Arts and Entertainment

A Haunting History

Reviewing the history of Halloween and reflecting on it currently.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s that time of year again—houses are guarded by poorly made jack-o’-lanterns, “This is Halloween” is playing on everyone’s Spotify playlist, and fake cobwebs and plastic skeletons adorn suburban homes. The moment the clock hits 12:00 a.m. on October 1, a frenzy overtakes the general population and we’re filled with an urge to watch “Rocky Horror Picture Show” for the hundredth time, eat candy corn until our stomach turns inside-out, and read some Stephen King novels. Why?

Because it’s Halloween, damnit!

This holiday has become a staple of Western culture. But contrary to popular belief, its origins don’t lie in commercialization and overindulgence (though that’s very much what it has become), but rather the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated over 2,000 years ago and on November 1.

For the Celts, who lived in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, the day marked the end of harvest and the dread that came with the start of winter—which was largely associated with death. The night before, October 31, was believed to be the day where the line between the living and dead blurred, and restless ghosts would return and wreak havoc. Their presence was also believed by the Celts to grant Celtic priests and Druids—whose predictions served vital to the Celts—greater foresight into the future, as they provided a source of comfort during the desolate winter.

To celebrate Samhain, Druids would construct massive bonfires, where Celts would sacrifice crops and animals to pay tribute to Celtic deities and dress up in costumes, in which they would attempt to predict each other’s futures. Their costumes were typically animal skins, and the hope was that they’d be able to ward off malicious spirits and be unrecognizable as human.

B​y 43 AD, however, the Roman Empire had managed to conquer most of Celtic territory. The two pagan cultures blended and the Roman Empire eventually began to incorporate the Celtic celebration of Samhain.

Fast-forward nearly 600 years ago and a mass conversion of Rome to Christianity. Pope Boniface dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to all of Christian martyrs and established the All Martyrs Day in the Western Church on May 13, 609 AD, later moving the feast from martyrs to saints and from May 13 to November 1.

Once the Christianity spread into Celtic regions in the 800s, the two cultures merged and replaced the older Celtic rites. So in 1000 AD, the church established All Souls’ Day to commemorate the dead, November 2. Celebrated a day after All Saints’ Day and in a similar manner as Samhain, costumes eventually became of saints, angels, and devils.

Another name for All Saints’ Day was Allhallows or Allhallowmas, and the night preceding the first was called All Hallows Eve, the title eventually evolving into Halloween.

As the age of exploration moved to America, so did this tradition. It was seldom practiced in colonial New England and other Protestant communities due to strict religiosity, but in the South, Halloween flourished as European ethnic groups began sharing stories of the dead, dancing, singing, and celebrating mischief-making in the middle of the 1800s.

It still hadn’t been celebrated everywhere in the country, but in the latter half of the 1800s, when the Irish began to arrive, the celebration of Halloween became popularized. English and Irish traditions began to be incorporated and the tradition of “trick-or-treating” emerged. The late nineteenth century saw a movement to mold Halloween into something more about community and strengthening ties with neighbors. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and neighbors to promote the less grotesque aspects of Halloween, and the holiday became more secular. As the religious undertones began to dissipate, mass appeal grew.

Along with an increase in treats, the late 1800s saw a rise in tricks, as pranking became established—tipping over outhouses, egging homes, and acts of vandalism. Halloween began to gain traction during the Roaring ‘20s, and later into the ‘30s, as Halloween tricks began to increase in severity. The population was encouraged to indulge in the less dangerous aspects. Trick-or-treating was revived as parents began to provide children with candy in fear of being the brunt of practical jokes, and Halloween parties became a usual occurrence. As individual communities began to spend money on more candy and decor, Halloween became commercialized. In fact, Americans spend more than $6 billion each Halloween, making it the second largest commercialized holiday in the United States.