Saturday, October 25, 2014

Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween

Trick or Treat:  A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton

This sober and well-researched assessment of an academically under-studied subject taught me a lot of things I didn’t know, despite having been a passionate fan of Halloween my entire life.  As a whistlestop tour of a (chronologically, geographically, culturally) vast subject, it felt a bit light on analysis in places, but no doubt it will pave the way for future focused and serious studies. 
As is often the case, we owe misunderstandings about Samhain, the Celtic pagan festival, to an aspiring antiquarian, Charles Vallancey, who decided, with no evidence, to translate Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”) as a day of death, rather than “summer’s end.”  Morton cites archaeological evidence that Samhain may have been the one Celtic festival of the year when there was ready access to alcohol, and it seems likely that there were apples a-plenty at the feasts. Contrary to fond historical hopes, however, there seems to be no Roman lineage in Halloween—the festival of Pomona is a myth and “November was the dullest month in the Roman calendar” (18). 

When evidence is thin on the ground, Morton doesn’t leap to conclusions.  Therefore, the thread is picked up from prehistory at about 1000 CE when Samhain is co-opted into All Souls’ Day.  “The official explanation given for the new festival [in the Christian calendar] was that it would offer the living a chance to pray for the souls of the deceased” (19).  I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was not the only one who saw connections between the Christmas-time Lords of Misrule and Halloween.  If you think the Christmas run-up is long these days, consider that at 1598 account[1] sees Christmas celebrations going from early November to early February!  Curiously, it seems that witches and devils are not associated with Halloween until the reign of James I.  “Halloween was [then] forever to be firmly associated with witches, cats, cauldrons, brooms and the Devil” (23). 

It has always puzzled me slightly when people suggest that Halloween is a purely American invention.  “For about 40 years, Guy Fawkes and Halloween existed peacefully side by side,” as I suppose they do now in Britain, until 1647 when Parliament banned all festivals except Guy Fawkes.  (How strictly the ban on Christmas was enforced is another story.) Unsurprisingly, in the years after the 17th century, it was Scotland and Ireland that did the most in terms of celebrating Halloween as an entity distinct from All Saints’ Day, Guy Fawkes Day, and Martinmas; if we have Robert Burns to thank for New Year’s customs, we have Sir Walter Scott to thank for popularizing the romantic, fortune-telling aspects of Halloween.  But then, Burns, too, contributed to Halloween in his poem “Hallowe’en.”  I’d never heard of Halloween cabbage before, though—it was used in some of the fortune-telling games. Morton speculates that the ritual insistence on the number three in fortune-telling games goes back to Celtic mythology.
Meanwhile, there are some delightfully creepy Welsh Halloween traditions.  

The Welsh were believers in the custom of the church porch, in which those who were brave enough to stand by the church windows at midnight on Halloween might hear a sermon delivered by Satan in which he would reveal the names of all those from the parish who would die in the coming year; of course, the listener ran the risk of hearing his or her own name spoken.  In another version of this belief, the curious were instructed to hide in the churchyard on Halloween night; at midnight they would witness a procession of all those in the parish who would die in the coming year, although any member of the procession who abruptly turned back indicated someone who would suffer a serious illness but recover.  Welsh women also gathered in churches on Halloween, believing they could read fates there from flickering candle flames (50).   

There is another enforced silence which Morton picks up in the 1870s, when Halloween as we know it begins to form, mainly as an American attempt to imitate British (and specifically Victorian) ritual.  An 1870 article in Godey’s Lady’s Book described Halloween as a children’s party and “undoubtedly led to many copycat parties among its readers” (65).  Morton cites corn-husking contests, apple juice, popcorn, doughnuts, pumpkin pie, and scarecrows as American Halloween traditions from this period.  By the 1890s, due in part to the popularity of Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow[2],” pumpkins and jack-o’-lanterns began their indelible association with Halloween.  

