Tag Archives: Halloween

Dissecting Halloween: Origins of a Sugar-Filled Night

Happy Halloween, Everyone!

I hope you all found some time over the weekend to celebrate with costumes, candy, and scary movies. Though, Halloween didn’t originate as a night for ghoulish fun and tummy aches.

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The origins of Halloween date back to Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival. Samhain is a sacred celebration honoring harvest’s end and the beginning of winter. It’s often considered the start of the spiritual New Year and is a fire festival. People light bonfires over a series of days and dress in masks and costumes to ward off lost spirits.

During the eighth century, Pope Gregory III borrowed Samhain traditions into a festival known as All Saints’ Day. A holy day, All Saints’ Day honors the Catholic Church’s saints; all Catholics must attend Mass on this day.

The night preceding All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallows’ Eve, which, eventually, became known as the modern day Halloween. While All Hallows’ Eve started as a night for prayer before a holy day, Queen Elizabeth’s break with the Holy See began the transition of All Hallows’ Eve to Halloween. Following this break, the English tradition of begging at peoples’ doors for “soul cakes:” shortbread cakes with currants for eyes, in exchange for the beggars praying for the household’s dead, grew. But the food itself became more important to the poor than praying for the dead.

When Irish immigrants, fleeing the potato famine, entered America, they brought with them the developing Halloween traditions from Ireland and England. Americans began wearing costumes and going from door-to-door asking for either money or food. Nowadays, children run from house-to-house, dressed up, and asking, “trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat,” while adults attend Halloween parties.

Even though Halloween is a far cry from its original purpose, spirituality and superstition still predominate the end of October and the start of November. People say goodbye to the hot weather and prepare for the cold of winter. There’s an electricity to the air, a dark energy that fuels all the stories of ghosts and goblins, and as people huddle around campfires, drinking hot chocolate, and sneaking in bits of leftover candy, there’s the feeling that we might not be the only ones watching the flames.

Have a wonderfully spooky night, and remember, that when the embers cool and go out, you might not be alone in the dark.

(Photo courtesy of Dan Taylor-Watt.)

When the Ghouls Come Out to Play: How Plague Victims Became Vampires

Between Halloween rapidly approaching and recently burying my grandmother’s ashes, death and what lies beyond has been on my mind. Are some of those who’ve passed away still around? Are all those we bury truly dead?

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Throughout history there have been stories about the dead coming back to life or the spirits of the dead haunting the living. One of the most notorious myths of the undead is the vampire. In modern society, the vampire is seen as a romantic, gothic figure, whether you’re examining Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice’s Louis, or Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen. Each of these vampires is tortured in some way, while being irresistible to mortals.

However, vampires weren’t always seen as beautiful, tormented creatures that have a soft spot for particular humans. Vampire lore originated from superstition and misunderstandings about post-mortem decay in the middle ages.

Between 1300 and 1700, plagues swept through Europe at an alarming rate. At the time, people didn’t understand how disease spread or how decomposition worked. They believed that dark, evil forces caused plagues, namely vampires.

Sometimes mass graves would be reopened to add more bodies and gravediggers would stumble across corpses that were “bloated by gas, with hair still growing, and blood seeping from their mouths.” These gravediggers would think these corpses were still alive. The corpse had been possessed and had become one of the undead, a “shroud-eater,” whose purpose was to spread disease throughout all the corpses, until the vampire had gained enough power to rise from the ground.

The only way to prevent a vampire from rising was to exorcise it. When a person died, a shroud would be laid over his face. The person would be buried with the shroud, and as bacteria ate away at the shroud, it would appear like the corpse had eaten through the shroud, hence the name “shroud-eater.” This shroud would be removed from the corpse’s mouth and a brick would be jammed between the corpse’s teeth. This would prevent the corpse from being able to spread disease to more corpses and gain enough strength to rise from the ground and spread plague to more people.

While today we know how disease and decomposition work, it’s fascinating to discover how people explained horrific events before they were scientifically understood. And while vampires and other supernatural creatures are considered hot in modern literature and film, it’s beneficial to know how supernatural myths came about. In writing, even if you’re writing about sparkling, vegetarian vampires, knowing what humans would have considered vampires as a hundred(s) years ago is vital to understanding that vampire’s character.

Expanding beyond vampires, knowing a character’s history is important to comprehending that character’s personality. Knowing where a character comes from and what that character’s been through before page one of a novel or short story allows you to understand what that character wants and why that person behaves the way he does. If you don’t appreciate a character’s background, that character’s personality will shift unnaturally and readers won’t make connections with why that person makes the decisions he does.

Have a wonderful final week before Halloween, and, remember, if you’re going to a midnight graveyard reading, watch where you step. You never know one-hundred percent what’s laying beneath the ground.

(Photo courtesy of Otto Magus.)