Primeval terror (since 1929)

You think Halloween has pagan roots? Guess again. Two new histories of America's second favorite holiday reveal the truth.

Topics: Halloween, Books,

Primeval terror (since 1929)

Of all today’s holidays, Halloween seems like the most primeval. Its bats, witches, spooks, skeletons and monsters surely indicate roots reaching back before the dawn of science and Christianity; the whiff of prehistoric campfires clings to its sable robes. Well, guess again.

Halloween has been creeping up on Christmas to become the second biggest annual bonanza for U.S. retailers, a Grim Reaper that harvests $6.8 billion per year in exchange for candy, costumes, cards and party supplies. That success sets it up for the kind of debunking that Christmas has endured recently, as historians have shown that what we think of as time-honored Yuletide traditions are actually only about 100 years old. Likewise, as two new books document, the seemingly ancient customs of Halloween turn out to be recent embellishments to a holiday that used to be a pretty low-key affair. And forget those Transylvanian villagers and superstitious medieval peasants — Halloween is as American as the Fourth of July.

The basic elements of an American Halloween — pranks, treat-begging, masquerade and scary images — aren’t new, of course, but gathering them together and using them to celebrate a holiday at the transition from October to November (from late summer to early winter) is. As both Nicholas Rogers’ “Halloween” and David J. Skal’s “Death Makes a Holiday” point out, those customs can be found scattered here and there among various other holidays throughout history, yet pinpointing the moment when they all came together to define Halloween as we know it is a tricky matter indeed.

It’s often said that Halloween originates with the Celtic festival of Samhain (show off your pagan cred by correctly pronouncing it as “sow-an”), but it’s hard to recognize the modern world’s gleefully ghoulish festivities in what one scholar called “an old pastoral and agricultural festival” that marked the beginning of winter. Rogers, whose book is at its best when digging up the anthropological forerunners of the holiday, says that “there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship,” although in Ireland it was thought to be a time when mischievous spirits were particularly frisky. (The ancient Celts are rumored to have engaged in human sacrifice in some of their rites — not Samhain specifically — but those reports came from the conquering Romans and may have been propaganda.) Samhain was a time of reckoning when livestock were slaughtered for the winter stores and the days became short, cold and gloomy.

Despite the fact that conservative Christians in America have protested the “pagan” revelry of Halloween, the holiday owes its name and many of its trappings to Christianity. “Halloween” derives from All Hallows Even, the night before All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), which is in turn followed by All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), an occasion for praying for and visiting with the dead. In Mexico, the celebration of Los Dias de Los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead, closely resembles the old All Souls rites of the Middle Ages. The most extravagantly Catholic places had the grisliest practices: “In Naples,” writes Rogers, “the charnel houses containing the bones of the dead were opened on All Souls’ Day and decorated with flowers. Crowds thronged through them to visit the bodies of their friends and relatives. Sometimes the cadavers were dressed in robes and placed in niches along the walls.” Leaving food out for the spirits was a fairly common ritual, as it still is in Mexico today.

In the British Isles, where bloody conflicts between Protestants and Catholics disrupted the handing down of All Souls’ traditions (less so in Ireland than in Scotland), the Hallowtide holiday became more secular in the 16th century. In some places it was entirely replaced by the anti-Catholic bonfire celebration of Guy Fawkes Day on Nov. 5. (Rogers observes that Hallowtide was always the most persistent in the areas where underground Catholic sentiments lingered.)

One of the reasons Halloween, the American holiday, seems so un-Christian is that it appears to have been primarily brought over by Protestant Scots who had abandoned the religious element of the day while hanging on to its assorted folk traditions. Skal, in his cultural history, writes that when the fledgling greeting card industry of the 19th century first started churning out Halloween cards, they featured such Scottish motifs as “tartan plaid borders, thistles and heather, messages like ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ and the like.” (The Scottish connection was cemented by the fact that one of the richest surviving sources of 18th-century Halloween lore is Robert Burns’ long poem “Halloween.”)

