Halloween: The History of America's Darkest Holiday

Halloween: The History of America's Darkest Holiday

by David J. Skal

Paperback(First Edition, First)

$21.95 $22.95 Save 4% Current price is $21.95, Original price is $22.95. You Save 4%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, January 23

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486805214
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 06/20/2016
Edition description: First Edition, First
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 209,083
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

David J. Skal is the author of Hollywood Gothic and The Monster Show and co-editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula. A longtime New Yorker, he now lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt


The History of America's Darkest Holiday

By David J. Skal

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 David J. Skal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-81282-3



CALL IT SAMHAIN, Summer's End, All Hallow's Eve, November Eve, or Witches' Night — Halloween has its essential roots in the terrors of the primitive mind, which made no distinction between the waning of the sun and the potential extinction of the self. Ancient rituals of sacrifice and supplication were employed to guarantee a good harvest and, by extension, continued earthly existence.

In northern climates, harvest time was, or seemed, the very death of nature. As Robert Chambers, the great Victorian chronicler of holidays, characterized October: "As the fallen leaves career before us — crumbling ruins of summer's beautiful halls — we cannot help thinking of those who have perished — who have gone before us, blown forward to the grave by the icy blasts of Death."

Because life itself was literally in the balance at harvest, the close proximity of the visible world and the spirit world was more than metaphor. And so the tradition grew: for one night each year, permission would be granted to mortals to peer into the future, divine their fates, communicate with supernatural entities, and otherwise enjoy a degree of license and liberty unimaginable — or simply unattainable — the rest of the year.

The Halloween machine turns the world upside down. One's identity can be discarded with impunity. Men dress as women, and vice versa. Authority can be mocked and circumvented. And, most important, graves open and the departed return.

Of course, the "return of the dead" is an evocative allegory for the return or expression of just about anything that's been buried, repressed, or stifled by the living. What's "dead" doesn't necessarily look like a walking corpse — just take a look at the variety of secret selves on parade at any Halloween celebration today. People "resurrect" themselves, besequinned and befeathered, as glamorous movie gods and goddesses, comic-book superheroes, immortal robots, insatiable satyrs, and inflatable sex balloons. Pneumatic breasts and phalluses bounce and bob everywhere. Fantastic, towering wigs and headdresses emblematize the startling energies that lurk in the minds beneath.

But attending these lively carnival images — always — are the classic images of mortality and the grave: skeletons, vampires, zombies, and ghosts. The grand marshal of the Halloween parade is, and always has been, Death.

At Halloween, the living often make themselves appear dead, but this is only one night of the calendar. Down at the local mortuary for the rest of the year, extraordinary measures are taken to make the dead seem alive. As commentators ranging from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to Jessica Mitford have reminded us, American culture has considerable difficulty looking death in the eye. Modern embalming practices as cataloged by Mitford indeed amount to a macabre and evasive masquerade. In The American Way of Death, Mitford describes the evolution of modern funeral rituals into a "grotesque cloud-cuckoo-land where the trappings of Gracious Living are transformed, as in a nightmare, into the trappings of Gracious Dying."

Like death, Halloween is also subject to decorative, euphemistic rites. The unruly energies and overtly morbid aspects of Halloween have always been targeted for control, from the early Christian church to present-day mavens of political correctness. Always, the goal is the same: to tame the holiday, to somehow make it "nice." And nobody makes it nicer than Martha Stewart, America's formidable and self-created doyenne of the domestic arts. As authorized by Stewart in her recent book Halloween: Delicious Tricks and Wicked Treats for Your Scariest Halloween Ever, the behavior modification of the holiday is complete.

For Stewart, everything about Halloween is Perfectly Under Control. It is a celebration oddly devoid of celebrants, especially children, who appear only sporadically throughout the book like well-behaved centerpieces, or, in one photo, completely hidden from view as a designer-sheet spook. Some of the decorations are decidedly child unfriendly, like the votive candles placed in cutout paper bags and arranged precariously on a staircase. But it's not the kids' fun or safety that's important. As Margaret Mead noted a quarter century ago, "It is now the mothers of very small children who get a kick out of Halloween, buying or making the costumes for them ... while the small performers, trying to overcome shyness, hardly grasp what it is to be a witch or ghost."

On one level, the Martha Stewart mystique is ideally suited to Halloween, its veneration of inanimate objects perfectly appropriate to the holiday's pagan roots. Take pumpkins, for instance. Any whiff of death associated with the traditional jack-o'-lantern has been tastefully effaced with a skill comparable to that of the funeral-home cosmeticians so lovingly described by Jessica Mitford. Instead of scary, skull- like faces, pumpkins sport stylized, upscale designs inspired by Picasso or Matisse. Anything anthropomorphic has been transformed into pure ornament — the gourd metamorphosed into the glittering harvest equivalent of a Fabergé egg. But perhaps the ultimate toast to boomerish narcissism is Martha's monogrammed pumpkin, a pure embodiment of self-celebration with no connection whatsoever to any known form of communal holiday observance. It is time, perhaps, to establish a new one: the consumerist harvest of the ego itself.

