The scary truth about Halloween

Creating jack-o’-lanterns from pumpkins makes the end-of-harvest festivals a bit scarier — and fun. photo: Cindy

At the end of this month, people young and old will dress up and go to parties, or stay at home and hand out treats to visitors, or pull the shades and watch TV with the lights down so trick or treaters think no one’s home. It’s Halloween, a weird and wonderful holiday with ancient roots.

At some point early in my elementary school years, my church had a haunted house in its basement. We walked through shrouded, darkened rooms where someone would occasionally try to scare us, there was eerie music, and sets were designed to look like some dilapidated old house and not a collection of Sunday school classrooms in a modern church in Green Bay, Wisc. The effect that had the biggest impact was a room in which we reached behind a curtain to put our hands on objects described by the tour guide: the brains of a monster (a bowl of wet cauliflower), a pile of hungry insects (a bowl of mixed nuts and fruit), the head of a wild beast (a shag carpet remnant), and so on. I was in second grade, so my standards weren’t high, and the sham proved pretty disgustingly effective for me and probably was a fun laugher for older students.

That was a moderate Methodist church in the North, so it was just a fun event for families. Some more-conservative churches have taken to having haunted houses that take the “scared straight” approach, attempting to show what hell is like for those who stray from their creed. Visitors see sinners being barbecued in hell or otherwise suffering for opposing the fundamentalists’ views on abortion, homosexuality, pornography, listening to heavy-metal music, and so on. That doesn’t sound like much fun, but neither does attending that church on a normal Sunday.

Halloween takes place on Oct. 31, the day before the 1st of November, which in Christian lands is celebrated as All Saints Day or All Hallows — thus we got Hallows Eve and eventually Halloween. Its roots also spread to pagan festivals, likely including the Celtic day Samhain. This was an important day in the Gaelic calendar, when the harvest ended and preparation for the cold winter took place. Bonfires were lit and possible human sacrifices added to the fun. The souls of the dead were thought to come back during this time; costumes were thought to be a way of avoiding these spirits or not being recognized by them.

Ninth-century Roman Catholic Pope Gregory IV promoted All Saints Day, though the practice of remembering those who have recently died goes back centuries in the church. In Protestant churches, All Saints Day is still a time to note members of the congregation who have passed away. And no country throws a Halloween/All Saints’ Day celebration like über-Catholic Mexico, where November 1–2 give way to the Day of the Dead, which is like a Tim Burton movie come to life, with deceased family members remembered via cemetery visits, elaborate skeleton mannequins in awesome costumes, altars laden with items commemorating the dead, and much more.

But where did the tradition of trick or treating come from? Door-to-door costumed visits for treats have various roots in Europe, and in North America are apparently traced back to 1911 in Ontario. It seems to have spread across the New World pretty rapidly after that.

To return to stories of my childhood, it was also a time when America was just making the shift on trick or treating. In my earliest years, our mother would bring us around the neighborhood, and we’d go to every door to get some candy (or the occasional healthful alternative from someone officially known as “Skip that house next Halloween”). But within a few years, stories real or apocryphal of needles or poison in candy began to reduce the extent of trick or treating, and today people often don’t take their kids to anyone’s homes, or they restrict their visits to friends and family.

Despite that, Halloween continues to be celebrated near and far.

Did you know that people celebrate Halloween even in the ultra-fundamentalist Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Not openly, of course, unless they want to lose parts of their bodies they might like to hold onto, such as their heads. But there are websites where Saudis offer tips on where to get costumes, how to celebrate so as not to attract attention or create offense, and how to explain it to your children who rather like these weird Christian holidays. One mother wrote that she is planning to introduce costume celebrations to traditional Islamic holidays to ease her Halloween-obsessed child into more locally acceptable traditions. But the comments you see on such websites show that a Halloween gathering in Riyadh is much the same as what you’ll find at such a gathering of families in the Marina or in Dallas or in Baltimore: costumes, food, treats, and fun all around.

It’s a little different in the Castro, of course.

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