According to Skal, the “genteel” Victorian Halloween couldn’t be more different from today’s rowdy incarnation. The main tradition the Scots associated with the holiday was fortunetelling, used for the most part to predict who the participants were going to marry. In some ways, the Victorian Halloween resembled Valentine’s Day. People stayed home and played divinatory games to glean information about future spouses. Putting two nuts in a fire to see if they jumped apart when they popped (signifying an impending break-up) was a practice Burns wrote about. Others involved a blindfolded person dipping his or her hand into one of three bowls of water, apple bobbing or a young woman peeling an apple in front of a mirror in order to glimpse the image of her future husband in the reflection. (Maybe that’s the origin of the scary “Bloody Mary” game American children play by reciting the ghoulish Mary’s name nine times in front of a mirror in a dark room, daring her to come and get them.)

The jack-o’-lantern, now an indispensable Halloween motif, didn’t emerge until the first decade of the 20th century, although the Scots had a folk tradition of carving lanterns out of turnips — a much harder job with a much smaller vegetable. Those lanterns were linked to a legendary figure named Jack who was so incorrigible that neither Heaven nor Hell would have him, and so he was condemned to walk the earth until Judgment Day, toting his turnip lamp. Like the Will-o-the-Wisp (aka marsh gas) he liked to use his lantern to lure passersby to their doom in swamps and bogs. He wasn’t particularly linked to Halloween until the dawn of the 20th century, and no one seems to know how pumpkins came to replace turnips.

Hallowtide was occasionally associated with prankish antics on the part of young boys and men, but the custom of demanding food or money, what Rogers refers to as “enforced charity,” was more common at Christmas. Recent histories of Christmas have detailed how many of the homebodyish Yuletide traditions we now embrace were cooked up by wealthy and middle-class citizens who were sick of being shaken down by the rowdy poor during the month of December. New York had an early 20th century street festival in which “ragamuffin” children dressed up in costumes and performed antics for shopkeepers and other affluent adults in exchange for money, but it was Thanksgiving, not Halloween. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, launched in 1924, spelled the end of the ragamuffin racket, but in their heyday the revelers filled Times Square.

As Christmas and Thanksgiving became cozy domestic holidays, it seems, all the mischief and misrule gravitated to the formerly homely Halloween. Both Rogers and Skal quote a late 19th century historian who lamented “the spirit of rowdyism” that “has in a measure superseded the kindly old customs” and the vandalism and racket generated by “gangs of hoodlums” in the streets. While many European cultures had a traditional “season of misrule” — a festival in which the ordinary rules of decorum were overturned and figures of authority were mocked — it usually happened in November or December as a prelude to the Christmas observances. Those rites sometimes involved costumes and processions (Rogers quotes a contemporary description of a troupe parading through the churchyards with “their Hobby horses and other monsters shirmishyng amongst the throng … with such a confused noise that no man can heare his own voice”). By the 1920s, Halloween had become an occasion for adults to attend stylish (but still not macabre) masquerade parties and for children to wreak mischief.

Eventually Halloween pranks got so rambunctious that householders concocted the idea of bribing the miscreants to leave their property alone. A woman named Doris Hudson wrote an article for American Home magazine in 1939 that, according to Skal, is “the first time the expression ‘trick or treat’ is used in a mass-circulation periodical in the United States.” (Cooper, who began hosting her Halloween open house in the midst of the Depression, said some of the “tiny lads” devoured their treats “with too much relish and nearly broke my heart.” By all accounts, Depression-era pranking often took on the aspect of class war.)

The 1950s and early ’60s were the Golden Age of trick or treating, but no sooner had the new tradition taken hold than commentators were bemoaning the loss of inventive tricking and condemning the soliciting of candy as “a rehearsal for consumership without a rationale,” to quote one sociologist. Still, Halloween pranks never entirely vanished and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Rogers, one of those academics who is always hoping to find something “transgressive” or “subversive” to laud, describes seasons of misrule as a time when “flagrant violations of community norms might be addressed” and “rough justice” meted out. A friend of mine who grew up in a racially mixed urban neighborhood in the 1970s testifies that his Halloween often involved a lot of roughness and precious little justice. Asked what he associates with the holiday — which he hates — he says, “Eggs. Eggs and fear.”

