Following on from my Hammer Horror blog, I thought I’d take a closer look at Halloween as it approaches. So, I’m going to share the small bit of research I did (mostly using Wikipedia if I’m honest!) combined with my own (small!) bit of existing knowledge plus my thoughts and experiences of this curious once-a-year event.
Halloween as we know it today is apparently based on a fusion of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and the Christian celebration of All Saints Day.
It is said that among the ancient Celts there was a belief that the barrier between the living and the dead (the ‘light’ and the ‘dark’ worlds) broke down on October 31st as the literal changeover happened between the seasons – ending the period of long, light evenings and bringing in the winter period of early darkness.
There were celebrations to welcome the supposed return visits by deceased relatives’ spirits (literally ‘friendly ghosts’) while masks were worn (and bonfires lit) to ensure any unfriendly ghosts (which were simultaneously freed when the barrier between the worlds opened) were warned off and kept away.
It is believed the word ‘Halloween’ is Scottish in origin – being a derivation of ‘All Hallows’ in an ancient Scottish dialect. The tradition of carving pumpkins into ‘Jack O’lanterns’ originated in Ireland. Traditionally they were craved from swedes or turnips and left on the doorstep to ward off evil spirits. A ‘treat’ was usually left beside the carved turnip or swede to persuade the spirits not to play a ‘trick’ on the livestock (or other property) of the homeowner/landowner. It was the Americans who switched the practice to the carving of pumpkins.
Culturally Halloween is nowadays essentially a secular American event. Americana came to dominate the festival in the 20th century – and this dominance has continued into the early 21st century too; setting the tone for Halloween celebrations in the UK, Japan and throughout those Far Eastern nations that recognise it.
Halloween is a big deal in the USA – certainly as compared to the form it takes in the UK where it basically amounts to a few themed spooky parties for the adults and roaming gangs of kids in fancy dress knocking on the front door demanding a handful of Quality Street in order to be dissuaded from poking dog poo through your letterbox on the end of a stick!
Round my way the kids spend ages getting kitted out in colourful and imaginative spooky outfits. Then, as soon as darkness falls on October 31st, I find myself repeatedly opening the door to a gang of elaborately made-up witches, skeletons, ghouls, zombies, vampires…all about four feet high and all with squeaky high pitched voices! Munchkin witches, skeletons and vampires stand there cackling while holding open supermarket carrier bags for their expected bounty of a ‘treat’! Patient parents and/or long-suffering older siblings hover protectively in the background to shepherd the spooky crew safely from one doorstep to the next. I always buy in an industrial sized container of Quality Street for the night and they always go away happy. (I opt for ‘Treat’ every time!)
I used to go ‘trick or treating’ myself as a kid…back in the early 1970s. It was Quality Street then and it’s Quality Street now! (Sorry dentists and dieticians!) My friends and I never bothered to dress up the way they do today though. Perhaps we occasionally put on a mask – but that was about it! Sometimes some hapless homeowner would opt for a ‘trick’. We didn’t actually use the dog poo tactic (we were nice kids!)…but we did put shop-bought stink bombs through the letterbox or squirt water through the letterbox using a bicycle pump or just knock on the door and run away shouting a ‘rude’ word! (My tip for Halloween: seal up your letterbox…or stock up on Quality Street!) So I do appreciate the genuine efforts of the kids these days in getting into full costume and make-up. They really go to town – looking like miniature extras from Michael Jackson’s Thriller! (And that’s surely worth a Strawberry Cream, Green Triangle and Purple One from anyone’s tin of Quality Street!)
No doubt you’ll have seen from my previous blog post that I was (and remain) a big fan of Hammer Horror. Halloween plays right into that childhood love. Back in the 70s (when I was grabbing sneaky viewings of Hammer films whenever and wherever I could) I developed a love of the kitsch and schlocky definitively Hammer version of the Gothic – and that’s exactly what we seem to get from Halloween in its commercial form today.
There’s even Halloween themed food (beyond the Quality Street, that is!). I’ve seen quite an inventive variety this year. By far the best has been the marzipan vampires on sale at the Central London department store, Fortnum & Mason. They are real mini-Nosferatu – brilliantly carved. They flew off the shelves in seconds (perhaps literally!) and are now out of stock – so I missed out. I shall have to content myself with Marks and Spencer bat-shaped fruit jellies instead! Toffee apples are also traditional at this time of year. I used to like those as a kid.
Anyway….HAPPY HALLOWEEN amigos! And for those reading this in Blighty – don’t forget: on ITV4 at 1.05am on Halloween itself (31st October)….there’s another screening of ‘Dracula: Prince Of Darkness’…by far the best Hammer ever!