Despite similarities between Hollywood and Halloween, they are not related words. And despite the annual rush of horror movies, Hollywood did not invent Halloween either. Movie-wise, this is a disappointing Halloween. But for the generational retread of Stephen King’s, “Carrie”, there are ghastly few horror movies being released this year. I guess people are terrified enough watching C-SPAN.
Most of what we know about Halloween comes from Welsh and Irish legends handed down from their Celtic ancestors who lived peacefully in England for a thousand years before being rolled over by the Romans around the time of Christ. Gaelic poets and storytellers passed on legends about leprechauns and Bravehearts and folk heroes like Jack-of-the-Lantern in whose memory we carve up scary pumpkins today.
Creepy pumpkin faces commemorate Stingy Jack, a legendary Irish scoundrel who outwitted Beelzebub, extracting the Devil’s vow that he’d never take Jack’s soul. Trouble was, when Jack finally died, Heaven wouldn’t have him either. His terrifying spirit was left to search forever for a place to rest his soul. Jack lit his way with a lump of eternally-burning coal in a hollowed-out turnip, fashioned into a lantern.
Jack O’ Lantern wandered the countryside, scaring the potatoes out of simple Irish folk, who took to carving horrible faces in turnips and placing them in their doors and windows to scare him right back. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine of 1845 discovered New World pumpkins made a better canvas for their fanciful folk art. Not only that, but pumpkins could easily become pies, while turnips? Turnips will always stay turnips.
Early on, Irish priests were called Druids and were the community organizers of the day. Everyone believed that All Hallows Eve was a free-for-all, a night when the undead tried to steal the souls of the living. If they stole someone’s soul, they got to live in the body rent-free for a year before passing peacefully into the great beyond.
Druids weren’t the sort to take this supernatural invasion lying down. They put out their hearth fires and let their houses go cold, dark, and hopefully uninviting, to these roving souls. Townsfolk dressed like demons, hobgoblins and witches ran shrieking through the villages, playing pranks and setting fires in their wake to frighten away the undead and chase them back underground.
It wasn’t all fun and games, however. Any townsman or woman suspected, or even simply imagined, by his neighbor to be “possessed” could be burned alive on the spot as a lesson to any thieving spirits that might be lurking around. It was such a common occurrence that they coined the term “Bone Fire” to describe the event. Today we commemorate the term as bonfires that hopefully do not include any bones.
The Romans outlawed human sacrifice and added calming elements of their own fall festivals, playing games with harvest fruits like Bobbing for Apples. Today it’s hard to imagine sticking your face in a tub of water along with a bunch of unmarried and unwashed acquaintances but originally it was a serious event that predicted and usually precipitated the next marriage in the community. The first one to get a bite of the apple would be the one that marries next. Assuming they recover from any waterborne illness they picked up in the tub.
Go ahead and do it. Halloween is the one time you can dress up and look like a total idiot, taking comfort in the fact that the guy next to you looks worse.
And try not to get your soul snatched next week.