A holiday celebrating the dead by any other name…
Halloween has been celebrated in some form, and under many different names, for centuries. There isn’t a single theory about the genesis of Halloween that stands as absolute, but some carry more urban myth clout than others.
The theory that seems to get the most play in popular culture pins Halloween firmly on the Celts. Their Samhain (“end of summer”) festival celebrated the harvest with food and drink. Harvest celebrations do tend to focus on food and drink though, so without a strong connection to spiritual elements, it’s hard to lay Halloween at the feet of Celtic tradition.
Looking for a spiritual basis in an end of season celebration points us towards the Catholic Church. All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2, are the most likely starting place. These days were dedicated to the dead—the somewhat slightly sinful ones—who were believed to be wallowing in Purgatory, and required an extra leg up to heaven. Their passage into the next world required many familiar-sounding rituals: vigils, special garments, torchlight processions, bell ringing, and mass celebrated in the name of the dead. After moving All Saints Day to the last day of October, it was renamed All Hallows (an archaic English word for “saint” is “hallow”). This incarnation of the festival stretched over days, through to November 2, All Souls Day.
Around the Protestant Reformation, things shifted. The rituals of All Hallow’s Eve and All Souls Day were forced underground and became family or community celebrations that included bonfires and midnight prayers for the dead. It may be that Protestants witnessing these midnight meetings mistook them for witchcraft, creating a link between the celebration and witches.
Without a strict connection to the church, people were free to establish their own customs and develop their own meanings for the activities of Halloween. In the absence of the guiding spiritual principles of the Catholic Church, those spirits out on the loose were feared and seen as more malevolent.
Revelers also borrowed liberally from the traditions of different celebrations throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, and Europe. Those included guising (dressing up) to outwit evil spirits, fortune telling, and mumming (begging for food door-to-door). This was the breeding ground for our modern day Halloween antics.
As the taste for the macabre deepened, ghoulish characters entered popular literature with the birth of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. And so Halloween continues to grow and change today. Its provenance remains a bone of contention for Christians and Neo-Pagans, both of whom would like to claim the seeds of the rites as their own. Halloween (and the Halloween origin-story myth) has been shaped to serve a variety of religious and cultural needs.
That’s where it came from. Where we are today looks very different.
Until the early 1930s, Halloween was an adult celebration featuring fortune telling, pranks, and harvest celebrations. Then the focus shifted to children who, over the next 40 years, ruled the night out in their costumes, demanding candy.
In 1970, the focus shifted back to adult celebrations. While children still dressed up and bobbed for apples, businesses saw dollar signs in catering to adults who were intent on recapturing their own childhoods, albeit with a ghoulish spin.
Decorations dot the lawns in October now, so elaborate that Christmas is beginning to pale in comparison.
Costumes have become a major investment in time and energy for adults who use the night to celebrate with friends. Parents accompanying their children door-to-door—as well as some of the people behind those doors—use the opportunity to dress up as well.
On the party circuit, a costume can become a status symbol. For the wealthy, theatrical supply stores rent intricate pieces, sometimes used as group costumes for wealthy cliques attending high-end private parties. Ornate, delicate pieces may serve the grand entrance and early evening mingling, while second and third costumes are pulled into duty as things become more raucous.
We’ve come a long way from the bed sheet with eyeholes cut in the middle.
More affordable costumes fly off the racks almost immediately when they hit the stores in early October. There are many excellent costumes that come from the home seamstress, or anyone with instructions from the internet and a glue gun. We’ve come a long way from the bed sheet with eyeholes cut in the middle. Costuming has also reflected our changing mores and taken a turn into The Sexy Anything territory.
Halloween and haunted attractions have become billion-dollar-a-year economic drivers. Whether you buy or make your own fun, there are endless options when it comes to creating a cool Halloween. Let’s take a lurching step to our right, off the beaten path, and look at some of the things you didn’t know you needed for All Hallow’s Eve. (Disclaimer: the following are some of my personal favourites, listed without regard to popular or industry accolades, box office receipts, or what’s likely to fill the dance floor. Heck, some of these choices might actually hurt your popularity, but what better time to embrace your inner weird?)
For your viewing pleasure.
Like the frights but can’t stand horror movies featuring demons and devils?
Consider the crossover genre, Agri Horror, with titles like Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006), Black Sheep (2006), and ThanksKilling (2009).
Prefer your villains inanimate? Redefine the way that rubber meets the road with Rubber (2011).
Want to scratch your horror movie itch with true patriot love? Canadian filmmakers have produced some of the finest horror of our time: Dead Ringers (1988), Videodrome (1983), Scanners (1981).
Canada also produced one of the gnarliest werewolf tales of our generation: Ginger Snaps (2000), Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004), and Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004). You haven’t seen a sexy werewolf transformation until you’ve seen Katharine Isabelle grow fur.
The Soska sisters (Jen and Sylvia) of Vancouver brought us American Mary (2012), a role written for Isabelle that pulls its horror from the world of extreme body modification. The Soskas also helmed this year’s See No Evil 2, which went straight to DVD on October 21.
And, of course, the FX Network has just returned with the latest installment of American Horror Story, Freakshow. Carrie Bradshaw (Sex in the City, another brand of horror altogether) said it best: “There’s nothing scarier than a clown.” These people are not messing around.
Halloween snacks, half-baked (or is that for the half-baked?).
Not up for Martha Stewart’s pristine Bedevilled Eggs, Goblin Flatbreads, Cauldron Curry, or Spinach Ricotta Skulls (who EATS like that)? For a more authentic, street approach, roaches headline the Halloween buffet table:
Stuffed Roaches (an appetizer involving dates and cream cheese)
Roach Puree (dip featuring walnuts and garlic)
Chocolate Cockroaches (with pecans and dates)
Munch-A-Roaches (not your everyday Rice Krispy treat)
Halloween Charred Roaches (cocoa spiced nuts)
Cockroach Clusters (chocolate covered nest cookies)
A pop culture examination of all things Halloweenie wouldn’t be complete without music. If the “Monster Mash” makes you murderous, and not in a good way, Canadian indie artists take a stab at some new seasonal offerings:
“Monster Hospital” – Metric
“Things That Scare Me” – Neko Case
“Graveyard” – Feist
“Romance To The Grave” – Broken Social Scene
And for many, the best part of Halloween: the guise. I’m not giving The Sexy Nurse another drop of ink, so what are some of the coolest ideas we’ll see hit the streets this year? (Arguably, these are for adults, but they’d work for the kiddies, too.)
A bottle of Sriracha
The Ice Bucket Challenge
Frozen’s Queen Elsa
Orange is the New Black inmate
Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow
The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen
The Walking Dead’s Daryl Dixon (right?)
The Avengers’ Captain America
And finally, in the category of Too Soon, the Ebola costume