Halloween draws from a number of festive fall holidays throughout the millennia. It originally came from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Later, in the eighth century, Catholic Pope Gregory III decided to call November 1st All Saints Day. Over time, the two disparate holidays began to coalesce and the foundations of Halloween began to form. The evening before November 1st became known as All Hallow’s Eve.
In Celtic tradition, Samhain marked the day that summer was coming to a complete close. The harvest was ending and the throngs of winter were near. The shadowy winter was a time associated with death followed by eventual renewal. Celts believed that this was the night where the veil between the living and the dead was lifted and the spectral past returned to the Earth.
At the time, Druids (Celtic priests) would use Samhain to make prophecies about the future to help guide their community. They would begin to light massive bonfires where they burned crops and animals as sacrifices to their gods. During this celebration, the druids would dress up in animal heads and skins, dance around the fire and tell fortunes and stories. It was the early first century when the Roman Empire had managed to conquer most of the Celtic territory. During this centuries-long rule, a few Roman fall festivals combined with Samhain. Romans also celebrated the dead through a holiday called Feralia. Throughout the years, this eventually blended with the holiday of Samhain. The next Roman festivity that influenced Halloween was one that honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and vegetation.
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. Soon, All Saints Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a day of activities like trick ore treating.
Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
It was during the 18th century when the word “Halloween” came to be. Scottish poet Robert Burns helped to make the word more popular with his poem called ‘Halloween‘. The word itself seems to be a portmanteau of the word ‘Hallow’, which originally meant ‘saint’, mixed with ‘een’ which was an abbreviation of the word “eve,” or night before. Halloween is just another way of saying something like the night before All Saint’s Day or Hallowmas. Christians tended to celebrate the holidays and other traditions on the night before the major feast, for example Christmas Eve.
carving Jack-o’-lanterns actually has its roots in a sinister, tragic fable. Celtic folklore tells the tale of a drunken farmer named Jack who tricked the devil, but his trickery resulted in him being turned away from both the gates of heaven and hell after he died. Having no choice but to wander around the darkness of purgatory, Jack made a lantern from a turnip and a burning lump of coal that the devil had tossed him from hell. Jack, the story goes, used the lantern to guide his lost soul; as such, the Celts believed that placing Jack-o’-lanterns outside would help guide lost spirits home when they wander the streets on Halloween. Originally made using a hollowed-out turnip with a small candle inside, Jack-o’-lanterns’ frightening carved faces also served to scare evil spirits away. When the Irish potato famine of 1846 forced Irish families to flee to North America, the tradition came with them. Since turnips were hard to come by in the states at the time, pumpkins were used as a substitute.
The pagan Celts believed that after death, all souls went into the crone’s cauldron, which symbolized the Earth mother’s womb. There, the souls awaited reincarnation, as the goddess’ stirring allowed for new souls to enter the cauldron and old souls to be reborn. That image of the cauldron of life has now been replaced by the steaming, bubbling, ominous brew.
Trick ore Treat
In olden times, it was believed that during Samhain, the veil between our world and the spirit world was thinnest, and that the ghosts of the deceased could mingle with the living. The superstition was that the visiting ghosts could disguise themselves in human form, such as a beggar, and knock on your door during Samhain asking for money or food. If you turned them away empty-handed, you risked receiving the wrath of the spirit and being cursed or haunted. Another Celtic myth was that dressing up as a ghoul would fool the evil spirits into thinking that you were one of them so that they would not try to take your soul.
The traditional Halloween colors of orange and black actually stem from the pagan celebration of autumn and the harvest, with orange symbolizing the colors of the crops and turning leaves, while black marks the “death” of summer and the changing season. Over time, green, purple and yellow have also been introduced into the color scheme of Halloween decorations.
Real Story to tell
You’ve probably seen—or, at the very least, heard about—The Conjuring. The 2013 film featuring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and Ron Livingston was very well received, but did you know the supernatural thriller was based on a true story? Yes, the Perron family really existed and lived in a “haunted” home. So what happened? According to the Perrons, their Rhode Island residence was the site of several strange occurrences. Things moved at random, there were unexplained noises, and—yes— ghosts. The Perrons even experienced the occasional “possession.” And while their home was not the site of a mass murder, many children died under mysterious or suspicious circumstances, and their deaths have been tied (albeit loosely) to legendary satanist Bathsheba Sherman.
The Jersey Devil
While this one is not a “ghost” story, the tale of the Jersey Devil has withstood the test of time—and for good reason. Stories of the winged beast are truly terrifying. But who or what is the Jersey Devil? According to Weird NJ, the infamous creature haunting the Pine Barrens is the child of Mother Leeds, a Pines resident who conceived her thirteenth child in 1735. At the time, Leeds had no idea how she could care for (let alone afford) another kid and so, in exasperation, she raised her hands to the heavens and proclaimed “Let this one be a devil!” Leeds got her wish. Moments after birth, her healthy baby boy grew horns and claws and bat-like wings. Legend has it the “devil” then killed his mother before attacking onlookers.
The Bell Witch
Much like The Conjuring, the Bell witch is the subject of two films, An American Haunting and The Blair Witch Project, as well as several podcasts, and books. But where did the witch come from? Rumor has it the Bell witch first appeared in the early 1800s, when the Bell family—for whom the witch was named—moved to Tennessee. After settling into their new home, the Bells began hearing strange noises, including dogs barking, chains rattling, and a woman whispering, and the latter became known as the Bell witch. Of course, no one knows her true identity, but legend has it she’s the ghost of a former neighbor, Kate Batts. It is also believed the witch played a role in the untimely loss of John Bell, who died from poisoning.
The Ghost of Henry Dixon
Tunnelton may be a small, unincorporated town in rural Indiana, but it is big in the ghost hunting community. Why? Because Tunnelton is home to the Tunnelton Tunnel—a.k.a. The Big Tunnel—where it is said numerous ghosts still linger, both on and beneath the grounds. However, the most famous tenant is Henry Dixon, a night watchman whose body was found just inside the tunnel in 1908. Dixon’s murder was never solved, and many have reported seeing the watchman on patrol—lantern in hand. Locals have also been “chased” by Dixon.
In the summer of 1863, hundreds of thousands of soldiers descended on Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and many lost their life. According to How Stuff Works, more than 50,000 infantry men were left dead, wounded, or missing, and rumor has it some of these soldiers still haunt the battlefields, particularly Devil’s Den: a rocky enclave where 1,800 died. One woman claims she felt a hand grab her ankle at the historic site, and several others have seen ghosts “appear”, both in person and in photographs.