I had some vague memories that Halloween in the first half of the 20th century in the US was more about pranking than anything else, and Morton seems to confirm this, the Halloween of 1933 being dubbed “Black Halloween” for the amount of annoying and destructive pranking going on.  Therefore, it seems unsurprising that civic authorities across the US and Canada would create indoor Halloween celebrations (parties, costume contests, window-decorating contests) from the 1920s on to encourage troublesome teenage boys from destroying property.  (Trick-or-treat, it seems, is in origin Canadian, also from the 1920s.)  All of this makes me wish I’d spoken more to my grandmother about her Halloween memories of the 1920s.  

With some apparent gloom, Morton seems to note the commercialization of Halloween in the 1950s when costumes went from being simple and homemade to elaborate and store-bought.  Nevertheless, I think Morton may be a collector, for she is quite eloquent when describing Halloween noisemakers:

. . . the new noisemakers were mass-produced in metal and featured eye-popping graphics in vivid hues.  Trick or treaters had the option of very loudly announcing their arrival at a house by shaking a rattle, banging on a tambourine, blowing a horn, squeezing a clicker, or cranking a ratchet.  Carl B. Holmberg, an Associate Professor of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, has suggested that noisemakers provided children with ‘ritual empowerment’ by allowing them to produce the irritating loud sounds they were normally forbidden from making.  Holmberg also indicates that the use of Halloween noisemakers faded as they were supplanted by ‘atmospheric’ sounds:  that is, home-owners who began to include prerecorded sound effects and spooky music with their seasonal yard displays (86)[3]. 

In terms of child empowerment, Morton also cites (legend) David J. Skal’s work on “Monster Culture” of the 1960s, the use of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman, and the Mummy as icons.  Latterly, and with great conviction, Morton shows the industry and creativity that have arisen in (mainly American) lawn decorations for Halloween.  (I admit when I was in Albuquerque earlier this October I squeed at all the elaborate and even plain Halloween yard decorations.)  The granddaddy of this phenomenon is Disney’s Haunted Mansion (for some people, the ride itself is an object of true veneration and endless study).  (This is probably my favorite Disney theme park ride, for perhaps obvious reasons.) 

Then Morton seeks the globalization of Halloween. As noted above, I believe Britain has a tentative relationship with the mostly commercialized Halloween that American multinational businesses import.  Worse yet is France’s relationship with the holiday.  However, Morton has uncovered some interesting Breton All Saints’ Day traditions that underscore the sombre[4]. Elsewhere in Europe, Halloween has made few in-roads; interestingly, in Ukraine the pumpkin has a negative connotation.  Hong Kong and Japan have taken on aspects of celebrating Halloween, and Morton devotes an entire chapter to the (mostly Mexican) celebration of Dia de los Muertos.  In recent times, this family celebration and commemoration of those who have passed on has been seen elsewhere as the more mature and trendy relation of Halloween (at least that the impression I get), but its origins, like Halloween’s, are pagan (Aztec and Mayan)[5].  

Morton does a good job describing the string of nonfictional Halloween books springing up in late 19th century America, many of them manuals on how to put on a children’s Halloween party.  Morton describes the first serious survey of the field, The Book of Hallowe’en, (1919) with affection, but has nothing but condemnation for the factually fanciful and portentously titled The Book of Hallowe’en, Halloween Through Twenty Centuries (1950).  I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t until 1972 and Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree that Halloween-themed fiction began to appear; I was unaware that Halloween (1978) was also the first film to create an international Halloween symbol.[6]  Morton even has enough room to include one page on Halloween-themed radio drama, including War of the Worlds (but not surprisingly is ignorant of the current satellite audio drama obsession with Halloween releases).  Nightmare Before Christmas (1990) is given considerable space (though for some reason I always considered it more of a Christmas movie than Halloween!).  Morton quite rightly points out the lack of “canonical” 2D visual artwork depicting this holiday, though she somewhat dampens her argument by including rich color photographs of relevant advertisements, book covers, and other Halloween ephemera throughout the text:  folk art.

