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Lesley Bannatyne Articles



Imagining Halloween. A Literary History

c. Lesley Bannatyne

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Lesley Bannatyne

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For information on A HALLOWEEN READER (Pelican Publishing, 2004) click HERE.

Older Halloween literature serves up a holiday you might not recognize at first. There’s a soulfulness we’re not used to anymore. By virtue of the way lives were lived in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, you sense a stronger bond between the living and the dead in nearby churchyards. Because of more primitive science and medicine, there’s an acceptance of fate we may find foreign, a reliance on charms we have trouble imagining. Because of social notions popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Halloween has a romantic cast that may strike us as just plain odd.

Here the reader can find the bones of Halloween. Its literature over the past four hundred years exposes a time tied to the quickening dark, to seasonal change, to death, to the movement of beings--fairies, witches, dead souls--through the night. Halloween was once imagined as a rift in reality where time slipped by without the traveler knowing he’d gone missing. As a night to return home, dead or alive. There was fear, yes, but it was fear of loss; of children and family, of land, crops, and place. This night wasn’t about murder or violence, but rather about the unquiet of guilt, anticipation of the unknown, of facing the consequences of meddling with things you couldn’t--or shouldn’t--control. These Halloweens meant something. They held a place in the year for magic, for mourning, for first love, for fear. In Halloween literature, the otherworld is always and uniquely present.

Death and Plenty

The wings of the birds
Are clotted with ice.
I have but one story--
Summer is gone.
--Sean O’Faolain, translator, 9th century Irish lyric

Late autumn in the British Isles, where Halloween first emerged, was gray and ominous, the beginning of the dead season. Poets from this part of the world filled their lines with funeral imagery: “And the year / On the earth, her deathbed, in shroud of leaves dead, / is lying (Shelley, “Autumn. A Dirge”). Halloween led off the season of loss-–of birds, flowers, the warmth of the sun. It was also, poetically, a season of truth, for bare branches reveal the clearest view. The early dark of late October, too, was unsettling; it was a time of movement, of change: “there is a fearful spirit busy now.” (Procter, “Autumn”) Earth clutched at dull gray covers, knowing full well that come November, she would freeze to death.

But Halloween was also a time of plenty. All Hallows, or All Saints--a feast day in the Catholic Church placed on Nov. 1 in the 9th century--marked the end of the farmer’s year. Larders were full, flocks sheltered, and for the foreseeable future there was time enough for pleasure and, importantly, food enough to share. Throughout medieval and early modern winter holidays, masking, tricks, performances, and processions were enacted in exchange for treats or money. All Hallows began the season.

The literature of Halloween reflects both death and plenty. The groaning board is full, but the night is windy, cold, and dark. People huddle congenially around a hearth fire, but outside, skeletal knuckles tap incessantly. There are two at this table, sitting opposite each other, sharing a bottle of wine. One is in full view, curiously probing the future. The other is in shadow, all-knowing, only occasionally letting out a shriek or a shred of information. Imagining Halloween begins with picturing what is just beyond the edge of light, outside the warm hut, just beyond the castle walls at night; what happens when you close your eyes to sleep; what goes on beneath fertile ground, under the mounds. Like the folk history of Halloween, its literary history also tells a story.

Poets and Peat Fires

Scots poet Alexander Montgomerie’s “The Flyting of Montgomerie and Polwart” etches a Halloween picture from 400 years ago. Already it is a creepy night when fairies and “elrich [weird or inhuman] Incubus” ride, and on this night is born the villainous Polwart, so stinking and foul that witches curse the devil for giving them such an odious baby. Over two centuries later, Montgomerie’s countryman Allan Cunningham published “The Maid of Elvar” (1832), in which all the elements we think of as belonging to modern Halloween are lined up in a row. There’s a dramatic setting:

The stars are sunk in heaven, a darksome cloud
Conceals the moon, and mist conceals the brook:
The mountain’s swathed up in a snowy shroud . . .
Witches and jack-o-lantern lights:
Hags on their ragwort chariots come abroad,
Wild Will his treacherous lamp hangs o’er the pool . . .

