‘[Halloween] is thought to be a night when witches, devils, and other
mischief-making beings…hold a grand anniversary.’
Robert Burns, Halloween, 1785
Although the entomology behind the word ‘Halloween’ is Christian – derivative of All Hallow Even, or the eve of All Saint’s Day – Halloween’s roots go back to the Gaelic festival of Samhain. Irish sagas written between the 9th and 12th centuries make reference to this festival, which marks a period of ‘supernatural intensity’, where the ‘veils between this world and the otherworld were believed to be at their thinnest, when the spirits of the dead could most readily mingle with the living once again’. It was a time of year where there was no stigma surrounding fraternising with the deceased. If the dead visited your house during Samhain, you were obliged to feed them. As a result of this, ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’ trends that consisted of going door-to-door in costume, reciting poetry, playing tricks, dancing or singing in exchange for food became popular.
Mass graves in Ireland containing bones of both animals and humans suggest sacrificial rites during Samhain to call on the gods to help people survive the winter. In Keating’s History of Ireland, demands are made for two-thirds of newly born children to be sacrificed on Samhain. As such, Halloween has been linked to devil worship and sorcery. However, ‘links between Halloween and Satanism are tenuous at best’. Belief in satanic cults did not arise until the late medieval era, by which time Samhain was little celebrated.
Although there are hints towards contemporary notions of Halloween in 18th and 19th century literature, it was not until much later that the commercialised Halloween as we know it today emerged. Halloween had been celebrated in the US since the arrival of Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, but it was not until the 20th century that the holiday became assimilated into popular culture. The growth of mass consumerism in the 1950s saw clothing became cheaper and more disposable, and affordable costumes became readily available. In 1950 ‘Trick-or-treat for UNICEF’ started as a local event in Philadelphia and expanded across the US, bringing ‘trick-or-treating’ into the vernacular. The birth of Halloween as a consumer-driven holiday meant it became less about the afterlife, and more about entertainment and parties.
Despite this move away from death towards dollars, Halloween’s nature remains controversial. Honeyman argues that Halloween upholds patriarchal and bourgeois social structures, leading to the commodification of childhood. Mueller uses Bakhtin’s notion of carnival, a ‘temporary suspension of hierarchies’, to argue that that the act of dressing up at Halloween can construct negative roles and promote ethnic stereotypes. However, the same argument has been used to demonstrate that, through the celebration of difference, Halloween was instrumental in the acceptance of LGBT groups.
Although tenuous links to Samhain remain, Halloween has developed from this Gaelic feast celebrating the dead to a commercial, consumer driven holiday, surrounded by critical unease. However, one thing remains: Halloween still has the power to shock.