Letters

Readers repond to essays on the origins of Halloween and the Salem Witch Trials.


Salon Staff
November 1, 2002 8:00PM (UTC)

[Read "Primeval Terror (since 1929)."]

Laura Miller's article on the origins of Halloween indicates that the original jack-o'-lanterns were turnips, and that no one knows how pumpkins came into use. I can't answer this definitively but I suspect we may have storyteller Washington Irving to thank.

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Though it never mentions the holiday, Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is the quintessential Halloween story. It's a ghost story (albeit one where the ghost turns out to be a fake), and it takes place in autumn. The story is filled with what would now be characterized as Halloween imagery. The climax of the story occurs when Ichabod Crane is riding home at night from a party where they've been telling ghost stories. There's even a linguistic resemblance. Hollow. Halloween.

Irving was the most popular American writer of his time (the early 18th century), and this, one of his most famous stories, was known by practically everyone. As the Halloween holiday became established in the U.S., readings of "Sleepy Hollow" would probably have become a common part of the festivities. And since the plot features a pumpkin as a key element, it's likely that Americans would have begun to associate the fruit and the holiday. Given the fact that -- as Miller points out -- pumpkins are a lot easier to carve than turnips (and look really cool when lit), it's not hard to imagine the transition to our modern cultural emblem.

-- Jason Tilley

I was raised in the suburbs south of the suburbs -- sub-suburbia. Christmas carolers were few and bizarrely cheerful -- they sang like caffeinated happiness on Zoloft. But Halloween was, and is, the single most connective bit of tissue between me and the strangers that are my neighbors. One night a year, regardless of what dress size you think your god wears, regardless of how you were about to vote the following Tuesday, you were gonna get candy from any house whose decorations said "Halloween Is Here." Regardless of your color or your family's income, regardless of the language you spoke, you were gonna get candy from any house whose decorations said "Halloween Is Here." It is THE democratic night, the quid pro quo of a neighborhood, and I am grateful for it -- for the memories of my salad days, but also for the grand entertainment I will experience this Thursday night, Oct. 31, when YOU, the Stranger, come a-knocking at my door.

-- Frank Armstrong

After reading Miller's article about Halloween, which was very interesting, I felt compelled to write. I am very interested in the phenomenon of urban legends and enjoy looking these things up. Unfortunately, the urban legend of razor blades in apples, which Miller says was indeed just a legend, is actually true. Web sites like Snopes.com verify this. Check out this page.

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You can see quotes from a New York Times article saying that children were cut and that a plethora of incidences happened in 1982. Scary and true.

-- Carol Barnard

I enjoyed Laura Miller's article about the history of Halloween observances. I was, however, rather struck by one very odd sentence: "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." Surely Miller realizes that conservative Protestant Christians in America typically regard Catholicism as a fundamentally pagan religion, and have since the time of the Puritans.

-- George Schneiderman

I read Laura Miller's very interesting article on Halloween.

"[Jack] 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."

"The Marvelous Land of Oz," a sequel to "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," was published around 1903 and was, I believe, a bestseller, though it is little known now. The book has a character named Jack Pumpkinhead whose head is a pumpkin carved with what is clearly the jack-o'-lantern grin.

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Though there is nothing in the text to suggest that it isn't an original idea, it could very well be something Frank Baum had seen previously. However, the way the text frequently comments on the grin suggests to me Baum is expecting it to be novel to his readers. There's nothing in the text that links Jack Pumpkinhead to Halloween. Certainly worth investigating.

-- Drew Cover

Great article! As a 20-something Wiccan, I have two celebrations on Oct. 31. First, on Samhein, we welcome the changing season and reflect on those that have passed on. Then I get out and party for Halloween. It's nice to see someone show the differences between the two (very) different holidays. Halloween is about candy, costumes and parties -- not black magic and demons. And for the record, Samhein is more like the Mexican Day of the Dead than a day where we "deal with evil spirits." Well, unless, of course, the remembrance of my dead grandmother's passing from this world is dealing with evil spirits ...

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-- Stacy Rue

[Read "Early American Horror Show."]

At the end of her review, Laura Miller writes of the Satanic Abuse Mania of the 1980s:

"All of this occurred without the influence of superstition and religious fervor, two factors that have also been blamed for the Salem crisis."

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Nothing could be further from the truth. The unholy alliance of fundamentalist Christianity and pseudofeminist psychobabble is at the heart of the entire outrage.

The repackaging of Freudian nonsense about memory and child development ("The Courage to Heal") linked directly to the demon-haunted worldview of religious extremists ("Michelle Remembers") to produce a classic closed, self-validating belief system.

In several of the Satanic manias, the explosive growth of accusations, the escalation of claimed events, and the prompt indictment of any who opposed the madness are near perfect parallels to Salem.

-- John Coffin

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In her review of Mary Beth Norton's book "In the Devil's Snare," Laura Miller writes:

"To revisit Salem is to be reminded of how important the much-maligned principle of due process can be, how it's often the only thing standing between an innocent citizen and that irreducible darkness mentioned above."

The comment reminded me of the common experience in grading geometry finals. No matter how hard one works with a class, about a quarter of them will begin their proofs with the conclusion. The Salem Witch Trials were run according to the book, as were the satanic ritual trials of the '80s and the recent day-care hysteria cases. There was due process up the wazoo in the O.J. case. The principle reason for studying the Salem Witch Ttrials is to see that the trials themselves, with due process, yielded horrific results.

I do wish that our law worked better than it does. Due process is not the answer.

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-- William Nuesslein


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