All histories of Halloween inevitably wind back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-win), which marked the death of summer and the beginning of the Celtic new year. The Celts comprised a wide range of peoples who inhabited the British Isles and parts of Northern Europe prior to the Roman invasions, and Samhain was one of their two major sun festivals (the other, Beltane, was the spring celebration of fertility). At Samhain, the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds was believed to be especially transparent. The physical portals between worlds were the sídhe, or fairy-mounds; many of these hillocks and barrows remain to this day, and are believed to be the sites of ancient Samhain rituals.

Modern, mass-media histories of Halloween — the kind that proliferate, sound-bite-style, every October — often leave the impression that the holiday has been handed down, more or less intact, from Celtic antiquity (similarly hollow claims are often made for the very modern religion of Wicca). In reality, contemporary Halloween is a patchwork holiday, a kind of cultural Frankenstein stitched together quite recently from a number of traditions, all fused beneath the cauldron-light of the American melting pot.

Antiquity, however, provides a handy tabula rasa for all kinds of modern projections, especially when historical records are skimpy.

Take the druids, for example.

The druids were the Celtic priest class, the repository of learning, tradition, and official ceremony. Because the druids left no written record of their practices and beliefs, they have long been the subject of fanciful speculation, alternately demonized and romanticized with the fashions of the times, and are often evoked in histories of Halloween. The druids are also linked in the popular imagination with Stonehenge and its mysteries, although the paleolithic edifice predates the Celts by a thousand years.

Julius Caesar was one of the few classical writers to record firsthand impressions of the Celts and druids, but, as the leader of an invading army eager to claim the Celtic lands for Rome, he may have been less than fair-handed in his assessments. "The whole Gaulish nation," he wrote, "is to a great degree devoted to superstitious rites." One of their leading dogmas, according to Caesar, was "that souls are not annihilated, but pass after death from one body to another, and they hold that by this teaching men are much encouraged to valor, through disregarding the fear of death."

Death anxiety could also be circumvented by inflicting mortality on a designated vessel:

... those who are afflicted with severe diseases, or who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice human beings for victims, or vow that they will immolate themselves, and these employ the Druids as ministers for such sacrifices, because they think that, unless the life of man be repaid for the life of man, the will of the immortal gods cannot be appeased. They also ordain national offerings of the same kind. Others make wicker-work images of vast size, the limbs of which they fill with living men and set on fire.

The image of the druids has shifted and reshifted through the centuries; they are alternately bloodthirsty pagans or paleo-tree-huggers, but always, somehow, infinitely wise and in perfect harmony with the cycles of the earth.

The Romans brought their own pagan mythology and celebrations to Britain, including the November 1 harvest festival of Pomona, goddess of the orchards, and the masked revels of Saturnalia, the winter solstice. Pomona's association with the apple no doubt fostered the fruit's later prominence in Halloween games and festivities (the link persists, however darkly, in the modern Halloween legend of the razor blade in the apple).

In his crusade to convert Ireland to Christianity in the fifth century, Saint Patrick appropriated many of the customs and symbols of the Celts, including the use of bonfires to celebrate church holy days and the superimposition of the pagan sun symbol onto the Christian cross. The legend of Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland is essentially an allegory of his ridding the country of pagans; in reality, snakes were never indigenous to Ireland.

In the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV established the Feast of All Saints on November 1, another calculated move to align traditional pagan festivals with Christian holidays. November 2 was designated All Souls' Day around 1006 (it had been previously celebrated on May 1), and thus a miniseason of observances was established, known in medieval times as Hallowtide.

According to one account, "It was customary in former times, on this day, for persons dressed in black to traverse the streets, ringing a dismal-toned bell at every corner, and calling on the inhabitants to remember the souls suffering penance in purgatory, and to join in prayer for their liberation and repose." In the words of a traditional Catholic devotional: Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell, and from the depths of the pit: deliver them from the mouth of the lion, lest hell swallow them. ... Grant that they may pass from death to life.

In the prayer, "death" is purgatory and "life" is heaven; but on November Eve the metaphors were taken literally, in a stubborn clinging to pre-Christian customs. The souls of the dead, along with other supernatural beings, were permitted (in complete contradiction of Catholic doctrine) to vacate purgatory/ hell to mingle — and munch — with mortals. Until the fifteenth century in Salerno, Italy, a practice prevailed on All Souls' Eve in which households provided "a sumptuous entertainment for the souls in purgatory who were supposed to revisit temporarily, and make merry in, the scene of their earthly pilgrimage."

Every one quitted the habitation, and after spending the night at church, returned in the morning to find the whole feast consumed, it being deemed eminently inauspicious if a morsel of victuals remained uneaten. The thieves who made a harvest of this pious custom ... generally took good care to avert any such evil omen from the inmates of the house by carefully carrying off whatever they were unable themselves to consume.

