Halloween has a very long and storied past, rich with tradition and lore. Originally it was known as “Samhain,” a Celtic festival marking the end of the summer and the beginning of the cold months. The pagans who first celebrated the holiday believed that on Samhain the veil between the two worlds was at its thinnest, and the dead could walk the earth. The otherworldly nature of Halloween has captured people’s imaginations for centuries, and led to many superstitions and traditions that last to this day.
10. Mocking The Devil
Many Christians are disturbed by Halloween and consider it wrong to take part in it, seeing it as a celebration of evil. This has become such a commonplace concern that pastors find themselves asked about it yearly. In a way, the fear is perfectly understandable. According to many Christians, the devil is the enemy. So the idea of dressing up as him or any of his minions doesn’t seem like something a good person should take part in. Like many fears, this simply stems from ignorance of the history of Halloween.
Back in the days when Christians first co-opted Halloween as All Hallows’ Eve, they believed very literally in the devil. However, to them, one of the best ways to fight the devil was to attack his greatest weakness, the pride that led him to become a fallen angel in the first place. To this effect, they would depict him with red horns and a ridiculous tail to mock him, hoping it would cause him to flee. Intent can get lost over time, so many people have an unrealistic idea of the devil, not understanding the ridiculous caricature as the mockery that it is.
Irish legend has it that one day the devil himself came to take the soul of a thieving man named Jack. But Jack managed to trick the devil, making him promise to never take his soul. After eventually living a long life, Jack tried to enter the Pearly Gates, but could not, for he had lived a life of evil. He then attempted to enter Hell, but the devil kept his word, being no big fan of Jack anyway. When Jack complained of having no way to see, the devil laughed at him and threw him a glowing ember, which he fashioned into a lantern using a turnip in his pocket. He became Jack Of The Lantern, doomed to aimlessly walk the Earth with nowhere to go.
While the legends may sound incredible, they were based on a real phenomenon. Swamp gasses that interact with decaying matter will sometimes give off a strange light that seems to vanish when you get closer. Before we had a scientific explanation, people believed these were trapped souls who could enter neither heaven nor hell and would lead you astray. Some legends say the Irish would use turnips or beets to create jack-o’-lanterns—for multiple purposes. The lanterns were sometimes used as a means of honoring those souls trapped in purgatory, but their mocking faces were also used to scare away evil spirits.
8. Realistic Decorations
Last year, a couple days after Halloween, a mail carrier was making his rounds when he saw what looked like a fairly realistic dead body on a porch. Given the time of year, he decided that it was simply been a Halloween decoration and went on his way without reporting it. He was horrified when he later discovered it was actually the body of a man that had collapsed just hours prior; the family was distraught and felt the mailman should have done something.
While we can sympathize with their grief, it is not the first time something like this has happened. Several years ago in a small suburban neighborhood, the neighbors noticed an extremely realistic corpse hanging from a tree. Many people drove right by it, thinking it was just a Halloween decoration. The neighbors were shocked when the police investigated and found it to be the body of a woman who had just committed suicide. More recently, in an apartment complex in Los Angeles, the tenants ignored a very realistic dummy that looked like it had been shot in the eye. What the neighbors believed was a Halloween decoration turned out to be a corpse that was allowed to decompose for almost a week. The police ruled it a suicide.
7. Halloween Costumes
Halloween is the day we can be almost anything we desire, from a giant hamburger to a hockey-masked lunatic, and many workplaces or schools take part in the fun. But one thing most people don’t think about is where this grand tradition comes from. During the Celtic festival of Samhain, the dead were said to walk the Earth, so the Celts would wear costumes as a means of either blending in, or at least not being recognized by evil spirits. Sometimes the costumes were used for more proactive purposes. Villagers believed the dead would congregate around their feasts, so masked men would try to gain the attention of the spirits in an attempt to lead them away from the village.
6. Tainted Candy
One of the most common legends of Halloween is the oft-repeated warning that there might be poison or razor-blades lurking in your little one’s treats, presumably put there by some sadistic nutjob. Some people take it a step further and blame it on witches or cults, writing tracts full of lies about the origins of Halloween to malign Wiccans. Of the most enduring and widespread poisoning legends, one tells the story of a young boy named Timothy O’Brien. The boy had been out trick-or-treating with his father and, upon arriving home, ate a pixie stick that was laced with cyanide, leading to his death. However, in reality it turned out that O’Brien’s father had a life insurance policy on his young son, and he was convicted of poisoning the child himself and using the urban legends to cover it up.
