As a teller and writer of ghostly tales, I celebrate Halloween with enthusiasm. Every October 31, as many as 400 trick-or-treaters have found their way to our tall Italianate house in a decayed village in Michigan these past two decades, and we have both tricked and treated them, to their dreadful joy. Such amiable festivities are vanishing altogether nowadays from American cities, supplanted by annual holocausts. Yet the sinister side of Halloween goes back farther into antiquity: “bonfire” is derived from “bone fire,” and once upon a time those burning bones were human. Anthropologists remark that when a cult is expiring, often its grim early aspects come to the surface once more, skeleton-like.
So it may be with that once-bewitching autumn celebration called Halloween. Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, is the night before All Saints’ Day; the day commemorating anonymous holy men and women. In medieval times, on that night occurred the Vigil of Hallowmass, nocturnal hours of prayer preceding the rites of November 1 in commemoration of the saints and martyrs, numerous but nameless, who had perished in the mass persecutions of Roman times. The first Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day took place in the year 608, when Pope Boniface IV converted the splendid temple of the Pantheon, in the heart of Rome, into a Christian church dedicated to the slaughtered Christians from Nero’s time to Diocletian’s reign. This Christian celebration of the vigil and the All Saints’ rites has nearly vanished in our time, except for survival within the rituals of some Catholic orders. But the pagan aspects of Halloween are conspicuous today; indeed they are reverting to their original terror and ferocity.
In its origins, Halloween is far older than the Christian church. Although missionaries to the pagans baptized the dates of October 31 and November 1, so to speak, by associating them with remembrance of Christian holiness, still for many centuries pagan superstitions flared up with a vengeance on the eve of All Hallows. Among the Celtic folk of Britain and old Ireland, before the Romans landed in England, what we now call Halloween was the night sacred to Samhain or Saman, Lord of Death, the dark God venerated by the Druids. That night’s rituals were meant to placate the powers of darkness. Into huge bonfires were flung human bones—and earlier, perhaps, human victims.
The Anglos and the Saxons, too, held such rituals at the end of October—as vegetal nature, in sere and yellow leaf, sank down to crumbling death. The old Romans held their gentler festival in honor of Pomona, goddess of the harvest, with nuts and apples for the celebrants—the forerunners of those apples that are still bobbed for in tubs of water and those nuts set to crack on the hearth beside a hot fire, in will fangled households like that of the Kirks’.
Our American Halloween customs were imported from Scotland and Ireland chiefly. Robert Burns’ long poem “Halloween” is a charming account of the old revels of the Scots peasantry on that night, when witches might walk or ride the broomstick, and the marriageable girl might hope to see in a mirror the face of her future husband, peering uncannily over her shoulder. The unquiet dead might rise, but amorous couples seized the occasion to clip and cuddle in barns.
The Scot’s demon face of Jack o’ the Lantern was far more satisfyingly fearsome in those days before electricity, kerosene lamps, or even whale-oil illumination violated the darkness of the hamlets. Nineteenth-century rationalism and softer manners diminished the supernatural attractions of Halloween. By 1827, when William Hone published the second volume of his Every Day Book, the grimmer side of Halloween, with its perilous bonfires, battling young men, sinister telling of fortunes and hints of hellishness, seemed to be passing away. “In some places where young people were accustomed to meet for purposes of divination,” Hone wrote, “and frequently frighten each other into fits, as a ancient custom, they have little regard to the old usages. The meetings on Hallow-Eve are becoming pleasant merry makings; the dance prevails until supper time, when they take a cheerful glass and drink to their next happy meeting.”
It is otherwise in American cities of our own bent age. Last year, coming out of an office in Hamtramck, the Polish enclave within Detroit, a young friend of mine was initiated into the latter-day Halloween rights by an explosion almost under his nose. In the dark, an automobile parked at the curb burst into roaring flame; somebody silently and stealthily had doused its rear with gasoline, a few moments before. The flaming empty car was the first shot in a nightlong contest between Detroit’s firefighters and gangs of youths who flit from street to street, setting fire to empty houses, garages, and sometimes occupied dwellings.
Probably at no other time in the history of mankind have cities been destroyed by the deliberate acts of their inhabitants. A mad world, my masters! Yesteryear’s festive bonfire in the village square, with its half jocular, half fearful notions of ghostly presences, has given way to a diabolical destruction in the core of some great metropolis, unintentionally symbolic perhaps of T.S. Eliot’s insight that we moderns are
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns
The Lord of Death stalks through smoke and flame, as Saman haunted the Druids, and Cutty Sark, the fair witch of Alloway, flees before the King of Terrors. A generation of children reared on the simulated horrors of television and the movie house find the real winding–sheet of flame still more exciting. And the next day, no church bells ring out for the forgotten saints and martyrs.
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The featured image is by Kevin Dooley, and is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.