It’s almost Halloween, you guys.
If you asked me in my wildest dreams if I could have a job that allowed me to read academic articles about the origin and folklore of Halloween and then write a dissertation on it for a website I would have said YES! But also are you hiiiiiigh (you were). But now I have a ghost blog and absolutely no professional oversight, so let’s learn about Halloween.
The author (right), as a young bat
I have always loved this holiday – ever since I was a precious kindergartener winning the school costume contest for my mom’s hand sewn BATGIRL costume. It was always straight up magical to me. This was a night full of beautiful, riotous color, freedom to wander the streets, bags full of candy, and the holy grail – COSTUMES. Important fact about me: I will attend with great reverence any themed or costume-required event. I will show up in the most obscure outfit and I will put 1000% effort into it. If I have to rent a sword or a vintage car or shave my head to make the costume complete I will. I accept nothing less than total commitment to the role. This is why I have so many gay friends, ok?
I have some excellent stories about my ridiculous costumes – this is prime Instagram content, by the way – that I’ll reveal next week when I talk about modern American Halloween traditions. But first, where did Halloween even come from? And why is this a time to bring out the scary, the profane, and the morbid? And should people like me be EGGING ON THE SCARY AND PROFANE AND MORBID? (Spoiler alert: that is the premise of this whole project, so probably yes).
The Origins of Halloween
Halloween is a modern day descendant of the Celtic holiday of Samhain. The Celts were early Europeans. Their tribes lived in the British Isles, France, and Spain. They were mostly conquered by the Romans, but their culture was strongest in Ireland. That’s why when you went through your “Celtic” phase in the late 90’s (remember that you guys? With all the silver jewelry? This is the same time that the meatheads in your social circle were getting TRIBAL ARMBAND TATTOOS?) it was pretty well associated with the Irish. Also – Enya.
For the ancient Celts, Samhain was New Year’s Eve. It was the dividing day between the light season (spring and summer) and the dark (fall and winter). The Celts believed that time was dislocated at Samhaim, and that “the division between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through” (Newgrange). On Samhain, spirits and ghosts were out and about. People left food for them and kept fires lit to warm them, or perhaps to frighten them away.
During the 8th century, the Christian Church tried to get a foothold in Europe and the British Isles, which were mostly still pagan. As Rome conquered Celtic lands, Pagan holidays began to be reframed as Christian practices – this allowed the Church to capitalize on the popularity of pagan practices to get new converts. Around this time. Pope Gregory III moved the annual festival of All Saints’ Day to November 1, to locate it near Samhain. All Saint’s Day was also called “All Hallows Day” so the night before was “All Hallows Eve” which gave us Halloween. Halloween came to America with the mass migration of Irish famine refugees in the nineteenth century.
What we think of as the scariness of Halloween – ghosts, skeletons, goblins – comes from the ancient ideas of the Celts. To them, the veil between life and death was thin on this day, and the spirits of the dead were close. As Sarah Chavez writes, “Halloween was once intricately tied to a day when we actively engaged with death; and facing our own mortality was at the heart of the celebration.” There was a literal and figurative death ahead for those celebrating Samhain- winter means the dying of the land, but in the early middle ages many people would not survive the season for lack of food, exposure to the bitter cold, or illness. Samhain was a time to face that.
The Veil is Thin Today
So what does that mean for modern day America? Many people who are not me only think about death and ghosts at this time of year. Maybe at this time of year, the veil is thinner for most Americans simply because it’s on their mind, allowing thoughts about death and haunting to creep in.
To talk through some of this, I called my friend Jenine Beecher. Jenine is a professional psychic medium – she’s also someone I have known since ACTUAL MIDDLE SCHOOL. She’s a skier, an outdoor enthusiast, a genuinely caring and compassionate person who is out to be a force for good in the world. You may not believe in life after death, the spirit world, or psychic abilities, but Jenine has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues and her philosophy holds for all of us: it’s best to try to conjure what we want, not what we’re afraid of; to spend this time of thinness thinking about ancestors that we miss and love; and to dig deep to work on yourself as the death of winter approaches.
