Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween: Behind the Mask

She’s got a date at midnight, with Nosferatu.
Oh baby, Lily Munster, ain’t got nothing on you.
--Black No. 1, Type O Negative
Halloween is probably my favorite holiday.  I’m a fan of horror movies, outrageous costumes, sinister decor, and black cats.  In the eyes of some groups, this means I am headed for Hell.
Thankfully, I won’t be alone--Americans spend six billion dollars on this holiday every year.  But is Halloween really a Satanic holiday?  Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, did declare Halloween as a holiday to be celebrated by Satanists.  But Halloween had its roots established long before LaVey staked his claim in 1969.

Halloween has been traditionally linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  October 31st represented the Celtic version of New Year’s Eve. The word “samhain” is thought to mean “season’s end.”  It was the time of year that marked the transition from the fertile summer to the barren winter--the period when the abundance of harvest could soon be replaced by the threat of starvation.  It was a time when life and death were thinly separated.  
The Celts thought spirits of the dead could walk free on the Samhain, mingling with the living.  Celtic priests believed it was the best time to communicate with lost ancestors and to divine the future.
The Celts protected themselves from harm by wearing masks to frighten away more malicious spirits.  They would wear the skins of animals and offer gifts of food to the spirits to keep them happy.  Another tradition included extinguishing all the fires in their villages except for a roaring bonfire at the Samhain festival, in which they burned demon effigies and animal sacrifices to appease the gods.  At the end of the festival, each participant would re-light their home hearth with an ember of the sacred bonfire to ensure success in the new year.  It’s claimed they carried these embers in a carved gourd or turnip.  The carvings were meant to scare away evil spirits as the Celts returned home in the dark. 
Bettin Arnold, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in the Center for Celtic Studies, confirms the traditions of costuming and treat exchange.  She says male Celtic youth often masqueraded as evil spirits during Samhain, demanding food in exchange for good behavior.  They also occasionally performed pranks and dressed as women, which may be the first recorded existence of drag queens.
RuPaul channels his inner Celt.
By 43 A.D., the Celtic territory had been conquered by the Roman Empire.  The Romans incorporated Samhain traditions with the Lemuria, the Parentalia, and the Feralia, Roman ceremonies involving the rites of the dead.  Another fusion occurred with autumn harvest festivals and the Roman worship of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees.  Pomona’s festival was a celebration of fertility and procreation, and often young women received prophesies about their future husbands during the festivities.  Pomona’s symbol was an apple, and bobbing for apples was initially a divination activity to determine who would marry first.  Sleeping with the apple under a pillow was thought to bring dreams of a future mate.  This apple link is also sometimes given the credit for the association of the pentagram with pagan belief--if you cut an apple at its equator, it forms a familiar shape.
By the 700s A.D., Christianity was booming.  Pagan holidays were slowly being assimilated into the new rising beliefs.  Pope Gregory III did some strategic rebranding by renaming an existing holiday based on the consecration of the Roman Pantheon.  He created All Saints Day, a.k.a. All Hallows Day, to commemorate those who attained the vision of Heaven, thereby honoring all saints and martyrs.  The Pope then rescheduled the holiday for November first.  Samhain the pagan holiday became All Hallows Evening.  Just a few portmanteaus later came Hallows E’ening---then Hallowe’en---and finally, Halloween.
Many of the pagan traditions continued, albeit in different ways.  For instance, during the holiday, the poor would go to the doors of the rich, asking for food and drink in return for prayers for dead saints.  These were called “threshold encounters,” and could be considered a form of trick or treating.
Trick or treat.
In colonial New England, the visibility of Halloween diminished due to Protestant influence.  But as different ethnic cultures immigrated to America, a distinct American Halloween tradition was born that was less about spirits and more about social connection.  Festivals celebrating community and the harvest were common, and often included fortune telling, dancing, and stories told around a bonfire.  Halloween also was one of the biggest singles nights in colonial history.  Women thought sugary confections induced dreams of their future husbands.  Throwing acorns representing suitors in a fire on Halloween night also served a similar purpose--the acorn surviving the flame was the lucky guy.  Finally, some Halloween parties involved throwing apple peels on the floor to create the initials of the future Mr. Right.  Fun times.