And not a small bit of menace:

It’s not for pious folks abiding
The misrule in the air, and witches rudely riding.
And demonic creatures:
While loosed from pangs in hell’s hot penal clime,
As a dark exhalation from the ground,
Satan will rise and rule his grim conclave around.

What the old Scots literature left behind, aside from a list of Halloween charms and a taste of Scots country life, reeks of sulfur.

Yet just across the Irish sea, in the ballad “A Halloween Chant--The Midnight Flitting of the Corpse and Tomás MacGahan” (written down sometime between 200 and 350 years ago), Halloween has less to do with spirits of evil and more with finding a resting ground. Having a home, protecting it, and homecoming are themes that recur in Irish Halloween literature. Samhain (“summer’s end,” November 1st) was the time herds migrated to their winter pastures; in Celtic mythology the fairies, likewise, were on the move. Starting no later than the 18th century, many Irishmen worked abroad in the summer and returned home at Samhain. (Some scholars propose “Sam” in the word Samhain refers to “together.”) Mythological history also describes important gatherings at the central seats of Ireland: at Tara, warriors convened to fend off annual attacks from the otherworld. If an Ulsterman did not come to Emain at Samhain, he was believed to have gone mad, and his gravestone placed.

Unlike residents of Great Britain, most of whom converted to Protestantism during the Reformation, most Irish remained Roman Catholic. While the Protestants rejected purgatory and diabolized ghosts, Catholics kept up annual remembrance of the dead on All Souls Day, November 2nd. The intersection of All Souls’ and Halloween is well-traveled: disembodied souls and the imperative of providing for the dead are embedded in Irish Halloween literature. In Dora Sigerson Shorter’s “The One Forgotten,” a man forgets to put out a chair for his wife to visit on that night. When her spirit comes, he is asleep, and she leaves heartbroken. His granddaughters laugh at the old man’s sudden remorse upon waking: “How he goes groaning, wrinkle-faced and hoar, / He is so old, and angry with his age-- / Hush! hear the banshee sobbing past the door.”

Celts reputedly believed death was at the center of a long life, and indeed, much of the literature of Halloween, especially Irish, concerns itself with who’s dead and who’s alive, who’s both at once, and who’s dead and doesn’t know it.

But one island’s literature can’t be wholly separated from the other. The original word for inhabitant of Ireland was “Scot,” there was Irish immigration to Scottish Highlands and Isles in the early Middle Ages, Scottish and English settlers were “planted” in northern Ireland in the 17th century, and workers often traveled between the countries. Writers from the British Isles, from all of its lands, have handed us a Halloween full of spunk, laced with the danger of last chances. If Janet can’t pull Tam Lin from his horse on Halloween, she’ll lose him. If you don’t watch over your children at sunset in late October, the fairies will steal them; on Halloween night, keep one eye on your loved ones, and the other on the door bolt. It is a literature of loss and warning: don’t stay too long in the world of fairy. Never forget those who have gone before. Travel if you must, but always, always, come home.

The Bard of Ayrshire

In 1799 Englishman John Cross produced a play in the New Royal Circus in St. George’s Fields called "Halloween; or, the Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne." The play’s plot was drawn from a similarly titled novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne. A Highland Story (1789) by Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe, but Cross bookended his “Scotch Spectacle” with Halloween themes to add atmosphere and otherworldliness. He was likely capitalizing on the popularity of a Scots poet, and a Scots poem, recently published: Robert Burns’ “Halloween.”

Scottish independence had been defeated in 1707 with the Act of Union (uniting Scotland and England under British rule), and many Scots feared a loss of cultural integrity. Burns was part of a movement known for capturing folklife in literature both to preserve it and to enflame Scots national pride. His “Halloween,” (1786) gives a detailed description of the night of October 31st in a rural Scottish cottage.