Another story tells of a five-year-old who died of a heroin overdose after eating tainted candy. As usual the media decided to start the hype machine before all of the facts were in. It turned out that the child had gotten into his uncle’s heroin stash and the candy had never been tainted in the first place. That’s not to say caution is a bad thing. Hypothetically, something could be put in your bag of treats, but there really isn’t any evidence of people trying to poison random children.
However, there is a very real danger on Halloween night that parents should definitely watch out for. According to AAA, Halloween is the most dangerous night of the year for pedestrians. The combination of children running around in costumes, along with drunk drivers on the road, creates a perfect storm. It is suggested that parents accompany kids if possible, make sure they are visible, and coach them on road safety.
Trick-or-treating is probably the best-known part of Halloween, and most of us happily took part in this tradition as kids. However, the origins of trick-or-treating are shrouded in mystery. Many cultures had similar practices—for instance, in the UK, children would go door to door on Guy Fawkes day and ask for “a penny for the guy.” In Ireland, in the old Samhain days, it was fairly customary for orphans and widows to beg for supplies. After all, Samhain marked the beginning of the cold months and they would need all the help they could get.
However, the actual phrase “trick-or-treat” likely has much more modern origins. Some suggest that the phrase began in America in the early 20th century with the arrival of Irish immigrants who brought their mischief along with them. To combat pranks and other mischief by poor children, people suggested offering treats to them as a small bribe. For this reason, in its early days, Halloween was often known as “beggars’ night.”
4. Day Of The Dead
Some people think of the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) as a Mexican version of Halloween. With its focus on death and spooky costumes, it could easily seem that way to an outsider, but the two holidays actually boast very different perspectives. Halloween is very much based on the fear of death and spirits, but on the Day of the Dead, death is embraced and even celebrated.
On this day, the spirits of the dead return to the Earth, guided by the strong aroma of marigolds and incense to shrines set up for them by their families, who celebrate their return. As the day comes to an end, the families may head to the cemetery to spend the rest of the night with their loved ones before they go back to the other world. While many of our Halloween traditions find skeletons to be scary, the Day of the Dead uses them both to celebrate and laugh at death.
Imagine you’re walking home on Halloween night, coming back from a party or perhaps a successful night of trick-or-treating. Everything seems fine, but then you hear the sound of someone walking behind you. You quicken your step a bit, but they seem to match pace with yours. While you might be tempted to turn around and look to assure yourself that everything is okay, this could be a fatal mistake. According to superstition, there is a good chance on Halloween that you are being shadowed by Death himself, and if you look upon him it will be your end.
But the parting of the veil between worlds on Halloween is cause for more than the fear of spirits and fell apparitions coming to claim you, it is also considered a very important night for divination. Many of the superstitions involving divination also have to do with love, and some are extremely specific. One tradition suggests holding a candle in one hand, a mirror in the other, and attempting to walk backward down the stairs. This will supposedly allow you to see your future spouse, although it seems more likely that you’ll end up seeing a doctor. (But is the doctor single?)
2. Haunted Houses
Many of us visit haunted houses around Halloween. It’s a great experience to have with friends, and part of the enjoyment is knowing that, despite the thrills, we will never be in any real danger. Unfortunately, even though our rational minds tell us this, our fight or flight response is still in working order. One woman recalled an experience she had while volunteering at a haunted house. She had been lying in a coffin and popping out at people, when one girl was so overwhelmed by fear she started pummeling her until she was pulled away.
Unfortunately, there are sometimes dangers for haunted house volunteers apart from the customers. Customers at Creepyworld in St. Louis were walking through a bathroom scene drenched in fake blood when they saw a very realistic-looking corpse hanging from a noose—a little too realistic. As it turns out, something had gone horribly wrong. A teenage volunteer had somehow gotten up on the bathtub and become caught in the noose, ending up in a coma for three days. The creepiest part of the story is that, despite surviving the accident, she has no memory of how it happened or the days leading up to it. The only clues the police have are footprints on the bathtub and scuff marks on the walls.
Most of us can only imagine walking through a movie-style Halloween town—unless you’ve been to Salem, Massachusetts, the self-proclaimed Halloween capital of the world, that is. The city is chock-full of shops that cater to witches, with a witch museum and scores of other spooky sites. However, like any city, the thing that truly gives it the spark of life and wonder are the people. Salem on Halloween is an extraordinary experience, with people thronging the streets in every sort of costume imaginable.
But Salem can be like walking through a dream on any ordinary day as well. Many Wiccans have taken up residence in the city and some walk around wearing traditional garb on a daily basis. The city lives and breathes the culture of witchcraft and, as Halloween approaches, the amount of people in costume steadily increases. Some people have even likened Salem to a 365-day Halloween party. It’s a place where dreams (or nightmares) come alive.