Halloween’s haunted history


With October 31st rapidly creeping up on us, here’s a look at some of the traditions of Halloween, from the old to the new…

Although the origins of Halloween are disputed, its history is linked to various festivals held around the end of October in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. For example, the Celtic festival of Samhain, the name given to the festival observed by the Gaels and Celts in the British Isles, was held to symbolise the changing of the seasons, and roughly translates as “summer’s end”. Common Halloween symbols such as pumpkins and scarecrows also connect it to seasonal change. Linking these festivals to modern celebrations of Halloween, there was a belief among the Gaels that, at this time of year, dead people’s spirits could come alive and walk among the living. The idea of dressing up in costumes came about as a way of avoiding harm from these spirits.

Despite its British roots, Halloween is generally a much bigger deal in the United States than in the United Kingdom. In fact, many of the customs and games associated with Halloween originate in the US.

The most famous game associated with Halloween is trick-or-treating. Children dress up in costume, going from house to house asking for treats or money from neighbours with the question, “Trick or Treat?”. If the children are not given a present, they can play a trick on the house that refused them.

Another traditional Halloween game is ‘apple bobbing’. A container is filled with water and one or more apples float on the surface. Contestants take turns trying to catch an apple with their teeth whilst holding their hands behind their backs.
In the past, the game was played as a reminder of witchcraft trials in the Middle Ages, the apples representing the accused women. At such trials, a woman would be tied to a chair and repeatedly ducked into the water. With chilling logic, if she drowned, she was declared innocent. If she survived, she was declared a witch and burnt at the stake.

Books, movies and TV
Regardless of its history, for most people modern Halloween celebrations no longer represent the symbolic ending of the summer months or the remembrance of medieval witchcraft. They are simply a good excuse for scaring the living daylights out of people.

The imagery of modern Halloween may have been derived in part from works of literature (such as the novels Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as the stories of American authors Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving) but it is at the movies that Halloween and its modern concern with scaring us has been most frequently depicted.

Hollywood tends to use October 31st as an excuse to plunder audiences with Halloween-themed movies of varying quality and scariness but there have been some which have risen above the usual fare.

Probably the most famous example is John Carpenter’s Halloween, which managed to terrify cinemagoers of the 1970s, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the film’s bogieman, Michael Myers, wore a mask allegedly representing the face of William Shatner (of Captain Kirk and Star Trek fame). Unfortunately, after the first film, the multitude of sequels descended into farce as the un-killable Myers returned from the dead time and time again, with unintentionally comical results.

Perhaps the best modern reference point for Halloween, though, comes from everybody’s favourite TV family, The Simpsons. Each annual Halloween Special consists of three short stories which parody both classic horror films, such as Night of the Living Dead, and Halloween-associated history and literature, while throwing in a little bit of spookiness for good measure.



  • Blood-curdling!

    Posted by Claire Pye on October 28th 2011

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