Morton is clearly a fan of Halloween, and, so far as I can tell, she celebrates the form of Halloween that has always felt “right” to me.  She’s no Satanist (neither am I!), and for me the object of Halloween is a safe space to play out unconventional or “occult” (with the meaning that Merlin Coverley ascribes to that word, occluded, hidden) emotions and behaviors that are not acceptable the rest of the year.  Morton summarizes it thus:  

In the 1960s, a veritable cult of urban legends built up around Halloween which suggested that innocent young children were at risk during the beloved ritual of trick or treat—although there were no recorded instances of real cases behind these modern myths.  Over the next few decades, there were reports of anonymous psychos poisoning candy, costumed killers stalking college dorms on Halloween night and Satanic cults offering up sacrifices of black cats, and warnings of gangs initiating new members by committing murders on 31 October.  It sometimes seems as though the prank-playing and mischeviousness that have been a key factor in Halloween celebrations for hundreds of years have crossed over and played tricks on its history.  

“Some reverends, among others,” Morton notes, “have countered [fundamentalist Christian groups’ calls for the abolishment of Halloween] by suggesting that if Christians are to ban celebrations on the basis of their pagan origins, they might want to start with Christmas and Easter” (113).  

Morton suggests—and I admit—that much of the Halloween appeal for adults is nostalgia.  She quotes Dan and Pauline Campanelli, “Many of us seem to recall another Halloween from another place and time.  There seems to be a Halloween from the innocence of our childhood, filled with candy corn and jack-o’-lanterns . . .” (172).  Morton’s conclusion is therefore somewhat disappointing, given that it consists of a few paragraphs before she launches straight into her References section.  Nevertheless, the book, as a whole, is quite strong. 

[1] John Stow, A Survey of London. 
[2] As Morton points out, that story isn’t even set in autumn.  The 1980 TV movie version which I recently rewatched faithfully sets the story in midwinter (presumably January or February, after Christmas), and this works surprisingly well. 
[3] Holmberg’s article is taken from one of the few scholarly collections on Halloween, Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, edited by Jack Santino. 
[4] Brittany was the setting for Christine’s rendez-vous with the mysterious violinist in the Perros-Guirec cemetery, followed by hanger-on Raoul, in Phantom of the Opera.
[5] Not all of Central and South America celebrate Dia de los Muertos.  Halloween has a much stronger foothold in Colombia, for example.    
[6] Morton rightly points out that Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is set during Halloween and Meet Me in St. Louis (also 1944) has a wonderful Halloween sequence.

The English Ghost

The English Ghost:  Spectres Through Time – Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is so annoying because he’s so prolific.  That is the only bad thing I can say about his work (I’ve only ever read his nonfiction).  This was an extremely enjoyable book which got the tone just right:  with the English being, as history has demonstrated, a haunted nation, the book gives a wide range of experiences without trying to scientifically debunk them (though suggestions for explanations are occasionally given) and without trying to scare the bejesus out of the readers.  A good tack, and one which makes reading the book endlessly entertaining.  

Having read similar, although less ambitious, books in the past, I was surprised at the wide variety of experiences and noted less than a handful of stories I had read elsewhere (and with the 1814 story in the Tower of London being one of them, you can hardly blame Ackroyd for repeating that old chestnut).  There are a sprinkling of excellent hand-picked gems from before the 17th century as well as an impressively wide-ranging selection from the 17th century itself.  Many examples, as you might expect, come from the 19th and 20th centuries (none, that I can tell, from the 21st century, which is probably intentional).  

Ackroyd’s introduction and siting of English ghosts in a historical continuum is very interesting, to start off with.  Unsurprisingly given the tone, there are few hair-raisingly terrifying accounts, many being strange, quizzical, poignant, and some even rather amusing.  Benevolent, or inoffensive, spirits occur, such as the 19th century story of a smiling gentleman who appeared next to an old press in a bedroom.  “Oh,” said the hostess, “it is only James Bair, my uncle:  he does not like anyone but myself to examine his ancient clothes or interfere with the press.  He frequently joins me in the house, and some of the other members of the family also, but they don’t like him.  With me he often converses” (43).  One phantom from the A38 near Wellington who appeared to motorists in the 1970s and 1990s seems to have a very good reason (if only he would communicate it) for lingering in a certain stretch of road.  A middle-aged man in a mackintosh, he is always seen “shining a torch into the road itself” (105).   