Jenine has written about Halloween, and what its like for a psychic medium, in an absolutely fascinating blog post that you should definitely read. For Jenine, this time of year is noisy, with spirits clamoring for more attention than usual, because people like us are clamoring to see spirits. We gleefully hang tiny ghosts in trees, stock our front yard with fake tombstones, and watch horror movies. Some of us put a life-sized motion activated La Llorona figure in our living room which SHOULD I REALLY BE ENCOURAGING THAT but that’s why we have Jenine to advise us. Thinking about stuff like this activates it – in the culture but also in the spirit world, for folks like Jenine. When these activated energies look around for contact, they spot her. And then they want attention. (UGHHH did you just get the shivers because I did. Don’t come to my house, JB – I have conjured up quite a party here).
Jenine explained that to get her attention, spirits will come into her space. As a clairvoyant, she sees them in her mind’s eye, and she is also clairsentient, so she can pick up on their feelings. Because she’s sensitive to their presence, spirits see her as a conduit and harass her for attention. They can get pushy and threatening if they don’t get what they want. And if the veil is thin around Halloween, you can imagine that that’s a lot of attention-seeking annoyance from anxious spirits. I want to make a joke about my children here sooooo bad but I’m also trying to conjure the positive, mmkay?
For Jenine, Halloween is exhausting. “This time of year, people are matching what they think of as the modern energy of Halloween. Everyone is dressed as something scary and ugly, and when you celebrate that, you’re participating in the energy of that being.” In other words, when you dress as a killer or a zombie, you’re bringing killer zombie energy to those around you. You’re participating in and animating what she calls “low vibration energies,” also called bad or dark energies. Hauntings are an example of low vibe energies. By naming something and acting it out, you give it power, and this is why pretending to be a killer is participating in a murderous type of energy. Jenine says there’s no heart in it. “We should be bigger, and embody better qualities. Why not dress up as an admirable character, something with a higher spirit?” LIKE BATGIRL, OK YOU GUYS?
Keeping it Real
So how do we raise the vibration and still enjoy this time of year? Jenine says that this is the time to think about the transitions in our own lives. “Confronting death this time of year is a beautiful thing. We should be thinking about our own life and death, and also about those that have passed on. This is a time to honor them and bring them close, in a way that is in tune with nature.” In other words, instead of emulating ghoulish behavior to confront death, think about those that you miss and love, and honor them instead. Death isn’t always violent, and it shouldn’t be scary. Reframing how we think about death and its representations at Halloween can help us throughout the whole year. During the thinning of the veil, you can confront these issues in your own lives, and grief is a powerful emotion. It takes more courage to face that than to watch a horror movie or go to a haunted house.
Wanting contact with the dead, with those that have passed on, is a very natural human emotion. According to Jenine, people seek the same things from a person after they die that they did when they were alive. What folks want from spirits depends on where they are in their relationship to them: are they feeling guilt? Worry? Love? Many people worry about the transition of their loved ones from earthly body to spirit body, but Jenine says the relationship has not ended, only changed. Part of what we seek when we seek contact with the dead is how to manage this relationship in its new form.
I’m a writer. My job is to tell stories, and to bring people, things, and concepts to life on the page. Ghosts are at the center of my work because to me, they are emblematic of so much more. Ghost stories tell us human stories; culture tells us about people and what they want and fear. Behind the ghost stories around Halloween, there’s fear of death, fear of loss, and the hauntings that are present in everyone’s lives. You don’t have to believe in ancient Celtic mythology or human psychic abilities to find meaning in this day. Remembering the dead is central to what makes us human. And as we move from the season of light to the season of dark, it’s appropriate to think on that. NOW EXCUSE ME WHILE I RAID THE MINI BUTTERFINGER STASH IN MY PANTRY. Till next week, ghostlings.