To think of all the money wasted on when all you need is a Granny Smith.  
The mid 1800s marked Halloween’s emergence as an official holiday.  This is partly due to the mass influx of Irish immigrants during the potato famine.  They brought with them Celtic traditions and also repurposed the colonial pumpkin.

The Irish Halloween myth of Stingy Jack is about a vile drunkard who met the devil and trapped him in a tree.  In exchange for the Devil’s promise to never take his soul to Hell, Jack let old red and horny go.  Unfortunately, when Jack did die, God didn’t want his soul.  Jack moseyed to Hell, but the Devil kept his promise, forcing Jack to roam the earth as a spirit forever.  As Jack left the gates of the damned, the Devil tossed him a chunk of hellfire which Jack put in a turnip to light his way in the darkness.
The Jack Nicholson O'Lantern
The Irish burned candles in turnips to keep Jack--and any other spirits roaming in purgatory--at bay.  Pumpkins were plentiful in America and soon replaced turnips as the preferred medium for Jack O’Lanterns.  Because have you ever tried to carve a turnip?
A traditional carved turnip.  Leaves a bit to be desired.
Over the years, Americans have continued to make Halloween a more “family friendly” -- i.e. commercial -- holiday.  During the post WWI years, less emphasis was placed on the superstitions and religious overtones and instead focused on the merriment and mischief of the holiday.  Trick or treating was revived as a way to have an inexpensive community celebration for children.   Hallmark issued the first Halloween cards in the 1920s.  Haunted houses sprang up, likely influenced by the handed down musings of colonial and immigrant storytellers.  They took inspiration from classical myths, folklore and literature like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818.  The first horror films started around 1920, with 1922's Nosferatu as the most recognized.  

The average American will spend $72.31 on decor, candy and costumes for Halloween this year.  According to National Geographic, the top ten adult costumes for 2011 are:

1.   Witch
2.   Pirate
3.   Vampire
4.   Zombie
5.   Batman character
6.   Cat
7.   Vixen
8.   Ghost
9.   Nurse
10. Scary mask

Michael Myers and his scary mask.
The most popular pet costumes are pumpkins and devils.

I told you I wanted to be a fairy princess!
Part of the appeal of Halloween is the chance to be frightened.  Some humans enjoy being scared--and not just after the threat is removed.  A study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggested that when fearful stimuli is presented in a controlled environment and with psychologic detachment, positive feelings can actually accompany fearfulness.
Unfortunately, as with everything in our world these days, real threats do haunt modern Halloween.  Most true Halloween horrors tend to be related to those who use the holiday as a convenient cover for misdeeds.  One popular Halloween urban legend is the tainted candy story.  Professor of Sociology Joel Best investigated this legend, reviewing 78 cases of alleged Halloween candy poisoning.  He could find no substantiated reports of children injured by randomly given tainted candy.  Most of the cases involved those using the myth for their own evil agenda.  One of the most horrendous crimes was that of Ronald O’Bryan, who killed his 8 year old son with a lethal dose of cyanide in a Pixy Stick and then claimed the candy was tainted.  He did it for the insurance money, and was later executed in 1984.
The ritual mutilation of black cats is also a sick and sad Halloween urban legend.  According to Celtic belief, black cats could hold a reincarnated soul.  They were occasionally used in animal sacrifice for that reason.  Black cats weren’t associated with evil until the Middle Ages, when they became the witch’s familiar.  Sadly, there are documented acts of animal violence on Halloween, but most reports reveal they are perpetrated by mentally disturbed people looking to frighten others,  and not by ritualistic cults.  Some animal adoption agencies still tighten their adoption policies during the season.
Don't be cruel to animals.
The commercial cleavage-baring Halloween conglomerate of the 21st century is a far cry from what the ancients probably imagined as a harvest festival.  However, I feel like the underlying thread may still be there underneath the layer of fake blood and boobs:

     Let’s commune with our neighbors, exorcise our fear of the strange and unknown, and create a celebration of the cycle of life.  