Burns’ poem includes Halloween charms he said he learned from his mother’s Highlands maid: burning nuts, pulling cabbage stalks, eating apples in front of a mirror, and many more. What people were really doing on Halloween in the late 1700s and what Burns depicted them as doing were likely similar (he includes extensive footnotes explaining the games and charms), but Burns’ work was a combination of poetry and folklore, not history. Regardless, by the late 19th century Burns’ “Halloween” had become a blueprint for both fictional and actual Halloween celebrations, attesting to how popular perception can be shaped by a single imaginative work. The charms Burns helped immortalize lasted, in popular literature at least, well into the 20th century.

“Halloween” was included in the very first edition of Burns's Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. By 1787 there were editions published in Edinburgh and London, and by 1788 American booksellers had it. Although Burns’ work was widely enjoyed, it was read especially passionately ex-patriot Scots in the United States and Canada, where his poetry came to stand for Scotland before the Act of Union. The Scottishness of “Halloween”--it includes more dialect than most any other Burns poem--may have made it more popular than it would have been otherwise.

On both sides of the Atlantic, “Halloween” inspired countless poems with and without credit to Burns. The poem dovetailed perfectly with Victorian interest in all things eerie, rustic, celebratory, and ancient, and the poem’s images and sense of sport were imported into the romantic stories and light verse that filled autumn issues of magazines. Popular annotated calendars consistently drew Halloween content from sources such as John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities; Brand footnotes Burns’ “Halloween” as his main source. The eve of October 31st had a public face by the end of the reign of Victoria, and, more often than not, it was the face Burns had given it.

This Night of All Nights in the Year

“Said we, then--the two then--“Ah can it
Have been that the woodlandish ghouls--
The pitiful, the merciful ghouls--
To bar up our way and to ban it
From the secret that lies in these wolds--
Had drawn up the spectre of a planet
From the limbo of lunary souls--
--Edgar Allan Poe, To_____. Ulalume: A Ballad (1847)

In what’s considered America’s first opera, “The Disappointment” (1767), a conjurer fools four Pennsylvania colony folks--among them, notably, a Scot--by convincing them he’s got a magic divining rod “cut on All-Hallow’s Eve, at twelve o’clock at night, with my back to the moon” that will lead them to pirate’s treasure. The playwright uses the Halloween reference, among many others, to clue in the audience: these folks are so gullible they’d believe anything. In “Fiend’s Field” (1832, published in Philadelphia and set in Britain), we meet Tony Ryecroft, who practices Rosicrucian-style alchemy, spouts fake Latin and conducts fiery Halloween rituals, all to hoodwink a land-rich neighbor. Here in very young America, Halloween is a code word for hoax, a night to prey on the naive with a wink to the wise. This is not the first time, or the last, that Halloween has been pressed into the service of satire and humor.

Montgomerie used it to yank on the grotesqueries of Polwart by naming Halloween his enemy’s birthday. Burns pits encyclopedic divination notes to “Halloween” against the antics of his country folk as they actually try the charms: widow Leezie tries to wet her sleeve in a stream but gets startled by a cow and plunges head over heels into cold water; Will mistakes a piece of wood for a witch and bloodies his fists trying to save himself. In "A Hallowe’en Party" (Caroline Ticknor, 1896), the narrator, Dodge, is subjected to every game and torture a Victorian party can deal: the guests dunk for apples and Dodge nearly drowns; they share a cake filled with tokens and Dodge swallows a button; the men dash around the outside of the house and our hero nearly decapitates himself on a clothesline. Halloween was a country phenomenon with all its attendant stereotypes, and remained so in literature even after cities began to crowd in on ports and pasture land. Dodge lives in New York, but his party is outside the city, an “old fashioned” Halloween.

By the end of the 19th century, the world had turned on its head. Darwin had published The Origin of the Species (1859), Freud had begun peeling back the brain to reveal an unconscious, and archeology, spurred by excavations in Egypt and Greece, excited the public imagination. Victorians began to see history as a series of layers, and set about finding old stories, ballads and poems as if they were fossils that could tell what life was really like in the past. Surrounded by factories and machinery, the world’s first industrial societies came to hunger for the country, for a simpler time they saw as more connected to nature and a deeper truth. Halloween, as imagined by Victorians--rural, rudimentary, and demanding a certain amount of innocence--was entrancing. In this culture, and in its literature, there was comfort in ancient traditions, in things that did not change. Halloween, as portrayed in much of the era’s popular literature, reversed itself. Instead of a naïve fool being on the butt-end of Halloween trickery, it was now the foolish sophisticate who refused to believe in the power of Halloween and received his or her comeuppance. Over and over again, Halloween’s charms proved true, and only the arrogant and disillusioned refused to put faith in them.

