The festival of Halloween has become so popular that almost every street you walk will have windows aglow with pumpkin-head lanterns, signalling that any children out to celebrate are welcome to come and ‘Trick or Treat’. Many of those children will be dressed as skeletons, witches and ghosts – some of them might even wear the costume of Count Dracula – with that reference to any souls ‘Undead’ having particular relevance to the festival’s ancient origins, when the Celts would celebrate the night known as Samain or ‘Sow in’.
This festival signified the time when the old year was done and the new began, when the harvest had been gathered and the dread dark winter lay ahead. On its eve, October 31st, the divisions between the living and dead were said to draw back like a curtain, or veil, allowing the souls of those passed on to walk among the living again. At this time many bonfires would be lit to drive the unwelcome dead away. People took part in rituals such as dances and fancy-dress parades. And, if all that fire and noise then failed, it was hoped that restless souls could be placated with offerings of food left in bowls outside front doors.
With the advent of Christianity these customs were appropriated. ‘All-Hallowmas’ or ‘All Saint’s Day’ revered saints and martyrs instead of ghouls. And yet, as so often when cultures merge, remnants of both traditions remained. The gifts of food became known as ‘soul cakes,’ left out for the homeless and hungry, in return for which such people prayed for the souls of the dead to be left in peace. (Would our Trick-or-Treaters agree to that?)
Many other old superstitions persisted. American Irish émigrés replaced their traditional carvings of turnip heads with pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns – Jack being the folklore rogue who offended both the Devil and God, thereafter excluded from both Heaven and Hell, doomed to walk the earth till Judgement Day.
Rabbie Burns’ poem, Halloween, describes other Celtic customs; fairies dancing on moonlit nights while young people went out to the countryside, singing songs, telling spooky tales and jokes or partaking in fortune-telling games, such as eating apples while looking in mirrors – a magic spell that would reveal the face of a future love.
Whether Queen Victoria ever peered into such a mirror, she certainly entered into the spirit of things when joining the annual fire-lit procession that took place at Balmoral castle. However, back in England, the influence of the Protestant Church left most of these rituals falling away – which might explain Charles Dickens’ shock when he witnessed the general festivities in America, and the morbid fascination with ghosts, and then returned to England to write A Christmas Carol, in which spirits and future predictions abound.
Other established authors soon followed in this haunting vein, peeling back age-old layers of myth to re-imagine ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ – with stories of children stolen by fairies, or mirrors exposing some ghastly event, or women who wailed by misty graves: all rendered yet more sinister when read by flickering fire light.
The Victorians revelled in ghostly tales. More than that, they embraced the culture of death, which became almost a mania when Prince Albert died so suddenly and Victoria took to mourning him in the most extravagant fashion. Like many others then bereaved she would meet with spiritualist mediums while attempting to contact her husband’s soul. Whether or not she visited any charlatan photographers who, by the means of double exposures would dupe their grieving clientele into thinking that developed prints showed the faces of those deceased, is not so generally known.
The spirit photograph shown above is no doubt somewhat humorous in tone, but many were taken seriously. And, however our logical minds may scorn such crude special effects today, the unseen and supernatural world still seems to hold us in its thrall – which is perhaps why Halloween is such a popular festival, not only for innocent children’s games, but also the ghostly tales we read, or the horror films we watch. There’s really nothing to compare with a good old-fashioned spine-tingling thrill.
Essie Fox’s latest novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, tells the story of a young journalist who meets an ageing actress who once starred in eerie Edwardian films – the films which then obsess him, till he is no longer able to separate the realities of his present life from the ghosts still haunting Leda’s past. Out now in hardback, out in paperback on 16 November 2017.