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Halloween is an international celebration1 which occurs on the evening of 31 October. In the past it has also been known as All Hallow's Eve, being the day before All Saint's Day on 1 November. The holiday evolved from pagan and early Christian influences in the European continent, and was wondrously perverted and commercialised by Americans.
Pagans call it Samhain, the final feast of the year after the harvests. This is the time when the world was believed to die, with the promise that it would be reborn next spring. Halloween has, admittedly, taken on some dark connotations over the centuries, but that's predominantly due to the input of cultures that believe when we die, it's over. To those who see death more as a change and less as something to fear, Halloween can be a lot of fun.
A Scottish tradition claims Halloween is a time when witches, devils, fairies and other imps of air and earth celebrate. The idea of this either scares people, or ticks them off because they haven't been invited to the party. In the past, some believed that those born on All Hallows' Eve were granted the gift of 'double sight', and had influence over spirits.
Trick or Treat
For children, Halloween is an opportunity to dress up in masks and elaborate costumes with ugly hair, bushy eyebrows, big smelly feet, and long dirty fingernails. Children then walk around their neighbourhoods (with adult supervision, of course), knock on doors and are greeted by people who pretend to be scared of these ghoulish appartions and fill the children's bags with chocolate, sweets and other goodies.
At least that used to be how things were done at Halloween - of late, times have changed. In the USA, popularity for Halloween appears to be waning, due to some evil strangers in neighbourhoods, stories of razor blades in apples and candies laced with hallucinogens causing many parents to think twice before allowing their children to go Trick Or Treating. Alternatives to Trick Or Treating include costume parties at churches and houses of friends, but it's just not the same. In the UK, conversely, the habit of sending children Trick Or Treating seems finally to be catching on, with more and more groups of children being observed wandering around the streets in fancy dress on 31 October.
How It All Began
Halloween started as a Celtic pagan holiday, much like many holidays we now equate with Judeo-Christian feast days. For most holidays, the Christian Church replaced the pagan elements with their own. Well, they were in charge during the Dark Ages, and felt entitled.
So anyway, during the reign of the Roman Empire, Pomona Day was celebrated. Pomona was a woman somehow related to the goddess Venus and she was into gardening. She had many suitors but disregarded them. Why the Romans had a day set aside for such a stick in the mud, probably had something to do with them needing another excuse to get drunk and not do any work, which was in the end why the Roman Empire fell. Every day was a holiday for them and they stopped getting around to working. Well, after you've conquered the entire known world, there's nowhere else to go but down.
Meanwhile, the superstitious followers of Celtic traditions in what is now western Europe were concerned about their harvests in the autumn, and they also believed this was the time of the year when their sun god was captured by Samhain, who ruled the world of the dead. This, they believed, was why things got colder all the sudden, and 1 November was to them the start of winter and of a new year, the old one having been ended because Samhain was being a jerk2.
The evening before their new year, the Celts believed Samhain gathered all the dead together to party and give unprepared living people a hard time. Evil ghosts would take to inhabiting black cats and other animals.
This meant certain death for anyone still alive, so the druids and the leaders of the Celtic tribes came up with a plan. This plan was meant to convince the villagers that all the evil spirits were sufficiently scared away for the next several months until the sun god came back. It was also supposed to be a massive blowout party so people worried about such things as sun gods being captured by princes of darkness would forget their troubles and get exceedingly drunk.
So the druids and leaders of the Celtic tribes would start massive fires as the moon rose in the sky, offer sacrifices to the gods, tell everyone to dress up in ugly costumes that would scare off any evil spirits that happened by, drink a lot, and then the following morning they would give embers of the fires to the people of the village, who in turn went home to light their own fires. In this way, it was believed all the Celtic homes would be kept warm and protected from Samhain and his rowdy deadhead friends.
Eventually the Romans invaded the Celts, and their social cultures were intermingled. The Samhain festival and Pomona Day got mixed up until no one knew what they were celebrating exactly. Still, the fires were warm and the alcohol was intoxicating so no one really cared.
After the Roman Empire fell, the Christian Church took over and began to celebrate The Solemnity of All Saints on 1 November, and therefore named the night before All Hallows' Eve, the evening before All Saints' Day. So to Christians, Halloween is to All Saints' Day what Christmas Eve is to the birthday of Jesus, their Saviour.
