“Call it Samhain, Summer’s End, All Hallows’ Eve, November Eve, or Witches’ Night – Halloween has its essential roots in the terrors of the primitive mind, which made no distinction between the waning of the sun and the potential extinction of the self. Ancient rituals of sacrifice and supplication were employed to guarantee a good harvest and, by extension, continued earthly existence.
“In northern climates, harvest time was, or seemed, the very death of nature. As Robert Chambers, the great Victorian chronicler of holidays characterized October: ‘As the fallen leaves career before us – crumbling ruins of summer’s beautiful halls – we cannot help thinking of those who have perished – who have gone before us, blown forward to the grave by the icy blasts of Death.’
“Because life itself was literally in the balance at harvest, the close proximity of the visible world and the spirit world was more than metaphor. And so the tradition grew: for one night each year, permission would be granted to mortals to peer into the future, divine their fates, communicate with supernatural entities, and otherwise enjoy a degree of license and liberty unimaginable – or simply unattainable – the rest of the year.
“The Halloween machine turns the world upside down. One’s identity can be discarded with impunity. Men dress as women, and vice versa. Authority can be mocked and circumvented. And, most important, graves open and the departed return.
“Of course, the ‘return of the dead’ is an evocative allegory for the return or expression of just about anything that’s been buried, repressed, or stifled by the living. What’s ‘dead’ doesn’t necessarily look like a walking corpse – just take a look at the variety of secret selves on parade at any Halloween celebration today. People ‘resurrect’ themselves, besequinned and befeathered, as glamorous movie gods and goddesses, comic-book superheroes, immortal robots, insatiable satyrs, and inflatable sex balloons. Pneumatic breasts and phalluses bounce and bob everywhere. Fantastic, towering wigs and headdresses emblematize the startling energies that lurk in the minds beneath.
But attending these lively carnival images – always – are the classic images of mortality and the grave: skeletons, vampires, zombies, and ghosts. The grand marshall of the Halloween parade is, and always has been, Death.”
From Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, by David J. Skal, a fascinating look at the holiday, its origins, and its transformations over time.
I’ve been reading Skal’s work since I was a grad student *mumble mumble* years ago because he focuses on topics that are right up my alley: Halloween, Dracula, vampires in general. He’s fascinated by horror and has insightful things to say about horror and pop culture. I enjoy Death Makes a Holiday and try to re-read it every October, but my favorite Skal book is The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, which delves into history, horror, and our cultural predilection for the macabre.
So if you’re looking for something new to read this Halloween season, I’d recommend Skal!