Take, for example, “The Face in the Glass” (1891), in which a stodgy, absentminded, writer spends a wakeful night convinced he sees the semi-opaque silhouette of a woman standing outside his bedroom on Halloween. Like face-in-the-mirror charm used to predict a spouse, this silhouette--“like a creature turned to stone by some sudden bolt hurled from the hand of a swift fate”--prophesies the writer’s future. Halloween trumps the disbeliever. Ethel Barton, protagonist in “By Cupid’s Trick” (1885), suffers from a common modern disease: she’s all too practical, especially when it comes to Halloween. “Then what’s the use of trying all these silly tricks?” she asks. But while eating an apple at midnight and looking into a mirror, Ethel’s true love does, in fact, walk through the door. Ethel, not only reunited with her man, has now been initiated: she believes in Halloween.

In the late 19th-century, an age of reading dominated by the periodical press, how Halloween was described in literature became as important as how it was actually practiced. Where some people certainly celebrated the holiday, a much larger number read Halloween stories and poems, and studied illustrations printed in magazines and newspapers. Halloween fell into the public domain, and people became enamored of the holiday simply by reading about it (similar to the adoption of Christmas trees). And while the popular press continued to mine Halloween for its fortunetelling details, another sort of writing had begun percolating, a literature of supernatural fiction and horror.

Halloween was enough of a presence in the 19th century that some writers--J.S. Le Fanu in the British Isles and Edgar Allan Poe in America--could submerge it in their work, hold it just under the surface to sharpen tension or etch atmosphere. In Le Fanu’s “The Child That Went With The Fairies” (1870), All Hallows Eve is a hidden force. It’s late autumn, leaves have fallen, it’s getting dark, and the little ones are playing on the road. A carriage appears from a mountain well-known to harbor the supernatural. The reader knows what night it is; and knows that this is not going to end well. It’s all he can do to not shout, “Run!” In Poe’s poem, “Ulalume,” the reader fills in the blanks of “this night of all nights of the year.” A ghoul-haunted wood, a tomb, a man and his soul, a loss? By the time Le Fanu and Poe wrote their deliciously unnerving stories and poems, only a few creepy elements were needed to summon up Halloween.


So fancy takes the mind, and paints
The darkness with eidolon light,
And writes the dead’s romance in night
On the dim Evening of All Saints. . .
--Madison J. Cawein, Intimations of the Beautiful (1911)

Dead souls, fairies, spirit creatures--it’s no wonder they have secrets, they’ve been to places we can’t imagine, dark places. Vision, and lack of it, are intrinsic to Halloween literature: the dead can see the future; we can’t. The dead live in darkness; we’re afraid of darkness. Halloween is one time of the year when it can all come together; when the spirit world can be solicited, invaded, envisioned. What you need to be able to see, of course, is a pitch black night.

James Stephens dissects the dark in his “The Feast of Samhain” (1924): “Here the light was golden, and here it became grey, and here, a step farther, it became blue or purple, and here, but two paces beyond, it was no longer a colour; it was a blackness, an invisibility.” It’s as if the darkness of Halloween is so dense, that only on this blackest of nights can we see things that are normally dim, the ghostly shapes that surround us. As if we have to lose our sense of sight, our grasp of the familiar, and be lost--as so many characters are in Halloween literature--to be able to see the otherworld. Keningale, in “Ken’s Mystery” (1883), gets lost in the darkness outside an Irish barracks on his way home from a Halloween celebration; only then does he run into the sphinx-like Elsie in a graveyard: his guide to the other side. The protagonist of Yeats’ “Red Hanrahan” (1904) follows a hare conjured by an old stranger on Samhain night, and finds himself outside in the dark, lost and exhausted. Only then does he notice the dim light on the hillside that leads him into the otherworld. Young and beautiful Nann (Le Braz, “All Souls’ Eve in Lower Brittany,” 1897), determined to search purgatory for her dead husband, goes missing for a year. When she returns, she’s ancient and reeks of burnt flesh.

There’s a sense of free-fall in this getting lost in the dark. Time is suspended; place is unrecognizable; characters must open themselves to new experience, let go the ordinary. Ken of “Ken’s Mystery” returns from the darkness haunted, drained, having lived through over 200 years in but one night. His friend, the narrator, upon hearing Ken’s story muses: “What is time? What is life? I felt myself begin to doubt the reality of all things.” This journey into the dark--that is sometimes consciousness, sometimes the blackness of evil, sometimes death--is not easy. But the desire to know more drives the plots and poetic arcs of much of Halloween literature. In Yeats's “All Souls’ Night” (1921), the poet waits alone with two glasses of muscatel, calling out for each of his friends to come visit from the other side and share their secrets. None do. Red Hanrahan comes back from the fairy world empty handed, aged and drained, maddened. Most of us weren’t meant to go there. Those who do return changed, and they don’t like to talk about it.

The 20th Century: When the Dead Can Yearn and the Dead Can Smite

For the year’s on the turn and it’s All Souls’ night,
When the dead can burn and the dead can smite.
--Edith Wharton, All Souls (1909)

The dead can be terrifying, but useful. Nineteenth-century writers fondly name them, or call them “my dear.” They embrace and are embraced by the dead:

That the night of all nights is this,
When elm shall crack and lead shall part,
When moulds shall sunder and shot bolts start
To let you through to my kiss.”
--Edith Nesbit, The Vain Spell (1898)

The dead teach, they predict, they warn. James Russell Lowell’s Reverend Dr. Death (“The Black Preacher,” 1864) gives a sermon to the damned each year on All Souls Eve, but it’s meant for us: don’t do as these wretched souls did, because if you wait for tomorrow to pray or love, you just might find yourself sitting in an abandoned church with a bunch of jittery bone-bags enduring the same sermon every year.

Then, early in 20th century, something begins to change. In more and more Halloween literature, the dead are adrift. They become separate, like the character of Maria in James Joyce’s “Clay” (1916). She’s homeless, without family, making her way through a sea of souls to return to what passes for her family on Halloween night. Alive, but spiritually gutted, Maria is one of the walking dead of early 20th century Dublin. And Halloween is the night she can, like a lonely spirit, return home. Alive, but not fully; dead, but not buried. In this new century of burgeoning cities, crowds and industry, the dead can become disconnected and terrifying, as if humans cut loose from their ancestors begin to fear them. More and more, writers use Halloween to conjure a sickening sense of evil under the surface, a subconscious dread:

Something that lies there, under weed and ooze,
with wide and awful eyes
And matted hair, and limbs the waters bruise,
That strives, yet can not rise.”
--Madison J. Cawein, The Wood Water (1905)

H.P. Lovecraft’s dead are not instructive, they’re aggressive pranksters. They spring from tombs: “And the dead leap gay in the pallid ray, / Sprung out of the tomb’s black maw / To shake the world with awe.” (“Hallowe’en In A Suburb,” 1926) In early 20th-century Halloween literature, the dead are on the move again, riding from the realm of personal loss toward that of random horror. You sense, as the new century grows, bodies stirring underground. Halloween’s games and charms fade as the unquiet of real evil, real madness, dawns. This is a faceless evil, but not supernatural. It’s human. Gas warfare was man-made, its victims powerless, and the world aghast at its physical horror. By the end of the World War I there were too many dead.

We are all dying, always. The boundary between the vibrant world we live in and the underground world of worms is thin and brittle; it’s only a matter of time. What makes the older Halloween literature so enthralling is that it lets us travel back and forth to the land of the dead without consequence. No coin under the tongue necessary, no smell of sulfur to beat out of our clothes when we return.






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