1.38 Halloween

TORONTO, ONTARIO: Halloween is a time for adults to play dress-up. Walking around the streets last night, no one batted an eye at the human-sized hotdog stepping on the streetcar, count Dracula ordering a pumpkin-spiced latte at Starbucks, or a witch standing outside a bar smoking a cigarette. Vampires and zombies seemed to be the overwhelming choice of the majority. I guess they’re easy: Slap on some fake blood, pale make-up and fangs and you’re done. Some people are more committed but you can always count on the person who believes they are being clever when dressed as Alex from A Clockwork Orange.

My favorite costume so far this year has to be the giant skating stingray. I teach little kids how to skate and we encourage them to wear their costumes. One skater came dressed as a giant stingray. He was having trouble skating because the costume was worn on his back, the wings of the stingray spread like a sail. The costume worked counter-intuitively with the wind.

I don’t dress-up. The kids ask me why. I tell them that I’m dressed as a skating coach. It might be boring but I tell them that this means I dress-up all the time instead of just once a year. Now that’s exciting.

Where did all these strange Halloween traditions come from? This is a night where little kids embrace dressing up as a devil, black cats take on an entirely different iconography and pumpkins are popular. Armed with the Internet, I sought out to explore three key elements of Halloween: The haunted house, costumes and pumpkins.

From an entirely unreliable source, the origin of Halloween started over 2000 years ago with The Celts in the United Kingdom, Ireland and France. They had a festival called Samhain, which celebrated the end of summer (the harvest season) and the beginning of winter (associated with death). “The Celts believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth causing trouble and damaging the community’s food supply.” The Romans soon took over and three festivals were combined: All-hallows Eve (All Saint’s Day), the church’s day to honour the dead (All Soul’s Day) and Samhain.

You see where this is going.

The traditions were brought to North America, and although there was resistance at first, the festivities were soon embraced to celebrate the harvest. It’s always about the harvest. Fast-forward, Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday.

People decorate houses with fake gravestones, cobwebs and caution tape but nothing compares to an actual haunted house. University of Hertfordshire Professor Richard Wiseman is developing an experiment to measure the effects of the ‘haunted house’ by distinguishing whether individuals are affected by psychological means or environmental factors. “I think people have genuinely strange experiences,” he says. “They can be because of environmental factors and if the house is know to be haunted.” Houses all have a certain amount of residue from the people that lived in them. How could they not?

All I’ll say is that I don’t believe in ghosts. But they exist.

There is a phenomenon sweeping American religious fundamentalists called ‘Hell House’. This is a completely different kind of haunted house. The Hell House takes visitors through a tour of sin with elaborate scenes complete with actors and high-end lighting and special effects displays. Visitors walk through the different rooms and scenes are depicted in disturbing detail. School massacres such as Columbine, the sin of suicide, homosexuals dying of AIDS-related deaths, drunk driving crashes and botched abortions. At the end of each scene, the perpetrators renounce their poor decisions and explain how different choices could have brought them closer to heaven.

The tour usually ends in the ‘Decision Room’ where the audience is presented with the challenge of whether or not they believe they will go to heaven and hell. The point is to scare the crap out of the visitors and put them on the road to taking Jesus Christ into their hearts. Some churches claim 1 out of 5 visitors to Hell House become Christians or recommit themselves to the church.

Hell House is scary. But scary for reasons completely different than the intentions of the organizers. It’s a totally different level of fear.

Dressing up in costumes can be attributed to The Celts. Those pesky dead spirits would return, looking for fresh bodies to inhabit. Apparently, all laws of space and time were suspended on October 31, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living. People would extinguish fires in their homes to make them cold and undesirable. In order to avoid becoming possessed, The Druids persuaded people of the time that the best thing to do would be to dress up in scary costumes. This would obviously frighten the dead spirits away.

Things have changed. I can’t see the man dressed up as a life-sized hotdog scaring any of the evil dead spirits away.

The history of the pumpkin as a symbol of Halloween is not as interesting. Back to The Celts. They originally used turnips and carved the likeness of deceased loved ones, inserting into the turnip a lump of burning coal as a source of light. When European settlers came to North America, the pumpkin was perfect: Larger and easier to carve. The decision was easy, sorry turnip.

There are several variations on the origin of the Jack o’lantern. Apparently, Jack was a bad guy and stole from some honest townspeople. He was chased and ran up a tree when the devil appeared. He tricked the devil into promising not to take his soul. Heaven was no longer an option for poor Jack and even if he wanted to get into hell, the devil wasn’t too happy about being tricked. He has left wandering the earth, searching for a resting place. The devil provided him with an ember from the flames of hell. Jack carved out a turnip (his favorite food) and placed the ember inside.

What this has to do with Halloween, I don’t know. But does it really matter? The interesting thing to me is that we scalp the pumpkin, pull out all its insides and carve through its skin to make scary faces. There is something masochistic about this.

So, there: Now you know.

With files from an article by Jerry Wilson and the The Guardian.