In Naples, All Souls' Day was the locus of a particularly macabre ritual. The charnel houses were thrown open and "lighted up with flowers, while crowds thronged through the vaults to visit the bodies of their friends and relatives, the fleshless skeletons of which were dressed up in robes and arranged in niches along the walls."

By the Renaissance, rituals of begging and charity by and for the living had joined offerings for the dead as a first-of-November ritual. In Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona (first performed about 1594), the lovesick Valentine is described by his clownish servant as "puling like a beggar at Hallowmas." The object of the beggar's whining was, traditionally, a "soul cake," made from oatmeal and molasses.

For we are all poor people,
Well known to you before.
So give us a cake for charity's sake,
And our blessing we leave at the door

A great tradition of masked celebration/solicitation grew up around Guy Fawkes Day, observed throughout Great Britain and in colonial America on November 5. The day commemorated the 1605 foiling of a nefarious plot by Fawkes and others to blow up Parliament with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, secreted in a vault beneath the legislative chambers. Fawkes was publicly hanged, then drawn and quartered for his treason, and it became popular to reenact his punishment through the festive parading of a scarecrow figure, or "Guy," outfitted with a pointed paper hat and carrying a lantern and matches. Paraders would go from door to door, begging for "a penny for the Guy," and chanting a time-honored rhyme:

Remember, Remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
There is no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

The conclusion of the celebration saw the Guy tossed onto a ceremonial bonfire, often with effigies of the pope (Fawkes was a Catholic). According to one account, the London celebration was especially "important and portentous," with the bonfire at Lincoln's Inn Fields conducted on a magnificent scale: "Two hundred cartloads of fuel would sometimes be consumed in feeding this single fire, while upwards of thirty 'Guys' would be suspended on gibbets and committed to the flames." Over time, Guy Fawkes Day evolved more and more into a child's holiday, and by the nineteenth century illustrations of the celebration depict both the juvenile paraders and the Guy himself outfitted with masks reminiscent of the commedia dell'arte.

Hallowmas was considered the beginning of the Christmas season in England and, during the reign of Charles I in the seventeenth century, became a time for elaborate masques staged by the lawyers of London's Middle Temple. These dance recitals were major social events, and included the rich display of finery and feathers.

By the eighteenth century, elaborate masquerade had become a cultural preoccupation of English society year-round, incorporating the role reversals associated with the Roman Saturnalia and the medieval Feast of Fools, and the relaxation of social constraints associated with celebrations of May Day and Midsummer's Eve.

"Like the world of satire, the masquerade projected an anti-nature, a world upside-down, an intoxicating reversal of ordinary sexual, social and metaphysical hierarchies," writes Terry Castle in Masquerade and Civilization. "Its hallucinatory reversals were both a voluptuous release from ordinary cultural prescriptions and a stylized comment upon them."

These English revels certainly anticipated the spirit of modern Halloween, though the night itself was not yet associated with masking (or "guising") and, in fact, did not yet have a standard name. The word Halloween derives from the Middle English hallowen (hallowed, sacred) and the progressive contraction of evening to even to e'en. "All Hallow's Eve," "Hallowmas (or Hallow-Mass) Eve," "All Hallow's Fire," and "Hallow Even Fire" were some of the variations. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Halloween first appears in print sometime during the eighteenth century in a line of dialogue from the ballad "Young Tamlane": "This night is Hallowe'en, Janet. The morn is Hallowday." Robert Burns's celebrated poem "Halloween" (1785) is both a paean to the holiday and a valuable historical document:

Among the bonny winding banks
Where Doon rins, wimplin', clear,
Where Bruce ance
ruled the martial ranks,
And shook his Carrick spear,

Some merry, friendly countra-folks
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And haud their Halloween

Nuts, like apples, are symbols of the harvest and are obviously plentiful at the end of October. Both figure prominently in the history of Halloween. Burns's poem recorded and memorialized Halloween customs involving fortune-telling with apples and nuts as practiced in Scotland and, with certain variations, in England, Wales, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Nuts in the Halloween fireplace represented some combination of the questioner, a sweetheart, and/or rival suitors. In "The Spell," English poet and playwright John Gay (1685–1732) delineates the game:

Two hazel-nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweetheart's name

The nut that cracked or jumped indicated fickleness or instability; by contrast, the nut that burned steadily represented undying affection. Gay describes the English custom of two nuts representing two potential sweethearts; in Burns's Scottish poem, one nut represents the questioner. In the Irish tradition, three nuts were used — the questioner flanked by a pair of love interests.


Excerpted from Halloween by David J. Skal. Copyright © 2002 David J. Skal. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Candy Man's Tale
1. The Halloween Machine
2. The Witch's Teat
3. Home is Where the Hearse is o, How to Haunt a House
4. The Devil on Castro Street and Other Skirmished in the Culture War
5. Halloween on Screen
Epilogue: September 11 and October 31

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews