Monday, October 31, 2011

This Is Halloween

Prior to the rise of what Science 2.0's Hank Campbell calls today's "torture porn," what we now know as "horror films" were largely disassociated with Halloween (1931's Dracula was released on Valentine's Day). While Orson Welles' October broadcast of War of the Worlds provided the first inklings of the marriage between Halloween and Hollywood horror, it was not until John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) that the two were officially wed. The Celtic festivities of Samhain (mentioned in the Halloween sequels) had more to do with agriculture and the changing of seasons than the art of scaring. Nonetheless, the sense of the supernatural was heightened due to the belief in spirits brought on by the oncoming winter (the season being related to death and decay). These spirits were possibly kept at bay with the practice of animal or even human sacrifice (Julius Caesar wrote of the Druids' use of a wicker man), though this is difficult to prove. Despite these pagan roots, the most recognizable practices derive from the medieval Christian holy days of All Souls' and All Saints' Day. For example, the rituals of "souling" involved the baking or cakes to be distributed to relatives and the poor in return for prayers for the souls in purgatory. Many would go from door to door requesting food in exchange for prayers for the dead. This house-to-house activity included the carrying of a hollowed-out turnip, which represented a soul trapped in purgatory. The Protestant Reformation helped rid Halloween of the its more Catholic elements, focusing instead on the marriage prospects of adolescents rather than those trapped in purgatory. Courting and divination practices linked to future marriages became the custom of the day. Between its changing contexts, Halloween was often a night filled with pranks and the undermining of social norms. As these disturbances became less tolerated in the early 20th century, Halloween evolved into a more familial holiday. After surviving the overblown "razor-in-the-apple" scares, the real threat of the Great Society, and the Hollywood gore-fest, the holiday continues to be a night of overturning social norms in a variety of ways (including dressing like a total slut).[1]

Still, Halloween continues its relationship with the spooky and the supernatural, invoking numerous Halloween specials on various TV stations. As far as I'm concerned, if your Halloween night does not consist of murderous preachers, showers with schizophrenics, old-fashioned haunted houses, real-life carnies, the devil's baby shower, possessed hotel caretakers, or all of the above, then you are not doing it right.[2]

1. For a detailed treatment of Halloween's evolution and prominence in North American culture, see Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Another interesting study on Halloween consumerism can be found here.

2. I admit to not doing it right. Since I will be unable to celebrate Halloween in any recognizable way due to work, I decided to read the above academic material instead.


  1. I remember when Nicole wanted to dress up at a hooker. Mom and Dad said "no." So instead she dressed as "Kelly" from 90210... wearing the hooker outfit. That's YOUR sister.

  2. And again- what was the guy with no arms and legs gonna to do with the knife in his mouth? Shake his head fiercely and hope to hit something? (That scene is totally freaky.)

  3. A similar comment was made on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments (starts 5:45 at #15):