     Happy Halloween, everyone!
I hope you like this Sunday series on myths and folklore.  If there is any subject you’d like me to investigate the origins and myths behind, please leave it in the comments and I will address it in a future Sunday mythbusters!


  1. I am both a Celt and a Pagan - burn me now! Most of the Christian annual celebrations, as you say, have firm roots in Paganism, and it was the Church who made the connection between Pagan and witch as a means of controlling the masses - don't get me started!
    Happy Halloween(Samhain)and a fruitful harvest to you.

  2. It did have dark beginnings, but it's all about the candy now. And only sick people hurt animals.
    And our household blows that average - we've spent $0 on Halloween this year!

  3. great post
    and FINALLY.....
    i meet someone else who's favorite holiday is
    after's all down hill as far as holidays go.
    maybe i should wear a costume to all other holiday functions.
    that would make the holiday more tolerable for me.

    sorry for the rant.

    happy halloween :0

  4. Great post. I really do like your Sunday posts on myths and folklore. =o)

    I decided not to do anything for Halloween this year. It's my first without the daughter and besides, I'm not really needing the candy calories this year. I hope you have any awesome day for your favorite holiday. Happy Halloween, everyone!

  5. I like the part about Samhain honouring the ancestors.
    We hand out candy and have a few artificial pumpkins out but that's about it these days....

  6. I have a tendency to get excited about holidays just after they are over. I know, it's stupid. Still, as soon as the day is over I'm all bummed out and swear that next year, I'll be all over it.

    Halloween, I think it was always one of my favorite holidays growing up. Neighborhood haunted houses and the like made it seem so awesome... much more community friendly.

    As for it's roots in history. Well, I'm just glad those fine ancient people rid the world of so many of its demons so we can live peacefully.

  7. That was a really REALLY interesting post! Well researched and very informative. I'm a big fan of Halloween and I've been discouraged by how the interest seems to be eroding (or being squelched) here in our little town. I live in the heart of the bible-belt and unfortunately the outcry of the few tend to dictate public policy. :(

  8. When I worked in the classified department of my hometown paper, we were not allowed to take ads for any found all white or all black cats during October. It's a free service that was provided to reunite people with their lost pets but there was a moratorium throughout the entire month. I grew up in a city where 'Satanic ritual' was, apparently, concentrated.

  9. Halloween has evolved into such a fun holiday. I love it. You compiled a lot of research for this post. Kudos.

  10. I really enjoyed this post. Halloween is not as big an event in England as America, but it's heading that way.

  11. I'm not a Halloween person. While I don't consider myself a Pagan, I'm with Yonks on the church mucking with pagan celebrations, I've found a new love for this time of year when I learned about Samhain.

    Love these posts, they're so interesting! Blessed Samhain to you and yours :)

  12. Great post on one of my favorite days!
    We love Halloween. We have three bins of Halloween decor, but since our house is for sale, we only put up a fraction of it this year.
    I was Sookie Stackhouse of True Blood for Halloween this year.
    I do have to also add that Halloween party days at school are the most exhausting days for teachers! (I know from experience so tomorrow will be fun and tiring!!)

  13. Interesting! Alls I really knew about Halloween was that it was the one time of year that it was ok to take candy from strangers.

    A girl in one of my classes recently did a speech on the reasons behind why we celebrate it but she didn't go into nearly as much detail as you did.

  14. I love reading about the old pagan traditions. And it's funny, even in modern times our human instinct to fear the dark kicks in on these gloomy fall nights when the wind is blowing the leaves around the gutters and the moon is partially hidden behind clouds. You can imagine all sorts of things jumping out to get you.

    Happy Halloween!

