Halloween is an ancient festival and versions of it are celebrated in many cultures. One common theme is that at Halloween the veil between the spirit world and the human world is very thin and can easily be penetrated by spirits. The spirits may be those of the dead who for one reason or another wish to return, perhaps in order to right a wrong. But the spirits may also be malign devils who must be appeased in one way or another. Appeasement may take assorted forms, some involving gifts and some a dreadful retribution.
The history of Halloween and its manifestations in Celtic and Gothic folklore is for scholars, but the central emotion invoked by traditional versions of Halloween is fear: real or pretend.
The modern imagery of Halloween comes from many sources, including national customs and works of Gothic and horror literature. Novels such as Frankenstein
, and classic horror films such as The Mummy
are part of this tradition. Halloween imagery includes themes of death, evil, and mythical monsters. Imagery of the skull serves as a reminder of death and the transitory quality of human life. Skulls have therefore been commonplace in Halloween ornamentation. Black cats, which have long been associated with witches, are also a common symbol used in Halloween rituals.
Today's Halloween customs are thought to have been influenced by folk customs and beliefs from the Celtic tradition, some of which are likely to have had pagan roots. Scholarly sources suggest that Halloween is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which comes from the old Irish for 'summer's end'.
Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the darker half of the year. Like Beltane, it was seen as a time when the boundary between this world and the other world thinned. This meant that the spirits could more easily come into this world and were particularly active. Some scholars see these spirits as degraded versions of ancient gods whose power remained active in people's minds even after they had been officially replaced by later religious beliefs. At Samhain, it was believed that the spirits needed to be propitiated to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink, or portions of the crops, were left outside for the spirits.
The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes. Places were set at the dinner table and by the fire to welcome them. The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year and must be appeased seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world. In 19th-century Ireland, candles would be lit and prayers formally offered for the souls of the dead.
Fear is a basic human emotion. It is easy to imagine and to sympathise with our ancestors who had to live their lives in fear of everything: wild animals, thunder and lightning, and the unknown world of the spirits whose arbitrary whims affected the crops and human disease. Many of their fears took an extreme form for which nowadays we might use the word 'terror'.
In our own time, many of these fears can be dispelled by our knowledge of science. But not all. Fear can be roused in many of us by the unexplained – the bump in the night, the unlikely coincidence, the feeling that we have been here before. We may profess hardheaded scepticism but nevertheless it is difficult to extinguish a belief, or a half- or quarter-sized belief, in a world of spirits and the fear, or momentary fear, it can generate.
To understand this, it might be helpful to consider the nature of fear. I shall not speak of the first cousin of fear which is anxiety. We may speak of a fear of redundancy but I would prefer to classify that as an anxiety – which is by no means to play it down.
Fear is an emotion and as such it has three components. The most obvious is an affective or emotional component, a component which can be powerful. Secondly, it has a conative component – we would run if we weren't rooted to the spot. Thirdly, emotions have a cognitive core. For example, when we are angry we think someone has injured us or wronged us in some way. When we are jealous we think someone has something we would like or that we are entitled to. It is this cognitive aspect of the fear of a possible spirit world that is the problem.
It is a problem because the object of the fear belongs to a world we cannot control or understand. For example, many people have a fear of spiders. A fear of spiders is irrational, but we can understand why spiders might create fear – their appearance is against them and they have a bad reputation. Moreover, if we suffer from that fear we can take steps to avoid them. It is therefore different from the fear that at Halloween a spirit may penetrate the thin veil between their world and ours.
Basically, the type of fear which is traditionally involved in the ceremonies of Halloween is fear of the dead, the living dead and the apparent dead. This cognitive core can create an extreme form of fear, known as terror.
In the art, literature and medicine of the 17th and 18th centuries, there was an unclear boundary between life and death. The living corpse became a theme in the Gothic novel, and it moved from the novel into the consciousness of the everyday world. In 1876, a doctor wrote that a 'universal panic' had taken hold of people's minds over the idea of being buried alive and waking up in the grave. Many stories of gruesome incidents went the rounds, and precautions were taken before burial.
For example, people left instructions that their bodies were to be watched and guarded for some days, and then cut open, before they were buried. Nevertheless, the fear remained, and remains. Rachmaninov's well-known prelude in C sharp minor which begins with three thumping chords is said to represent a man buried alive. He thumps loudly three times on the coffin lid. The knocking becomes agitated and then dies away.
Alrhough the causes of terror have changed over the ages, the human mind remains susceptible to it. The night-light in a child's bedroom reflects this fear of darkness and the unknown. Paradoxically, many of us enjoy the feeling of terror – provided, of course, that it is in controlled circumstances, as in the cinema or TV screen.
The ability of humans to conquer fear of the supernatural by humour can be seen in many tales from folklore. One tale tells of Jack who (like Tam o' Shanter) encounters the Devil after a night at the pub. Jack tricks the Devil into climbing a tree and then etches the sign of the cross into the bark. The sign of the cross traps the Devil up the tree and this enables Jack to strike a bargain. He will release the Devil on condition that the Devil will never claim his soul.
Unfortunately, after a dissolute life, Jack is refused entry to Heaven when he dies. And, keeping his promise, the Devil refuses to let Jack into Hell either, and he contemptuously throws a live coal straight from the fires of Hell at Jack. It was a cold night, so Jack places the coal into a hollowed-out turnip to stop it from going out. The tale tells us that since that time Jack and his lantern have been roaming the world looking for a place to rest. This is an excellent bit of folklore. It may explain the use of turnip lanterns, although more likely they symbolise the celebration of harvest.
Contemporary science and technology may have allayed some types of fear but they have created new and very real sources of terror. Nuclear annihilation was the main source of terror in the 1950s and 1960s. It remains so today when we learn that nuclear warheads can nowadays be delivered at unstoppable supersonic speeds. My worst fear is of the robotic monsters technology may create. You can at least have an argument with the Devil on the way back from the pub, but not with a know-all and relentless robot. Jack could never have tricked a robot into climbing a tree. Now that is terrifying.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow