Eerie figures, glowing pumpkin grimaces and ghastly ghosts... As winter nears, we start looking forward to the creepy, spooky and notoriously boisterous festival we call “Halloween”. As well as the question of how this festival began, we ask ourselves why we enjoy feeling scared and which customs underlie this phenomenon.
Halloween, as one of the most important Celtic festivals, stems from a tradition in Ireland that is over 2,000 years old. Irish immigrants brought this festival to America at the end of the 19th century, and from there, it was later brought back to the rest of Europe. Today, almost everyone knows that on the 31st of October, the evening before All Saints’ Day, the streets outside our doors are transformed into a stream of murderous vampires, howling werewolves and corpse-like undead. These scary creatures not only send a shiver down your spine but also demand treats in the form of chocolate bars, sweets and confectionery. Once the “trick-or-treaters” have eaten their offerings, many dentists will probably be happy to see their waiting rooms so full!
From the Celtic fire to the commercial creepfest
In contrast to the sweets and trick-or-treating, the original “All Hallows’ Eve” (the evening before All Saints’ Day) has little to do with the commercialised festival we know today. Even before the Halloween anthems “Highway to Hell” and “This Is Halloween”, there were events from history that we can thank for our current Halloween. Historical documents and archaeological finds have proven that as far back as 2,000 years ago, Irish hills were used as the location for Celtic New Year’s bonfires. According to Celtic lore, our Halloween festival stems from “Samhain”, the Irish harvest and New Years’ festivals. On the 31st of October, a day which marked the start of winter on the 1st of November, the Irish celebrated the harvest and the start of a new year, according to the ancient Celtic calendar. This occasion – which represented the beginning of the cold season – was, for the Celts, synonymous with the passage to the realm of the dead. On this day, the barrier between the land of the living and the dead would supposedly disappear. According to the story, this wasn’t only to frighten people but also allowed them the chance to say goodbye to the deceased.
Irish customs to protect against evil spirits
To deter the devil and evil spirits, inhabitants of the villages and towns in Ireland would disguise themselves. This let them walk through the night unnoticed and, hopefully, avoid being dragged into the realm of the dead. The ‘turning back’ was the journey people made from door to door, where they would say prayers or sing songs for the deceased. As thanks for the so-called “soulings”, they would receive a loaf of bread with dried fruit, or “soul cake”, which is still one of the most well-known Irish customs of the festival. Another culinary tradition is the “barmbrack”, a cake which, with a bit of luck, has a coin or ring hidden inside it. If you found a ring in your slice of cake, you’d soon fall in love, and if you got a slice with the coin, you’d have a year without money worries. Many of these customs are still practised today by Irish people all over the world.
Pumpkin lanterns: The legend of the jack-o’-lantern
The most classic symbol of Halloween is, and remains, the pumpkin. The glowing carved grimaces on many pumpkin heads are seen so often it’s hard to imagine the holiday without them. Many people believe that these faces are intended to ward off evil spirits, and this assumption is not entirely wrong. Historically, however, this custom has a slightly different origin. A drunken Jack had spent his whole life tricking the devil so that he would never have to go to hell. However, when he died, he was denied access to the gates of heaven as well. As a result, he has been forced to wander between worlds, with no peace to be found, ever since. The devil did, however, give him a burning piece of coal to light his way. Jack placed this piece of coal into a turnip to use as a lantern – the saving light for his destiny. When Samhain travelled to America with Irish immigrants, the custom of using a turnip as a coal lantern was replaced with the more country-specific pumpkin. Symbolically, this light still stands for the day on which the gates between the land of the dead and the living are opened in both directions.
Scary fun from young to old – the psychological phenomenon of fear
Finally, we have to ask ourselves, where does our fascination with horror come from and why do some people get more scared than others? In an interview with the psychologist Peter Walschburger, Spektrum magazine in Germany took a closer look at the phenomenon of fear. Dr. Walschburger explained that a safe household and a secure childhood determine a lot in life, and that early child development has a massive impact on people’s fear. For example, adolescents who have a sheltered childhood, more quickly feel the need to use the safety of their home to live out their thirst for adventure and thrills by watching horror films. The safer they feel, and the stronger the bond they have with their parents, the sooner excitement and fear in situations can be processed into fun. In 2019, Aarhus University in Denmark, according to the German news station Die Welt, also began its own research into the topic of fear. They have been able to establish that experiences such as shared scares and surviving danger in a group are not only fun but also good for bonding.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you spend your Halloween going trick-or-treating with your children, visiting a chamber of horrors, or making paranormal contact with the dead. The commercial festival we know today is based on ancient Celtic traditions and, as the saying goes, “every legend is rooted in truth”. Are you scared yet?