain. A blindfolded individual would be forced into the water and ritually cleansed of bad influences, often while his or her hands were tied behind their back. Another tradition that has endured has been that of the jack o' lantern.

Travelers in earlier times carved hideous faces out of European gourds to carry with them on their travels. When used as a lantern, these faces would serve the purpose of scaring off the legions of dead that wandered the night, and prevent them from taking the wielder of the lantern to an early demise. As the tradition was brought over to the New World, the pumpkin was found to be a much better fruit for this sort of activity, and a tradition was born. Houses are now defended by the most hideous of visages imaginable.

The amount of occult imagery that pervades Halloween is a reflection of the culture from which it came. Many people nowadays believe that Halloween should not be celebrated, and to that end, they have it banned from public schools and other organizations. What these people do not realize is that they are banning whole parts of European culture. African-Americans celebrate their holidays with renewed vigor, and focus on remembering their rich cultural heritage. Caucasian Americans have the same richness of culture and diversity of background. It's ironic that their past is frowned upon, and treated as an object of derision because a small minority perceive it as evil and Satanic.

Despite attempts to stamp it out, Halloween is more popular today than it ever has been. Haunted houses abound, and ghosts and goblins roam the night promising soaped windows and toilet papered yards to all who do not bear treats. Everywhere the morbid spirit of Halloween fills the air. So, in reverence to those long and freshly dead, lift a glass. The dead will thank you.

We like to think
that the success and harmony
enjoyed by our twisted little amusement
is a microcosmic manifestation
of the greed and bloodlust
that made America great.

©1998 Julian Draven
Creation date - August 31, 1997
Reprinted from the Death Jester's Lunchbox