Notice that we're still celebrating dead people here. Christianity just limited it to good dead people and said to hell with everyone else. Still, the actual celebrations of bonfires and drinking heavily and dressing up in silly costumes continued. Those who are really into partying never really care why they're partying unless it makes good small talk while you're mingling. The Christians were satisfied, and everyone else could get drunk and frighten each other with scary stories, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Ah yes, Scary Tales. Halloween is the ideal time for ghost stories and the like. Telling ghost stories at night around a campfire with family and friends is a fun way to enjoy the holiday.
Any time of the year is a good time of the year for horror films and cheesy B-movies. Some recommended screamers by your fellow h2g2 field researchers include the following, and while you may not find them all scary, they're guaranteed to be fun and should help you get into the mood for this harrowing holiday:
- Hammer Horror Films
- The Crow: City of Angels
- Mystery Science Theater 3000
- The Blair Witch Project
- Rocky Horror Picture Show
- The Mummy
Or you could sit around the house hoping to be invited to a costume party. Better yet host one of your own! Invite everyone you know to your house around Halloween, and before you know it your house will be overrun with witches, gorillas, vampires, werewolves, fairies, and other things that go bump in the night. You could go dressed as a nun with a bloody hammer sticking out of your skull. If you're really close to somebody, you can get a really big turtleneck shirt and the two of you can dress up as Siamese twins.
While not necessarily scary, reading comic books about green superheroes might give you some ideas for costumes to those many costume parties you hope to be invited to. A highly recommended comic book series for getting into the Halloween spirit is the cancelled Sandman series from DC's Vertigo comics.
Perhaps the best kind of music to listen to this time of year is Harpsichord Music because it has that eerie and disturbing feel to it. Also, the sound of church bells are ominous and foreboding. Then there's more conventional tunes like The Monster Mash and Michael Jackson's Thriller which are usually overplayed incessantly this time of the year by Morning Radio DJs.
It's enough to make your skin crawl.
There's never truly an end of things to do at Halloween. In the month of October, fake haunted houses suddenly appear in many neighbourhoods in America, sponsored by various charities who will scare you into giving them dough. For a fee, you go to some warehouse or a near-condemned building with big signs on it saying 'Haunted House Over Here! Five bucks!'
Haunted houses sometimes have elaborate tales about the goings-on of the house which are described in flyers passed around everyone waiting in the queue. This makes mildly interesting conversation while tolerating the long wait. Then in groups of five or so, they let people in. Once inside the group go through a series of rooms and hallways, as they walk or run through a madcap maze of fake blood, guts and gore, haunted by volunteers dressed up to scare you'
However, since you know it's a scam3 the best the hired ghouls can do is maybe surprise you. Some individuals really get into it and scream at the slightest thing. Most people, though, just laugh and a few troublemakers even vandalise the inside of the haunted house, or turn on the volunteers dressed up to scare people.
But then the people in the queue are often more frightening than the nice volunteers trying to help raise money for charity.
There are many things that can ruin the experience of a clandestine haunted house. For example, exits are often clearly marked throughout the place, for safety purposes and to keep insurance companies and fire officers from getting upset. Being in a darkened hallway that has a clearly labelled and glowing 'Exit' sign sort of inhibits the scare factor. Also if a person jumps out at you and tries to scare you, but their mask falls off unceremoniously, this also removes the potential suspension of disbelief that might allow you to enjoy the experience, unless the face of the person behind the mask is worse than the mask itself.
Perhaps these strange forms of entertainment are inspired by alleged actual haunted houses where ghosts supposedly haunt. Hence the name. However, these particular locations rarely have queues of people outside waiting to get in. In fact, the people living there often run away when they first learn that the house is haunted, until they realise they still haven't paid off the mortgage. Then they call upon paranormal investigators to go into the house with very expensive-looking equipment trying to verify the legitimacy of such claims, potentially to explain to the insurance company why the walls are bleeding.
Unlike commercial haunted houses, the alleged real thing are open all year round, as ghosts are not known for sticking to timetables or holiday schedules.