Though my photos below do not do it justice, here’s a little taste of what it’s like to attend the event.
You walk into an intimidatingly enormous Gothic structure. It has been lit and decorated to resemble a haunted sanctuary of evil. (Presumably the opposite of its atmosphere during usual daytime hours.)
Then you are greeted by a skeleton playing live cello.
Even many of the attendees come in costume.
You sit on a chair in the church’s enormous nave, beneath a soaring dome that is tall enough to fit the Statue of Liberty (no exaggeration), facing a projection screen.
Soon, the church fills with organ music, loud and low enough to rattle your ribcage.
Then the silent film begins. This weekend’s selection was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). It is accompanied by the live organist.
After the screening, the church slowly fills with a creeping fog. Soon, people in demon costumes that look like twisted Jim Henson creations start parading slowly down the aisles of the seating area.
They creep and lope erratically, interacting silently with the audience as they pass. The church gradually comes alive with sinister ghouls.
At the end of the parade, the organ plays a triumphant version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and you exit underneath a giant spider boogying on top of the church’s rose window.
You leave feeling as if you have experienced firsthand the lifting of the veil between the living and the restless dead. This is by far one of the best and most unique Halloween traditions.
Many people who find out I’m obsessed with Halloween ask me about the history of the 3,000-year-old holiday. So I’m presenting a “condensed version” of that history here, for blog readers who might be curious but don’t want to read entire books on the topic.
I am not a historian. I have gathered the following information from some of the Halloween history books I like. My sources are listed at the bottom of this post.
I apologize for leaving out — in the interest of brevity — so many details these authors have diligently covered, but I hope you find this “quick history lesson” somewhat informative and/or interesting.
Pre-Christianity, the ancient Celts observed Samhain (pronounced “SOW-in”; meaning “summer’s end”) in the fall. It was their New Year. They celebrated with bonfires and feasts, and slaughtered animals for winter meat. They believed that the spirits of the dead were more likely to enter the world of the living during this sacred “in-between” time, which straddled abundant summer and harsh winter.
Christianity spread throughout Europe, and paganism was condemned as demonic. Samhain was incorporated into the Catholics’ All Saints’ Day (referred to as “Hallowmas,” meaning “sacred festival”) and All Souls’ Day, sanctifying the holiday but allowing it to maintain its focus on celebrating the dead. It became popular for the poor to beg for food door-to-door in return for praying for deceased loved ones.
The word for October 31, the day before Catholic Hallowmas, was “Hallow’s Eve,” a.k.a. “Halloween.” The date soon became its own standalone day of celebration, observed separately from All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1).
Beginning in the Medieval era, the plague gave birth to the Grim Reaper archetype, and paranoia about witchcraft sparked the persecution of witches, who were said to dance with the Devil. By then, the Catholics had officially outlawed paganism, but protestants defiantly kept celebrating.
Scotland and Ireland, fertile home of the Pagan rituals that led to many Halloween traditions, also continued to observe Halloween with bonfires. These were lit to help guide dead spirits home and to protect from witches and malicious fairies who lurked in the forests. Bonfires also offered a convenient way to dispose of the leftovers from autumn harvest. It was in Ireland that the first jack-o-lanterns were carved — using turnips rather than pumpkins — depicting frightening faces intended to scare off evil spirits.
Puritans were opposed to sinful Halloween (though not to witch-hanging; that was apparently wholesome), but other colonists still believed in magic and told ghost stories. Thanks to the Native Americans, farmers discover a better gourd: the pumpkin.
Irish immigrants came to the U.S. and brought Halloween with them. It spread as quickly as germs in a plastic mask. Within decades, American Victorians were reveling in the holiday: throwing parties, establishing the first seasonal decorations, and donning costumes. Halloween fortune-telling games became wildly popular, especially for young adults looking for their soulmates.
By the mid 1900s, Halloween morphed into more of a child-centric holiday featuring candy and spooky G-rated games, plus door-to-door costumed visits. Though there were treats, tricks were also common, as many children pulled pranks on their neighbors. In fact, the earliest parades and “haunted houses,” held at community centers like gyms and churches, were attempts to keep tabs on kids and reign in their mischief.
