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.

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