by Pauline Kerr
“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us!” – old Scottish prayer
There is something about Halloween that goes much deeper than small children dressed as princesses and comic book heroes, collecting candy from smiling neighbours.
Despite central heating, warm coats and an ample supply of food, we sense a certain … disquiet … in the air in the days leading up to Halloween. We notice the hours of light growing shorter and feel the sun getting weaker. There is a chill in the air, and although we know spring will return on schedule in a few short but nasty months, that feeling hints at a time when our ancestors were not too sure about the process, and considered the possibility the vicious bite of winter would never end.
The reality was that for many, it did not. In northern Europe, where our Halloween customs originated, winter was a season of hunger and death. Disease in crowded, smoky huts was rampant. Food stored for times of scarcity could rot, and supplies often failed to outlast the snow.
Hunger affected others besides humans – animal predators such as wolves, made brave by starvation and darkness, ventured dangerously close to settlements.
The people lit bonfires to represent the sun in all its warmth and power, or perhaps to ward off the spirits of darkness, and carried lanterns carved from discarded turnips or whatever was handy. They might offer sacrifices and prayers to ancient deities, and at the very least, took solace in the company of others gathered near the fires for one last time before winter set in with a vengeance.
While elders performed rituals according to their religious beliefs, be it the Gaelic festival Samhain, early Christian All Hallow’s Eve or some earlier predecessor of both, and kept the massive bonfires burning until dawn, one can easily imagine what the younger people were up to. As young folk have always tended to do, they would have poked fun at what scared them.
A combination of hormones, youthful bravado and possibly some home-brewed liquid courage, would have led them to laugh at the way the candle flames transformed leafless trees into contorted monsters. They might have donned costumes or at least disguised themselves to avoid parental wrath, played pranks on each other and their elders (and no doubt blamed the mayhem on ghosts), told scary stories in the hope of making someone screech in terror, and perhaps made off with the cakes and liquid refreshments left on doorsteps for visiting spirits.
In other words, very little has changed over the years.
Today’s trick-or-treaters dress as characters from modern myths and legends – Harry Potter and friends, Disney princesses, Batman and pirates. Some of the older kids might run amok with toilet paper, while their younger siblings collect enough candy to keep them on a sugar high for weeks. Suburban hedges and flower gardens sprout flocks of plastic bats, garlands of fake spider webs and armies of inflatable ghosts.
It goes without saying that on some local street this Halloween, a couple of kids will persuade themselves they really did see an otherworldly demon by the deserted old shack they have been told to stay away from, and they will arrive home, eyes wide, faces pale and hearts pounding. Some adult will dress up like Beetlejuice to hand out candy and will get so carried away with the spooky sound effects and animated decorations that the trick-or-treaters will be secretly glad dad insisted on coming along with them – and at the same time vow to come to this guy’s house armed with toilet paper and other supplies next Halloween. Some basement horror film marathon will end with 10 kids piled into one bed, pretending to be asleep.
And perhaps some ancient spirit of Halloweens long past will smile in ghoulish glee as it darts among the wisps of mist and rustling leaves, dancing in the eerie shadows of moonlit tree branches, enjoying, watching …