Death and Plenty: Imagining Halloween by Lesley Bannatyne

Snap-Apple Night (1833) by Daniel Maclise Snap-Apple Night (1833) by Daniel Maclise

The piece is based on research done for an anthology of older Halloween literature (A Halloween Reader, Pelican Publishing, 2005).

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.

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.

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 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 was set.

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.”

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.

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.

Lesley Bannatyne is a freelance journalist and author who often writes on folklore and the arts. She has published five books on Halloween, including Halloween Nation. Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night (2011), which was a finalist for a Bram Stoker award. Her articles and stories have been published in Shooter Literary Magazine, the Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.