  15. Ah, I knew you'd have a Halloween theme for today. I should have started eating candy a long time ago...took me forever to get married. :) Funny how traditions change, and a shame how people have to use fun times to hurt others. The vampire has always been my favorite costume. Happy Halloween to you. :)

  16. Hehehe! Love these history lessons. Hope you have a happy and safe Halloween!

  17. Pet costumes??? Wow... LOL.

    I love Type O Negative!!! I think we may have talked about that before, near the beginning? hehe

    Halloween isn't as big a deal over here in Australia. It'd probably be better suited to April or May for us, when we're heading into winter.

  18. I remember when I was very young in Orange County, California, supposedly the big threat to little kids on Halloween night was apples that had been spiked with razor blades. That too was probably a lot of hooey. And even if it wasn’t, no one was going to get me with that trick because I would approach an apple found in my trick-or-treat bag like this: "An apple? What’s THIS doing in here?!" [*TOSSED*]

    >> . . .The Irish Halloween myth of Stingy Jack is about a vile drunkard who met the devil and trapped him in a tree.

    Ah, that’s interesting! No doubt the basis for one of my favorite old movies, “On Borrowed Time”.

    Your dual mention of Nosferatu immediately made me think of the Blue Oyster Cult song. I would definitely have posted the video for it on my blog had I thought of it earlier, but now I’m fully loaded with Halloween blog bit ideas and couldn’t possibly squeeze it in. But here’s a LINK to it, if you’re not familiar with it. Great song, and at the 4-minute mark, Buck Dharma (in my opinion probably the most underrated guitarist of the ‘Classic Rock’ era) lays down one of the most sinister sounding guitar leads of all time.

    And speaking of music, I was so pleased to learn in your earlier comment that you’ve been bit by the Blues bug! I specifically mentioned you in today’s post and included videos for a couple of essential Blues tunes by John Lee Hooker. Maybe you already know ‘em, but if not, I think you’re in for a (Halloween) treat.

    Very interesting post, as always, Julie!

    ~ D-FensDogg
    ‘Loyal American Underground’

  19. I dislike Halloween so much because of the commercialism of it. In my town, a lot of the trick-or-treaters are ADULTS. Ridiculous!

  20. Thanks for the history lesson Julie. I did not know about Dr. Best's findings.

    Our youngest is scared of all things Halloween so I'll be helping him lay low, but the other 2 kiddos have big plans for sugar conquests.

  21. Happy Halloween, Julie. I love Halloween, though I grew up celebrating The Day of the Dead. Día de los Muertos.

  22. I'm back to let you know there's something waiting for you on my blog.

  23. i just posted a similar piece on the history of halloween but i learned so much more from yours! cool info on so many aspects of this fascinating holiday - thanks for the great post~

  24. Hi, Julie! I just discovered your blog thanks to Carol Kilgore's awards over at her site, and I'm so glad I did! What an interesting post. I also love Halloween, and find the history of it fascinating. Love the picture of the cat too, I tried to get my cat to wear a costume this year and let's just say it didn't go well. ;)
    Great to meet you, and Happy Halloween!

  25. Great post filled with some interesting facts. My wife never wants to trick-or-treat at strangers because she believes everyone is poisoning the candy.

  26. I always check for Chuck in my closet at night. Chuckie is scawy.

    Best Halloween post ever!

  27. That turnip creeps me out! Great post :)

  28. Wow, I was so in love with the Celtic beginnings you talked about. . . until I got to the part about the black cat sacrifices. As a long-time owner of an adorable black cat, I was careful to keep her well-hidden on All Hallows Eve! Great post, Julie. (I never realized how much Hallmark had in common with Pope Gregory III !)

  29. Yonks--I find religions fascinating--the idea of what's "right" and what's "wrong" to believe in. You can get your pagan on around me anytime.

    Alex--I think our household will make the average in combo with yours. This year I even have a spooky bat projector.

    Renee--I think I like it because it is so stress-free--all about silliness and celebration. Some of the other holidays that involve family and huge formality can be overwhelming.

