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Today is Halloween!

Happy Halloween from the scariest kids books of all time

As I sit here watching Hocus Pocus, eating a caramel apple, drinking pumpkin coffee with pumpkin creamer, and just waiting until it gets dark so I can watch the really scary films, I’ve been thinking about the history of Halloween, the ways people celebrate around the world, some myths and misconceptions about the holiday, and the history of some of the best Halloween beasts and characters.  Halloween is my absolute favorite holiday (the decorations, the haunted attractions, the TV programs, horror films, zombies!!!), and autumn is my favorite season.  It only seems natural that I would address some of these things in a blog.

Yesterday, I posted about museums and historic sites hosting paranormal investigators or holding ghost tours; today I’ll look more into the history of the holiday of All Hallows Eve.

What is this “Halloween,” and how did it start?

Hal·low·een –  noun \ˌha-lə-ˈwēn, ˌhä-\ Definition of HALLOWEEN: October 31 observed especially with dressing up in disguise, trick-or-treating, and displaying jack-o’-lanterns during the evening.[1] 

Halloween is celebrated on October 31st, which is the night before the Catholic feast of All Saints; that’s where we get All Hallow’s Eve, or Hallow ‘Even – Hallow’en.  The term Halloween was first used in the 1500s.[2]  The holiday has become what it is today after influence from many cultures and backgrounds.  The influence of the harvest, autumnal equinox, pagan rituals, festivals to celebrate/ward off the dead, and even Christian rituals are evident in the celebrations today.

Bobbing for Apples, 1832

Perhaps one of the most influential celebrations is that of Samhain, celebrated by the Celts up to 2,000 years ago.   Sa·mhain  noun \ˈsaə̇n-, ˈsäwə̇n-\ is a festival that marks the end of the harvest and beginning of winter.  Bonfires were popular during the early days of Samhain, and they were seen as having cleansing properties and were also thought to keep away evil spirits.  During the festival of Samhain, Celts thought that a door to the dead opened and that the dead and demons could walk among them.  This led to the Jack O’Lantern as we know it, and possibly to costumes and trick-or-treating. 

A carved turnip – officially creepy.

In Ireland and Britain many people would make turnip lanterns with faces or designs carved into them to carry a light to ward off spirits when walking around in the dark.  Today people still do this with pumpkins that we call jack o’lanterns.   During Samhain it was also thought that one could appease spirits by leaving food or gifts on the doorstep, similar to today’s practice of appeasing small children in costume reaching with their grubby hands for candy and treats.   Some people even went so far as to disguise themselves, in case there was a spirit walking around outside that wanted revenge.

Christian rituals of honoring the dead and those in purgatory are still seen in the Halloween ritual of Trick or Treating.  All Saints Day was a time to honor and pray for the dead, and in 835AD Pope Gregory IV moved the feast to November 1st, which coincided with the Samhain celebration.  On the night before All Saints Day, people would go “souling”; this practice involved people baking “soul cakes” to share.  Children, especially those that were poor, would knock on doors to ask for soul cakes as a way of honoring souls in purgatory.

In North America, Halloween was initially threatened by the Puritans (who incidentally also started the first “War on Christmas”) because it was thought to be a pagan holiday (it was).  With the influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 1800s, the United States was finally introduced to Halloween celebrations.

What is that!?

Perhaps one of the best consequences of Halloween in America (aside from the candy, the horror films, and pumpkin flavored everything) is the weirdo, creepy, bizarre, and down-right scary costumes from the early-mid twentieth century.  There have been a lot of articles floating around recently, and two of the best are Bizarre Vintage Costumes[3]  and “Vintage Halloween Costumes Are Unintentionally Terrifying” from the Huffington Post[4]. Seriously, those are some super creeptastic costumes.

To learn more about the history of Halloween, check out two documentaries first produced by the history channel (something they actually got right, for once!).  The first from many years ago is The Haunted History of Halloween[5], and their more recent production is the Real Story of Halloween[6].  Both are entertaining and tell a lot of the history of traditions and holidays.

Read it.

Another fun way to learn more about the (somewhat fictional) history of Halloween is by reading Ray Bradbury’s book The Halloween Tree.  This fun book follows a boy as he journeys through history to witness different aspects of Halloween;  he watches a funeral in ancient Egypt, is chased by Sam Hain after a Druid ritual, and sees witches persecuted during the Middle Ages.

Now I shall leave you with some of my favorite articles about Halloween, ghosts, and popular culture:

“The History of Ghost Stories” from history.com – Pliny the Younger recorded one of the first “ghosts” clanking around in chains and moaning in his house in Athens.

“5 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Apocalypse Could Actually Happen” from cracked.com .  This article offers scientific reasons why the following could actually lead to zombies, and includes a handy zombie threat level indictor. Ways a zombie apocalypse could actually happen? Brain Parasites, Neurotoxins, a Real Rage Virus (NO! Worst fear ever!), neurogenesis,or nanobots.

Creepy haunted historic photos

“13 Old-Timey Photos That Prove History Was Haunted” from cracked.com – features babies, puppets, wax figures, and old medical drawings and wood-carvings.

“ Really Scary Books! BOO!” from thehairpin.com – includes a bit about The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which is one of my most favorite books, Richard Matheson’s Hell House, and of course everything by Christopher Pike who terrified me throughout middle and high schools.

Some of the best

“The 15 Most Disturbing Illustrations From “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” from tuneinrockon.wordpress.com – If you’ve never read these books, do yourself a favor and go out and buy them.  Or Amazon.com them.  

 “The 7 Most Ridiculous Ghost Stories from Around the World” from Cracked.com …  “you can tell a lot about a people from their folklore. Even their ghost stories speak volumes about all of the underlying neuroses that create our nightmares.  But then there are some ghost stories that just leave you absolutely freaking baffled. We’re talking about spooks like …” This article looks at some ghost stories that are both strange, ridiculous, and somewhat haunting (including a super creepy fetus monster).  

“Get This Look: Ghosts” from TheHairpin.com.  Find out how to dress like Bloody Mary, the Flying Dutchman, or the Brown Lady.

These are the best. For real.

People Freaking out in Haunted Houses.  I seriously cannot get enough of these.  See more here and here.

“23 Reasons Why “Hocus Pocus” Is The Best Halloween Movie Of All Time” on buzzfeed.com (because it obviously is – no more explanation needed).