What is it that fascinates us about Halloween? Why have we, even over here in sensible old Britain, so readily embraced the whole spook-fest? Is it the chance to wear day-glow orange? The opportunity to Come To Work As A Goth for a day? The dubious thrill of sending our children out into the streets to frighten pensioners into giving them sweets?
Apart from the obvious plusses – finally dislodge that six-year old’s wobbly tooth with a bit of apple bobbing, or go to a fancy dress party as a spent hag, no costume or make-up required for most of us the wrong side of fifty – why do we do it?
Of course, by whatever name, Samhain, All Soul’s Night, and so on, this festival has been with us a very long time, with its roots in ancient, pre-Christian beliefs and rituals, and is one of the fixtures in our calendar around which we turn our lives (ie, autumn proper, clocks go back, pleading for outrageous Christmas presents begins). But, cultural significance aside, I believe there are two very different reasons for the Eve of All Hallows’ continued popularity.
The first is the enduring and widespread appeal of witches. I am not talking about cartoonish, broomstick-riding, clichéd cacklers. I am talking about real witches, historical and modern day.
As a writer of five books featuring witches as the main character I know whereof I speak. I chose to write about a witch for my first book, The Witch’s Daughter, because I was attracted to the scope such a character would give me. A powerful woman, with magic in her very bones, and near immortal to boot. (The last part a result of my not being able to choose which historical period I wanted to set my story in. I ended up visiting the 17th, 19th and early 20th centuries all in the same story.) I enjoyed the fantasy of being able to cast spells, and my readers did too. I get many emails from people convinced I must be a witch, but also many more from actual witches. From all over the world. That desire to connect with things unseen, things magical and powerful and wonderfully female, that, I believe, is one of the key appeals of Halloween, certainly for many women.
The second reason for our continuing love affair with fright night is, well, fear. We love to be frightened. Not seriously terrified in a real life sort of way, but nicely spooked in a manageable and safe manner. We like zombies leaping out of cupboards at us on October 31st only, thank you very much. We enjoy the scariness of Halloween for the same reason we love crime novels; we can face our fears without fear of coming to harm. We can experience the exquisite thrill of a shiver wriggling, earwig-like, down our spine. We can revel in the delicious shudder of horror brought on by a jump scare at a thoughtfully placed plastic tarantula. When else do we get to relish these peculiar delights? It’s not as if we can indulge on our own; scaring yourself is like tickling yourself – it just doesn’t work. We need the collaboration of other Happy Halloweeners.
As a writer, this intrigues me, because I have noticed that, while I can make myself feel many things when I am writing, I can’t scare myself. I can feel heartbroken, turned on, thrilled, happy, sad, I can even make myself laugh, but I cannot bring on one minute of sweaty-palmed, breath-catching fear. Someone else has to do that for me. Which is why, on the last night of October, I shall roll my eyes and grumble when my children beg me to let them stay up to watch a spooky movie, but secretly I’ll be delighted to watch with them, peering from behind a cushion, heart pounding, and getting very pleasantly scared silly.
(Ooh, just realised the word count for this piece is, spookily, 666! Happy Halloween!)
Paula Brackston is the New York Times bestselling author of The Witch’s Daughter, The Winter Witch, and The Midnight Witch. Her latest, The Silver Witch, is out in the UK in December.