Halloween has evolved over the centuries, taking on the skin of the culture around it. In some parts of Europe, All Hallow’s Eve is spent around bonfires sending fireworks up into the sky, though many have ceased celebrating anything but Guy Fawkes’ Day. In Mexico, Latin America, and Spain, Dia de los Muertos marks the day beloved deceased ones return to earth until All Souls’ Day, November 2nd. They spend this time in reflection and honor of the dead with celebrations and gatherings. In North America, we continue to celebrate Halloween much the way it has been since its origin in Ireland.
The Celtics in the British Isles as early as the 9th century began celebrating their New Year on what they called Samhain. This marked halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, and the end of the harvest season. Because their days began and ended at sunset, the celebrations began at nightfall October 31, and went on until sunset November 1. They celebrated with bonfires and feasts and even such things as bobbing for fruit. However, much like in Latin America, the Celts believed that the doorways between worlds grew thin on that eve, and the dead could break through to mingle with the living.
With this fear, the Celts believed they could ward off evil by lighting bonfires, carving scary faces into gourds and pumpkins that they’d carved the center out of and placing a candle inside, and by wearing spooky masks. With the history of Halloween, it’s easy to see where our North American traditions come from. But how has literature affected our ways of celebrating?
We must first begin with the classics. Books like Dracula by Bram Stoker and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as well as the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe are clear influences of our view on Halloween. Anything spooky, horrific, or bone-chilling became something reserved for the scariest night of the year. With such works, we began to associate the macabre with fright night, dressing up as–you guessed it–Dracula and Frankenstein, and decorating with Mr. Poe’s raven.
The gothic aspect of these works drove North America into proverbial fog-laden cemeteries infested with bats and creaking coffins, clanking skeleton bones as their symphony. The Eve no longer held only candy and bobbing for apples, but a deep dive into the macabre. The populace looked for Victor Frankenstein’s monster lurking behind the tombstones, Dracula’s bloodlust haunting them from behind their neighbor’s door, and all the while Poe’s raven would quoth nevermore.
As time progressed, slightly more terrifying works began showing up in literature. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving to name a few. Literature slipped further into the darkness and so did Halloween. With the rise of all-out horror works such as Stephen King’s It, and The Shining, Halloween began incorporating more and more ways to scare ourselves and our friends. Instead of an eve that we scare away the things that go bump in the night, we began to welcome them in.
Many of the aforementioned great works were even made into horror movies now distinctly watched on Halloween. The famed store that haunts your local abandoned warehouse, Spirit Halloween, even boasts a curtained side filled with the terrors that come alive from these books. Clowns with knives, decrepit goblins, bloodied haunting children, and all the goodies to make fright night more eerie such as faux blood, chains, and rusted axes.
We’ve traveled a dark road since the Celts feared the land of the dead would bleed into the land of the living. Certainly there is still a place for that bucket of water with apples bobbing up like the dead, the trick-or-treating, and sweet pumpkin costumes. But there is no denying the effect gothic, horror, and psychological realism literature has had on the way we celebrate Halloween.