Interesting though I find the theory of moments of emotional potency or rote routine “inscribing” actions on time like making grooves on a record, that can’t account for playful spirits who appear in different ways to different people.  One very annoying spirit from Devon in 1682 really had it in for a certain young man, throwing him off his horse, strangling him with cravats and handkerchiefs, destroying his periwigs, and tearing up his gloves in his pockets!  This female “daemon” was also responsible for throwing the young man into the air and causing him to land in a swamp where he was found in a tree in a trance. A church in south Colchester, St Mary’s, suffered all kinds of strange phenomena for two decades beginning in the late 1930s.  The vicar, Rev. Ernest Merryweather, kept a record.  Slamming doors, strange sounds, a voice saying he was “a cruel man,” the apparition of a woman with a scarf, phantom singing, disappearing candles, and vile smells were just some of the things Rev. Merryweather documented.  Interestingly, the church fell into disuse after Merryweather’s retirement in 1959 and was demolished three years later.  What did the entities have to haunt then, and why had they decided on St Mary’s in the first place?       

The often dramatic stories from the 17th and 18th centuries (such as the one above) have been carefully selected and plainly told, and yet irrationally there is some desire on my part to be more sceptical about these stories than the more recent ones.  Contrary to expectations, witnesses and investigators of the 17th century seem to have been no more credulous than at later times.  A haunting by a dead neighbour, Mother Leakey, in Minehead in 1634 went to a special commission of judges who examined the witnesses.  They determined it was “an Imposture devised and framed for some endes but what they were wee know not,” nor can I think of any credible reason for fraud in this case (53).  Thomas Wilkins, a curate of Warblington at the very end of the 17th century, seems to have been a remarkably stony individual, standing up to what seemed to be the spectre of a former rector of the area.  He claims to have had “very little” fear when thrusting his hand through the ghost but could neither banish it nor come up with any good explanation for it (59).  Reverend Ruddle of Cornwall in 1665 was more successful with the recurrent spirit of a woman in a field, in an incident that I think must have inspired Andrew Taylor’s The Anatomy of Ghosts. A poltergeist in a house in Wiltshire in 1661 caused a drummer to be arraigned for witchcraft but he was acquitted for lack of evidence.  

What I enjoy is how many of the hauntings are sounds only rather than sights (only because of my proclivity for audio drama).  For example, a 19th century account by Mr T. Westwood of a house in Enfield Chase.  Westwood was unnerved by “a sort of shuddering sound in the room, as of suppressed dread” (44).  As is shown to be a common thread, sometimes terrible noises occur and when the living go to investigate them, they find nothing disturbed.  For example, James Wayland of Bath described an 1831 incident where, among other things, a scream and “as if twenty or thirty chattering workmen were removing the tiles [from the roof], and flinging them down as fast as possible into the garden below.”  Though Wayland’s father suspected “thieves, or a body of lunatics, or Chartist rioters” (!), upon investigation, “none of the tiles had been removed” (74).  The scream heard by PC Tom Langley of Digbeth, Warwickshire, some time in the first half of the 20th century has the ring of urban legend to it:  he was convinced to ask his uncle, retired from the force, who had heard it several times.  His uncle told him to forget about it.  Apparently the scream had been heard since the 1850s.     

There is a section of the book just for poltergeists, a very strange phenomenon and one Ackroyd at least seems to think has to do with the mental energy of teenaged girls rather than strict phantoms (a theory I have heard before).  There are also doppelgangers and “fetches” or harbingers, a strange spectacle that I don’t necessarily think qualifies as ghosts.  Several of these cases involve pairs of people who have decided that, when one dies, he or she will come back to the other to prove the existence of an afterlife.  

The most poignant story (and a bit too perfect to be accepted wholeheartedly) is of a dachshund named Robert who in 1909 disappeared.  He then appeared to his erstwhile owner (and another, unrelated witness) and led the ladies on separate occasions to number 90 on a certain street.  “He still wore the bright yellow collar I had bought him shortly before his disappearance, so that had there been any doubt about his identity that would have removed it instantly” (the other woman called the collar “gaudy”) (166).  Robert gazed at his owner “in the most beseeching manner . . . I do not know for how long we stood there looking at one another; it may have been minutes, or hours, or again, but a few paltry seconds.”  He subsequently disappeared.  The owner found out later, allegedly, that the owner of the house was a vivisectionist.