The Ghastly History of Halloween


From Día de los Muertos & the Irish begging “soul cakes” door-to-door, to Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” & Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” . . . (from Parents’ Choice) 


Now celebrated in many parts of the world, Halloween has come to mean different things to different people. For some adults, the holiday has acquired a Mardi-Gras flavor and offers opportunities to pose at parties and bars as preening pimps and naughty nurses. Spandex, it seems, has liberated many a black cat and outed a number of otherwise closeted French maids. “If you’re over twenty-one,” a student of mine observed, “Halloween is more about stare than scare.”

For kids, Halloween remains a night to sport with fears and make candy-seeking visits to homes decorated with spider webs and grinning jack-o-lanterns. It’s also a time where wishes don’t stay in their place but walk around embodied as, say, Spidermans and Cinderellas. And the night before All Soul’s Day is also the time when youngsters–dressed as the Grim Reaper, or bloodthirsty vampires, or ghosts who have suffered ghastly and bloody wounds–pound on the doors of the aged and say not “Memento Mori” but “Trick or Treat.”

For adolescents, the night may be more about Trick than Treat. Tipping over outhouses and soaping people’s windows now seem pranks from a bygone era when folks bobbed for apples and told stories about the Headless Horseman. Nowadays, it’s more likely a neighbor’s yard will be festooned with toilet paper–or worse. In Detroit, Devil’s Night (October 30) has come to mean arson and unchecked civic mayhem. In Ireland, the traditional bonfires have been replaced by packs of youths burning tires in the streets.

We have the Irish to thank for Halloween. For the ancient Celts, October 31 was a “hinge” time that marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. As the days darkened, the boundaries between the living and dead became blurry. In the festival of Samhain, food was left out for hungry ghosts and the living masqueraded as the dead, begging food or “soul cakes” door-to-door.

Wishing to incorporate this pagan celebration into Christianity, Pope Boniface in the Ninth Century declared November 1 “All Saints’ Day”; and so, the night before became “All Hallow’s Eve” and eventually “Halloween.” Then, after the famines of the Nineteenth Century, the hungry Irish brought this food-gathering custom to the other side of the Atlantic. Here they soon discovered that American pumpkins served as better shelters for their candles than the customary hollowed-out turnips used back home.

The notion that the dead are hungry (and sometimes thirsty) is found all over the world–described, for example, in ancient Buddhist scriptures and Greek classics–but especially in Latin America and particularly in Mexico. There began, in time immemorial, the indigenous celebration of El Día de los Muertos, later to be linked with the Christian events of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).

In our Irish-Mexican household, we celebrate the Day of the Dead in the customary way: constructing an altar covered with photographs and ofrendas (offerings of our loved ones’ favorite meals). Other folks mark the way into their homes with marigold petals and candles so the dead don’t get lost, and still others are even more considerate and go to the cemetery to picnic with the deceased and clean their gravestones.

What’s important to understand about El Día de los Muertos is its macabre humor. People tell funny stories about the dead. Sugar skulls (calaveras) and zany skeletons (calacas) are used as comic decorations. And the vision of an abundance of food on the one hand, and hungry ghosts on the other, is likely to prompt, in my experience, jokes about Jenny Craig and Latinas on Slim-Fast.

Besides Michael Jackson in “Thriller,” the person who really seems to get this holiday is Tim Burton. His popular animated film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” tells the story of  Jack Skellington (the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town) who decides to escape his place in the calendar (October 31) and invade December 25. But be advised: Charles Dickens got there ahead of him. In “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens was probably the first to link the ghost story with the Nativity and propose that the typical sound of Christmas Eve was not reindeer alighting on rooftops but the Halloween-like howling of doomed spirits dragging chains.

Still, Burton has got something right. As costumed Goths and zealous fans of vampire stories reveal, Halloween won’t stay in its place.

Here are some readings for the Halloween season:

The Scarecrow’s Dance
By Jane Yolen; illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline
Simon and Schuster: $16.99 (hardcover)

I am keen on the artist Bagram Ibatoulline whose genius I first discovered in his pictures for two books by Kate DiCamillo (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane and Great Joy). The haunting scarecrow and tasseled corn fields, the autumnal oranges and shadowy twilight are so extraordinary that this book is almost worth buying for the pictures alone. The verse story is by Jane Yolen, the children’s writer who best understands today what folklore is and does it herself. Here, Yolen tells the familiar story of what-the-dolls-do-at-night (but with a scarecrow now in that role) and finishes with an unexpected religious message about prayer and souls.

What Was I Scared Of?
By Dr. Seuss
Random House: $11.99 (hardcover)

Among the most famous Halloween stories is Washington Irving’s tale about Ichabod Crane being chased by the Headless Horseman. Dr. Seuss must have realized that we usually imagine our boogies from the top down – think of the familiar ghostly sheet. He must have wondered: What if we imagined them, instead, from the bottom up? What if we imagined, say, a ghostly pair of pants with no one in them? In this way or another, Dr. Seuss created this story where one of his zany creature is pursued by an ownerless pair of pants. But one night our hero gets caught in a Snide Bush and overhears the trousers weeping; when he consoles the garment, they become friends. Hence the title.

Dark Night
By Dorothée de Monfried; translated by Whitney Stahlberg
Random House: $14.99 (hardcover)

“Babes in the Woods,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Baba Yaga,” “Peter and the Wolf”–countless stories talk about fears when a child passes through a forest at night. Such is the case with Felix who must hide when he sees a succession of animals. Like Mole in Wind in the Willows after a terrifying night in the Wild Wood. Felix fortunately finds a door and stairs that lead to a kitchen and an accommodating host. Felix and a rabbit join forces to overcome their fears: Putting a long cape, with the rabbit standing on Felix’s shoulders and then donning a Halloween-like mask, the two scare away a wolf, tiger, and crocodile. Dark Night is a tight fairy tale presented in a comic-book style that upstages Tintin.

Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead
By Judy Goldman; illustrated by René King Moreno
Boyd’s Mill: $16.95 (hardcover)

Goldman (a native of Mexico City) provides the all too familiar story of a child and a dying relative, and Moreno (a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design) provides colored-pencil sketches in the expected folkloric style. Still, this is an interesting little book that combines a concern for Monarch butterflies (who winter in Mexico) with a presentation of customs surrounding El Día de Los Muertos. Here children might learn about the altars built at home (where the dead are celebrated with photos and food) and how the night is sometimes passed in cemeteries with meals, memories, laughter, and candy figurines of skeletons.

From Parents’ Choice (October 2010)



26. October 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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