The real history of Halloween: From pagan rituals to candy carnage and aghoulish industry
When filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s E.T. wanted to phone home to his home planet, the little alien just repurposed the innards of various electronic equipment, like telephones and a turntable, to help him communicate with outer space. But that was make-believe. Reality can be much more unbelievable.
A long, long, time before that movie, the ancient Celts would gather on a specific fall night each year in hopes of communicating with their loved ones, too, only theirs were the dearly departed kind. Celts would toss bones from their dinner into fires (hence bonfires) and drink ale like it wouldn’t last (it wouldn’t — no refrigeration back in the old days of 10,000 to 600 B.C.)
They feasted and invited their (hopefully) heavenly ancestors to come to their party and carved jack-o-turnips to ward off any evil-doers who might be planning to mess with them in the coming year. They wore masks and costumes so as to be unrecognizable to those bad spirits who might decide to mess with them, anyway.
In a nutshell, that’s how we got Halloween.
On the Celtic calendar, Oct. 31 was akin to New Year’s Eve — the end of their old year and before the dreaded winter set in — and a time to celebrate. Most importantly, however, it marked a time when they believed the barrier between this world and the Otherworld (the home of the dead and supernatural) became an open portal for spirits to come back for an earthly visit, and a time when mortals could send messages to the Gods and the deceased. Think of it like email access to the other side for one night only.
They wore masks and costumes so as to be unrecognizable to those bad spirits who might decide to mess with them, anyway.
Sometimes, sacrifices could better their chances for a blessing — or a curse. It is said that to this day, the connection to the spirit world is stronger on Halloween than at any other time of the year.
The Celt’s Festival of the Dead was called Samhain, and I felt really smart recently for getting the reference while watching Halloween II, when Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) mentioned it to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). He declared, “Samhain isn't evil spirits. It isn't goblins, ghosts or witches. It's the unconscious mind. We're all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.”
Although the holiday originated as a religious event held by the pagan Celts, these days (a few thousand years of evolution later) it is observed by the average Joe (or Josephine) as a time to just have fun and let the kids have a guilt-free sugar high.
Father Gabriele Amorth, who has been the Vatican’s chief exorcist for the past 25 years, once said, “If English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that.”
Modern-day Halloween has morphed into a secular time to party, assume another (funny, sexy, scary, heroic) identity, eat candy, watch horror films and scream our lungs out at haunted attractions of the man-made variety.
Check out CultureMap's quick guide to the scariest Halloween houses in Houston.