It was really only in the 1960s and ’70s that macabre stories and films became firmly attached to Halloween. Until then, for example, movie studios didn’t make a point of releasing their horror or monster films around Oct. 31. Skal, whose book excels at outlining the popular blossoming of Halloween over the past 60 years, observes that “Frankenstein” premiered on Thanksgiving in 1931. By the early 1960s, Universal had learned the advantage of tying in their franchised characters — Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Wolf Man — to Halloween, but the holiday itself didn’t appear very often in films until John Carpenter’s groundbreaking “Halloween” initiated the slasher film genre.

In the 1970s, the scary side of Halloween also reemerged with reports of candy tampering and widespread, media-fueled paranoia about razors in apples and other sadistic “tricks.” These turned out to be urban legends. The sole documented fatality from candy-poisoning was an 8-year-old killed by his own father, who was trying to collect on a life insurance policy. Likewise, the rise of Halloween celebrations in America’s gay districts, with their fantabulous costumes and sybaritic processions, were soon troubled by visits from belligerent gay bashers looking for their own sinister notion of a good time.

Both Rogers and Skal decry the recent taming of Halloween by such domestic mavens as Martha Stewart, whose television program and magazine each October are packed with recipes for spider-shaped cupcakes, instructions for crafting ghostly party decorations and tips on elaborately rigging out your ordinarily impeccable house as an equally impressive haunted mansion. Skal rails against Halloween Martha-style as a holiday “Perfectly Under Control,” her monogrammed jack-o’-lantern an example of “boomerish narcissism” and “a pure embodiment of self-celebration with no connection whatsoever to any known form of communal holiday observance.” The modern history of Halloween seems to swing back and forth this way, from charming fun to violent chaos. It’s the most bipolar of all holidays.

The most original parts of Skal’s book concern the history of haunted houses — not the literally haunted kind, but the ones concocted to amuse one’s friends and neighbors. Using an Angeleno horror movie buff named Bob Burns as an example, Skal traces the evolution of “yard haunters,” the Halloween equivalent of those people who erect elaborate Christmas light displays. One Rochelle Santopaulo, who founded the Halloween Global Alliance and edits its magazine, Happy Halloween, says yard haunters are a cross-country folk-art phenomenon, but most of them had no idea that other Americans shared their peculiar passion until Santopaulo informed them they were part of a nationwide “movement.”

Another sort of haunted house, the kind that invites paying customers to walk through a maze of spooky and grisly scenes, began in the 1970s as fund-raising devices for charities like the Jaycees and quickly spawned a profession. Who knew there was an entire trade magazine, Haunted Attraction, devoted to this subject? According to Skal, it’s “a glossy quarterly magazine” with articles explaining how to convincingly simulate severed heads and ads offering “full haunted-house environments for resale,” complete with such interior props as “Fireplace, Piano, Living Wall, Dancing Ghost, Canopy Bed with Body, Storm Window, Kitchen Cabinet, Stove, Refrigerator, Meat Locker, Dining Table with Chairs, Metal Cage, Boiler and Pipes, Lab Tables and Bodies, 8-foot Mechanical Spider, Sacrifice Table with Body, Volcano and Pneumatic Devil.”

There’s something about this practical list of bogus nightmares (I’d like to get a look at that “Living Wall”) that strikes me as quintessentially Halloween. Armed with this kit, anyone can take an ordinary, new house and convert it into a scary, fake “old” house — just as the sequels to the slasher film “Halloween” cobbled together a bunch of ersatz legends about Samhain to explain the murderous rampaging of its masked villain — or, for that matter, as we disguise our suburban homes as “Tudor” cottages and decorate them with new furniture that’s been “distressed” to make it look old, or buy new jeans deftly faded to make them look worn. Halloween looks ancient, primal even, despite its relative youth. And that may be the most American thing about it of all.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

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