Halloween is commonly considered a time when the barrier between the physical and the supernatural worlds is especially fluid. The late fall holiday has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when the dead were thought to freely roam the earth. People would lite bonfires to ward off evil spirits and wear costumes to deceive ghostly relatives who might kidnap them and whisk them away to the underworld. In 835, as an attempt to diminish the influence of “pagan” celebrations, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 an official Catholic holyday to honor saints and martyrs. It is called All Saints’ Day and is still observed by Catholics and some Protestants today, but it never really supplanted the traditions of Samhain.
Over time, October 31 became known as All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, and adapted many of the practices of the ancient Celts. The secular holiday was largely popularized in 19th century America through Irish immigrants who brought their customs and beliefs, both Celtic and Catholic, across the Ocean. But of course, here they encountered a New World, a land of genuine optimism that had long since set aside old superstitions in favor of practical progress toward a modern age. Thus, the American incarnation of Halloween had to mock old-world fears and lampoon evil spirits with its costume parties and frightful fun. Today, the scariest thing remaining about Halloween in the U.S is the amount of money spent on it — about $9 billion last year.
So this is how we got to the itchy latex masks, the tacky polyester costumes, the ghoulish props of blood and bones, the bats, the cats, the rats and all the other common accoutrements that make Halloween not scary at all. Even the haunted houses and midnight horror movies promoted around the country are so full of character clichés, gratuitous gore, and elements of ridiculous melodrama that you end up more likely to die laughing than to die of fright.
Such silly nonsense. When I was a girl, I handed out candy to little goblins and occasionally attended parties with some friends, but mostly I avoided all the craziness and stayed close to home on Halloween. We lived with my grandmother, who had been born in the 19th century, and thus was already quite old; she was not exactly a fun-loving person. Like so many children of European immigrants (German, in her case), she was extremely superstitious, she read cards, believed in charms and curses, and had her own first-hand tales of mysterious characters and local legends to tell. She did not take Halloween lightly and certainly did not think the day was suitable for frivolous merry-making. Call it schadenfreude if you wish, but I loved sitting at the kitchen table after dinner listening to her stories of dastardly deeds and fitting endings dealt by the hand of fate, and I carefully weighed her warnings about the evils lurking all around us.
My Mother, on the other hand, was a fun-loving person. She decorated the house, baked cookies or cakes, and improvised fun craft projects for every holiday. I’ve written here before about the elaborate birthday parties she/we planned, often employing a Halloween theme for my early October celebration. An accomplished miniaturist, she made and furnished the haunted house pictured above for my 46th birthday, and shipped it to me in Connecticut! It stands as a model not only of her sense of fun and her love for me, but also as a vivid reminder of all those Halloweens she and I shared.
My Mother was not a superstitious person, but she was a reader and enjoyed murder mysteries and Gothic tales. One of her favorite authors was Edgar Allen Poe. While my grandmother shared “true” stories of local mayhem and misfortune, my Mother shared literary classics such as “The Black Cat” and “The Tell Tale Heart.” Needless to say, I took to these tales and to others like them, perhaps because I am naturally inclined to contemplation in the dark days of fall and winter. Even now as a fifth-generation American, all those early authors, Hawthorne and Wharton and Bierce, speak to my ancient Irish, German, and English roots in their depictions of the physical, spiritual and psychological underpinnings of ancient fears. These depictions are not usually overt; they are subtle, implied, suspenseful, and all the more frightening because your own imagination fills in the blanks. It is in literature, especially in American literature, that the true terrors of Halloween — the existential fear of the unknown and the recognition of our own mortality — find meaningful expression.
My favorite Halloween story was, and still is, Washington Irving’s tale of the headless horseman in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The headless Hessian was supposedly decapitated by an American cannonball during the Battle of White Plains, which took place around Halloween in the Revolutionary War of 1776. This harrowing but humorous tale presents Ichabod Crane, a hapless Connecticut schoolteacher, in arduous pursuit of the comely Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of a wealthy Dutch aristocrat. Returning at night from a party at the Van Tassel estate, where the men had reveled in shocking ghost stories and boasted of encounters with the horseman, Ichabod soon finds himself being pursued through Sleepy Hollow by the Hessian himself. At least we think he is actually pursued. In any event, Ichabod disappears and is never heard from again. Imagine my delight when, years later while living in Connecticut, I realized that the setting of this famous tale (and the author’s home) was merely a short drive away over the Tappan Zee Bridge to Tarrytown, NY.
There are other headless horseman stories, of course (including one based on a South Texas folk tale about an Irish adventurer in the War with Mexico), and many more Gothic tales of horror and suspense, but the point is that classics endure because they are authentic and meaningful no matter how many times we revisit them. They force us to confront the fundamental truth of our existence whether we want to or not, and dare us to persevere in spite of our nighttime fears. Now if that isn’t a real trick-or-treat proposition, I don’t know what is!
So, if you want to be safely spooked and spiritually enlightened this Halloween, stay in your house, eat some candy, and read — unless, of course, your house is haunted.