a grotesque history of halloween

Is there any night as justly hallowed as October 31?

The question is rhetorical, and the answer, of course, is no.

No other holiday celebrates the intersection of the otherworldly and carnal as heartily as Halloween: the double, double toil and trouble (fire burn, caldron bubble); undead spirit incarnate as flesh and body; the corporeal ghost; the pinnacle power of the persecuted witches and warlocks; Medusa herself; the trick over the treat; the grim friction created from the supernatural forced down to earth and twisted into the grotesque.

Here’s my treat to you: a* history of Halloween.

The holiday is not just a recent corporate phenomenon concocted by Hershey’s to sell candy, you see. Its origins trace back over 2,000 years to the Celtic new year, called Samhain, which fell on November 1. The Celts believed that on Samhain eve, spirits walked the Earth with fairies and demons as they traveled to the afterlife. The Celtic people sacrificed animals in bonfires to their gods and wore costumes made of animal skins to confuse spirits, probably to avoid being possessed, according to National Geographic. Another ancient costume: cross dressing. Yes, gender binaries have been challenged for thousands of years.

Trick-or-treating also emerged from this Celtic tradition. Originally, people left food and drink outside homes as offerings to spirits on their long journeys. Soon Celts disguised as supernatural beings went from house to house and put on little shows in exchange for these treats.

Naturally, early Christians were not about to let the Pagans have all the fun. So, in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV knew just what to do about it: he turned Samhain into All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day. The festivities of the preceding night continued to flourish, and October 31 embraced its new name: All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween.

Today, Halloween’s popularity actually reigns in the United States, a country that is neither majority Celtic, nor majority Catholic. I remember explaining to my bewildered cousins in Poland on several occasions what trick-or-treating is, and when I studied in Cambridge, I learned that Halloween in the U.K. is more of an occasion for adults to dress up and engage in debauchery then for kids to scramble from house-to-house in Disney costumes, begging for candy. The fervor for the holiday in America likely originates from European immigration, especially the influx of Irish migrants in the 1800s.

During the Victorian period, Halloween was seen as a “rustic, country holiday,” according to Lesley Bannatyne, author of Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night. “Overwhelmed by the fallout of industrialization, [Victorians and early Halloween revelers] sought out a simpler time where people were more connected to the land and the natural world.”

A schoolhouse ghost in 1905, surrounded by a vegetable harvest and tree branches. Photo Historic Photo Archive, Getty Images.

A schoolhouse ghost in 1905, surrounded by a vegetable harvest and tree branches. photo by Historic Photo Archive, Getty Images.

The distinction between the supernatural and natural, a hierarchy traditionally held sacred by scripture, becomes increasingly blurred. Here, at this crossing point, we find the domain of the grotesque and carnival. I’ve written about Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival before–it rejects binaries dictated by dominant culture and imagines an alternative way of living. Celtic cross dressing? That was carnival. Disguising oneself as an evil thing: spirits, witches, demons? The celebration of the grotesque? Hell, the whole of Halloween? That is carnival.**

In the hierarchy between good and evil, good wins. Except on Halloween. In the hierarchy between the sullied physical body and sublime transcendence, the spiritual realm wins. Except on Halloween, when the likes of Lewis Carroll’s physically monstrous Duchess rules supreme.

There’s something so rousing about a night when the world as we know it is flipped on its head, when rules of polite society fall to the wayside, when indiscretions are forgotten, because that’s how carnival works, neither remembered nor real. Carnival, dangerous but intriguing: simply pretend.

But carnival is the instrument of its own defeat: it lasts only a night. My All Saint’s Day morning is greeted by a phone call from my mother, reminding me of Mass, and 8 a.m. means back to work. Any hierarchies dictated by social norms that just a night before had been reversed or abolished returns to business as usual.

Well, this November 1, I plan to stay witchy. You should too.

Happy Halloween!

Cambridge 2011. Liz as a dead schoolgirl come back to life, and me as Columbia from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a carnival classic.

Throwback Thursday, Cambridge 2011. Liz as a dead schoolgirl come back to life, and me as Columbia from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a carnival classic.

*I say a history and not the history of Halloween because, as with all history, origins are debate by competing theories and the whole of cultural diffusion cannot be summed up within one story.

**Admittedly debatable. After all, though the cultural status quo may be challenged for a night, big businesses profit from the costumes and candy. So the existing economic structure might actually be bolstered by the holiday.

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