Thanks in part to good-ol’ American marketing and advertising, by the 1970s, Halloween had become a huge phenomenon in the U.S., with TV shows, products, and commercial goods devoted to the holiday. As artistic representations of Halloween in media and film became increasingly sophisticated, they also became scarier, attracting more adult fans in addition to the already-hooked kiddie crowd.
Nowadays, Halloween is more popular than it has ever been. The holiday has started catching on in farther corners of the globe and is becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
Sources:Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (L. Morton), Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History (L. Bannatyne), and Death Makes a Holiday (D. Skal).
Here is a smattering of their October offerings online.
Not just for Halloween! Also perfect for pre-teen boys’ bedrooms everywhere!
I legitimately like this giant lawn spider web.
And this grim reaper wall sculpture.
My favorite product might be this pewter figurine of a skeleton reclining in an open casket.
But hilariously, Skymall decided to spin the product as a “catch-all dish,” lest it seem like a frivolous purchase devoid of usefulness. And they did so by ‘Shopping some purple accessories into the image. (Thank goodness. I finally have a place for my purple Tic Tacs!)
Keep the myth alive in your neighborhood with this peeping Sasquatch!
Or any of these other Bigfoot-related products (which are legion … and often strangely not categorized in the site’s Halloween section).
Two questions: 1. Do you need a costume? and 2. Are you a Poison fan??
Shirt includes tattooed arms, white graphic tee, vest, and chest hair. Note: The product description is quick to remind potential buyers that the shirt “works great as an everyday shirt to stand out from the crowd.” (I’d say that depends on the crowd.)
I leave you with the inexplicable 30-inch “Tasmanian Devil Statue,” which is featured on the front page of the “Halloween Decor” section of the website … because it looks like a massive subway rat, I guess?
And let’s be real: on what other holiday can they push this thing?
Thank you, Skymall, for reminding us that Halloween is the holiday when truly anything goes.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, on this beautiful late-October day, I would like to introduce you to a photographer that I despise.
I hate him because he’s so talented.
Joey L. has taken exactly the type of beautifully eerie neo-Meatyard costume photos I dream about taking. Every year I awkwardly drag my camera downtown with me on Halloween night, getting it tangled up in my costume, only to end up with blurry snapshots.
He disgusts me because he took these on Halloween. In Brooklyn. With real people wearing real costumes. And they’re sublime.
So go ahead. Bask in the visual glory of Joey L.’s incredible photographic abilities.
Take a moment to marvel at House Beautiful‘s Halloween timeline, which goes back one hundred years, all the way to 1916.
It allows you to see what our holiday was like the year you (or your parents, and even your grandparents!) were born. It’s also a source of interesting Halloween trivia, like the date of the first published mention of the phrase “trick or treat” (1927), the opening of Disney’s Haunted Mansion (1969), and the first year the United States tasted a Twix (1979).
As I write this post — in Salem, MA, no less — I am both joyful and wistful that it is mid-October. Joyful because we are situated snugly right in the middle of our Prime Month, the best month, perfectly enveloped within our favorite season. But also sad, since October is already halfway over! It’s already been going by WAY too fast.
If you agree, then I think it’s time to break out some Halloween-related humor! It’ll cheer us all up.
First, have a good chuckle at the Onion‘s Halloween history timeline, starting with Native Americans’ discovery of pumpkins “while searching for a foyer adornment that would go well with dried cornstalks” and ending with the “eighth f***ing installment of the Saw franchise.” (Quick shout-out to my dear friend Monique, who sent me this link.)
Second, watch this hilarious Key & Peele sketch that takes us back to the early boardroom-planning phase of Gremlins 2.
The best part is that the ludicrous and seemingly random plot ideas they describe while spitballing are in the actual movieitself!
Thirdly, here’s a collection of funny images, starring Slenderman, the IKEA-catalog version of Freddy, pets, and more signs of the impending pumpkin-spice-ocalypse.
What could be spookier than haunting doom-metal-style covers of popular hits of the 80s, as performed by …
Believe it. Not only will these versions give you nightmares, but they were created by simply slowing down the Chipmunks songs to normal speed. (Yes, that means that the pure sonic evil you’re about to hear is how the songs were originally recorded!)
Click each track below to hear the song. But heed my advice: Don’t listen to them alone!
For more slowed-down Chipmunks tracks, see Chipmunkson16speed’s Soundcloud site.