‘[Halloween] is thought to be a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary.’
Robert Burns, Halloween, 1785
Although the entomology behind the word ‘Halloween’ is Christian – ‘quite literally, the popular derivative of All Hallow Even, or the eve of All Saint’s Day (1 November)’ – 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, as Professor Joseph Santino argues, ‘a safe way to play with the concept of death that wouldn’t be tolerated at other times of year’. If the dead visited your house during Samhain, you were obliged to feed them. As a result of this, ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’ became popular, trends that consisted of going door-to-door in costume, reciting poetry, playing tricks, dancing or singing in exchange for food, practises similar to the modern Halloween custom of Trick-or-Treating.
It is believed that animal and human sacrifices took place during Samhain to call on the gods to help people survive the winter. Mass graves in Ireland containing bones of both animals and humans suggest sacrificial rites. In Geoffrey Keating’s 17th Century History of Ireland, he makes reference to demands for two-thirds of newly born children to be sacrificed on Samhain. Due to these purported human sacrifices, Halloween has been linked to devil worship and sorcery, as can be seen from Burns’ poem, quoted above. However, as Professor Nicholas Rogers states, ‘the links between Halloween and Satanism are tenuous at best’. The belief in satanic cults did not arise until the late mediæval era, by which time Samhain was little celebrated.
Nevertheless, Burns’ poem can offer insight into more contemporary aspects of Halloween – games and ghost stories. In his footnotes to the poem, he writes: ‘Take a candle and go alone to a looking-glass; eat an apple before it, and some traditions say you should comb your hair all the time; the face of your conjugal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if peeping over your shoulder’. However, this tale has a sinister edge: according to folklore, if you saw a skull in the mirror instead of a beau, you would die before you married. The legend of Bloody Mary is supposed to have emerged from this practice: if you say her name into the mirror three times, she appears and kills you. This tale was adapted in the film Candyman – one of many cult horror films that popularized British folklore.
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. ‘Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF’ started as a local event in a Northeast Philadelphia neighbourhood in 1950 and expanded across the US in 1952, bringing ‘trick-or-treating’ into the vernacular. The birth of Halloween as a consumer-driven holiday meant it became less about death and the afterlife, and more about children’s entertainment, parties and dressing-up.
Despite this movement away from death and towards dollars, Halloween’s nature remains controversial. Arguments regarding sexism and racism dominate contemporary scholarship surrounding the holiday. Susan Honeyman’s article ‘Halloween Lore, Passive Consumerism and the Candy Industry’ argues that Halloween upholds patriarchal and bourgeois social structures, leading to the commodification of childhood. Jennifer Mueller’s article ‘Unmasking Racism’ uses Bakhtin’s notion of carnival, a ‘temporary suspension of hierarchies within the social order’, to argue that racism is rife in US collegial systems today; that the act of dressing up at Halloween can construct negative roles and promote ethnic stereotypes. However, Rogers has used this same argument to demonstrate that, through this celebration of difference, Halloween was instrumental in the acceptance of LGBT groups.
Although tenuous links to the festival of Samhain still remain, Halloween has developed from this Gaelic feast festival celebrating the dead to a commercial, consumer driven holiday, surrounded by critical unease. However, one thing remains: Halloween still has the power to shock.