Spooky, Scary Skeletons: Diving into the Origins of all Things Halloween
Tricks or treats? Supernatural literature expert explores different spooky season traditions and how they are portrayed in the media.
By: Giana Carrozza and Katherine Gianni
Happy Spooky Season! Get your pumpkin-flavored anything, cozy blankets, and Halloween costumes out because it is officially that time of year. For many, horror is also a favorite in the fall, including movies, shows, stories, and haunted houses. With Halloween just around the corner, we turned to Dr. Regina Hansen to answer our timely questions about some of the season’s most beloved traditions and the origins of All Hallows’ Eve.
Dr. Hansen is a professor at the Boston University College of General Studies where she teaches composition and rhetoric with a focus on philosophical issues, the fantastic, and popular culture. She also researches supernatural literature and film and religion in film and has written extensively on Halloween, monsters, horror movies, demons, and more. Dr. Hansen is the author of The Coming Storm, a young adult supernatural novel.
What is the history behind the origins of Halloween?
The further back in time you go the harder it is to draw clear connections. However, we do know that the word Halloween (Hallowe’en) is a version of “All Hallows Eve”, the Eve of All Saints Day. All Saints Day and All Souls Day are still celebrated on November 1st and 2nd respectively. In Catholicism, All Saints Day honors those who died in a state of grace. All Souls Day is when Catholics pray for the souls in Purgatory.
Medieval practices surrounding these holidays involved dressing in disguise and going door asking for offerings, as well as ringing bells and lighting candles to honor the dead and scare away evil spirits. Many people believe these practices go further back to the pre-Christian Celts whose harvest festival of Samhain also involved making offerings to the dead, along with bonfires, etc. Halloween was probably brought to North America by immigrants from Ireland and parts of Scotland, and by the early 20th Century had been tamed into more of a secular family holiday. From there many groups embraced the opportunity to dress up and be someone else — college students, LGBTQIA folks, and many others. The holiday has become many things to many people. In Catholic and Anglican churches, All Saints and All Souls Days are still observed with solemnity.
Is Halloween only celebrated in the U.S.? If not, how do other countries celebrate the holiday?
Halloween as a big deal is mostly celebrated in Canada and the US, but other countries do celebrate it, some because they are carrying on their own traditions and some because they imported modern American traditions. Countries with Catholic heritage all celebrate some version of All Saints/All Souls but it is more about honoring the dead, putting flowers on graves, baking certain kinds of food etc. There are also related holidays like the Day of the Dead in Mexico, which combines Catholic and Indigenous traditions.
How did Halloween candy and costumes become a popular way to celebrate the holiday in the U.S.?
Dressing in disguise was part of Halloween at least since the Middle Ages, although dressing as a specific kind of character (a witch, ghost, etc) is much more recent. Commercial costumes and candy for Halloween are an early to mid 20th Century thing.
Why do some people actively choose to celebrate Halloween while others don’t?
Countries that embraced the Reformation were less likely to keep traditions that they viewed as non-Biblical. That included Halloween. Many Conservative Christians see Halloween as a dangerous holiday associated with the Devil. Other people think it’s just for kids. Others just aren’t interested.
How has Halloween influenced pop culture, or “spooky culture”? Has the holiday’s popularity increased over the years?
I think pop culture has actually influenced Halloween celebrations, because its supernatural and death related aspects can be linked to horror and the Gothic. Also, as a festival that happens in the fall, when it is getting darker and things are dying, Halloween seems the right time to read scary books and watch scary movies. The Halloween movie franchise actually helped to cement that link between the holiday and spookiness/horror.
From your perspective, what factors have contributed to the rise of true crime/horror in the media?
That’s a big question. I’m going to separate horror from true crime. There are many different subgenres of horror from ghost stories to slasher and so much in between. The reason someone likes a ghost story may be quite different from why someone watches a slasher film or reads a cosmic horror story. In general, horror helps us process our own fears and channel them to safe places. The storyteller Laura Simms has said that listening to scary stories allows us to face our fears, do things we would usually be afraid to do (like go down to the dark basement, etc) and have the entire scary experience then come out the other side safely. Basically, we face our fears within a safe space. I think that’s true of horror, too. At the same time, with supernatural horror in particular, it allows us to live for a space within a world where ghosts and magic exist, where evil is a force than can be fought and sometimes vanquished. How does that connect to true crime? I’m going to point you to an article that explains the issue well. Full disclosure, my sister wrote it.
Do you believe the way(s) Halloween is portrayed in the media accurately reflects the holiday’s origins?
I don’t think we know the exact origins of Halloween. Halloween is a folk tradition, made up of many elements — ancient, religious, American, capitalistic, literary, cinematic, and even personal traditions. We can notice how certain practices resonate with the past, even the very distant past, but there is no right way to celebrate the holiday. That’s why it’s such a great holiday.
What are some historical Halloween traditions? Do they differ greatly from the traditions we practice today?
The jack-o-lantern is probably the most famous. Part of the pre-American Halloween tradition would be to carry a turnip with a burning coal inside, carved with a face. When the tradition came over here, it was pretty soon discovered that pumpkins were plentiful and just much easier to carve. So the jack’o’ lantern as a pumpkin is definitely an American contribution to the celebration. As an aside, I was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, which has a strong Celtic heritage. One time I posted a picture on Facebook of a turnip jack’o’lantern I made, very proud of having made an old school, centuries old, kind of jack’o’lantern. Then I got a comment from my Uncle Stewart, who is 80, saying that turnip jack’ o’ lanterns were his favorite part of Halloween on the farm where he and my Dad grew up. So, that’s what I mean about folk practices. They survive in all kinds of ways.
For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Dr. Regina Hansen on Twitter at @ReginaMHansen. For research, thought leadership, and information from the Boston University College of General Studies, follow @BUCGS.