Halloween is here. It is the one night of the year when children are encouraged to be monsters, women are permitted to wear what they want (with minimal shaming), and we deliberately undo a year’s worth of parental advice about accepting candy from strangers. We’ve all been drugged by aisles of ubiquitously orange drugstore candy; but what lies beneath the cheap polyester and Nightmare on Elm Street marathons?
Historians trace the origins of Halloween to a pagan festival in the British Isles: the three-day Celtic New Year’s festival of Samhain. According to some, the “Lord of the Dead” was honored during Samhain with bonfires and post-harvest bingeing.
In the mid-eighth century, Samhain received a Christian makeover. Pope Gregory III moved the date of All Saints Day from May 13 to November 1—the same date as Samhain. It’s unclear whether the pontiff was trying to eclipse the pagan celebration or not, but the result was the same: Christian celebrations of the holy (“hallow”) dead and traditional celebrations of the harvest started to merge. For this reason, certain evangelical groups to this day protest that Halloween is a pagan festival that not only celebrates the devil in plastic costume form, but actually involves the inadvertent worship of Celtic deities.
Throughout the medieval and early modern periods Christians continued to observe Halloween with bonfires. This isn’t just because bonfires are the older, lazier British equivalent of fireworks (they show up five days later at Guy Fawkes as well). At Halloween, the bonfires were thought to ward off witchcraft and the plague. They were also said to guide the souls of the dead in Purgatory (a potentially ineffective signal system for a disembodied soul trying to avoid hellfire).
If you really cared about the souls of the dead, though, you could organize a bake sale. In Portugal and the northeastern parts of the U.K., children go door to door singing and saying prayers for the dead, in return for which they receive “soul cakes” made with cinnamon, ginger, and raisins. For every cake given, a soul was supposed to be saved from Purgatory. As it turns out salvation can come cheap.
The idea that souls can breach the divide between the living and the dead is not particular just to Halloween. It’s more a special occasion kind of thing. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus dies, the tombs in Jerusalem split open and the holy people come to life and wander around the city. In other words, the Crucifixion calls for its own mini-zombie apocalypse.
The Walking Dead scene in the Gospel of Matthew can be explained in rational terms. In the narrative, it follows on the heels of an earthquake that would have disrupted the tombs and displaced human remains. The sudden appearance of human bodies created its own mythology. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the macabre pageantry of New Orleans culture. Before relocating tombs in distinctive above-ground cemeteries, the people of New Orleans buried them in the swamp on which the city was constructed. Periods of intense weather would push the coffins to the surface of the soil and make encounters with the dead a semi-regular thing.
Awareness of the proximity of death fueled other macabre practices. The Victorian period—the same era in which Halloween was exported to America—saw the rise of postmortem photography. Posing corpses comfortably in their favorite chair as if they were sleeping, cuddling their dogs, or holding cherished toys was common. And these photographs ended propped up on fireplace mantles and prominently displayed. We’re just a step away—or not— from having mother stuffed and placed on the couch, Psycho-style.
But to the Victorians this wasn’t so strange. As Robyn Walsh, a professor at the University of Miami, told me, “postmortem photography to us might seem like a morbid or even gruesome practice but, in the context of the Victorian period in which it arose, to document death in this way was sensible—even comforting.” The interest in remembering the dead and inviting them to remain close to home as a presence among the living, she added, is something that it has in common with Halloween.
The enduring popularity of Halloween is about more than just tradition or supernatural explanations for the macabre. It’s about the ability to work through moral injustice and chaos in the world around us. Meghan Henning, of the University of Dayton, told me, “we still like to play with images of the dead rising from hell because they allow us to experiment with different concepts of good and evil, and the dissatisfaction that we have with overly simplistic explanations of our moral world.”
But for those who planned to spend Halloween looking for love in all the wrong places, rather than competing for candy, there’s nothing to fear. Since the medieval period, Halloween has been for lovers, and I don’t just mean Goths. Singletons would pull kale stalks from a field in the hope that the shape and taste would provide clues about the identity of their beloved. Others would bob for apples marked with the initials of potential suitors. Others still would look in a mirror and ask the devil to reveal the name of their sweetheart.
From Samhain to Sambuca shots, Halloween continues to give people the opportunity to transgress ordinary religious and cultural borders, live out fantasies, and reach into the unknown. And, at the end of the day, however bad conversing with Satan about your love life may seem, it’s still less horrifying than Tinder.