    B.E.--the candy is my nemesis, too.

    Delores--my kids are just now getting into it, so we have oodles of decor and candy

    Rusty--The little town I lived in as a kid had a big celebration at the Legion Club for children with a costume contest, apple bobbing, etc. Those are some of my favorite memories.

    DL--I think it's sad when people twist things for an agenda. I realize that the commercialism of holidays really ruins them, but if we try to remind our kids of the roots and of history, I think we could find an educational and uplifting meaning.

    Suze--I read that white cats were actually a more valuable commodity because they represented virginity. Go figure.

    Carol--Thanks! I love doing the research. I think I missed my calling.

    Sarah--If you can stomach all the slutty costumes and have fun, it's truly an awesome holiday.

    Raelyn--Happy Samhain to you as well. I think we'd all do well to follow basic love of mankind and the earth.

    Kelly--Sookie? That's awesome. But who did you pick, Bill or Eric??

    Sprinkles--Thanks! I love this holiday, so it was so much fun to dive into the history.

    L.G.--I really find pagan folklore to be so interesting--and then when it links up with modern day dogma, well even better.

    Laila--I think if I had to bob for apples to see my suitor, I'd just rather be surprised.

    LB--trying to make sure you're informed on all things creepy

    Trisha--I have been listening to them nonstop all weekend! I wish I would have seen them before Peter Steele passed.

    Steven--I will totally accept you as my music mentor. I have really enjoyed what you've posted--can't wait to check out today's!

    Maggie--the commercialism is terrible. I try to avoid that part and get immersed in the traditions. has a fascinating look into all the reported tainted candy cases. Unfortunately, I still am a little wary about it. Human nature to be suspicious, I guess.

    Maria--I read a little about that as well--such a beautiful tradition as well.

    Carol--you are too kind! Thank you for the award.

    Amanda--Thanks! I love the link to Persephone--myth and folklore is just fascinating. The oldest novelists in the world were the storytellers.

    Julie--good to meet you!! I tried to put reindeer antlers on my pets one year for Christmas. It was not successful. Cats seem to take offense to costuming.

    Danjor21--go to and read the full list of reported tainted candy cases. It was an eye opener!

    Lydia--just know, monsters do exist. They are just usually wearing really nice suits.

    Angela--It looks sort of mummy-like shrunken headish, doesn't it?

    Linda--well, the Celts sacrificed humans and horses too, supposedly because it was a great honor to be offered up to the gods. I think I might have just wanted to bake them a nice bundt cake instead.

  30. Interesting and very in-depth :) I'm a newb follower btw :)

  31. I totally remembered that i actually have turnips in my fridge. I totally should've carved one for tradition's sake.
    Especially if it turned out half as creepy as the one above

  32. Wow, long post, but interesting as always! I love reading your blog and learning something new in a fun way. Congratulations on your award from Carol Kilgore.

    We didn't spend much this year. Only enough for a pumpkin :).

  33. We have turnips . . . hadn't known people carved them, though!

    Happy Halloween! :)

  34. love the post...what a wealth of information. I heard some really interesting Halloween folklore on radio this morning as well. Loved the granny smith apples comment:)

  35. So interesting! I've never really looked up the history of Halloween.

    That Chuck Norris pic, btw, will haunt me forever.

    LOL! XD Happy Halloween!

  36. I want to go to Hell!

  37. Is that HELL sign from Michigan?? :)

  38. I love Halloween too, it is definitely my favorite holiday. I love your research, I have researched it before, but you amaze me with everything you find. I'm glad we don't use turnips, pumpkins are far more cheery and easy to manage. What did you dress up as?

  39. Did you know that the first penny candy individually packaged was the Tootsie Roll? That's it...all I got for Halloween trivia :)

    The origin of the Christo-pagan holidays has always fascinated me. Those early Popes were clearly the first political spin doctors :)

    Thanks for another fabu blog, lady!

    ooo ooo...a suggestion for future mythbusting posts: Elves


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