Wednesday, October 31, 2018

What's the deal with goblins and ghosts?

Today is Halloween, a time when ghosts, skulls, and tombstones decorate front lawns, a time when not only is it all right to scare the daylights out of people, but it's encouraged. The creepiest, spookiest houses on the street are the coolest, and children dressed as goblins and skeletons race with gleeful shrieks towards that fear.

Why this celebration of the macabre? Why the fascination with death and blood and creatures that return from the dead? Why the compulsion to scare and horrify ourselves?

Preoccupation with the dead and their spirits dates back to the beginning of time, and although the celebration has evolved and absorbed others over the centuries, the origins of modern Halloween can be traced to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain around 2000 years ago. The Celts celebrated the new year on November 1, which marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the long, cold winter (an idea that makes a lot more sense than January 1). They believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the living and the dead became porous and the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. On October 31 they had a celebration with sacred bonfires and sacrifices, dressed in costumes, and told fortunes in an attempt to curry favour with the Celtic deities for the coming year.

When the Romans conquered the Celtic lands, two Roman festivals were merged into Samhain, one of them being the annual Roman festival to commemorate the passing of the dead, which took place in October. And by the 9th century, the influence of Christianity reached the Celtic lands and put a Christian interpretation on existing festivals like Samhain. The Roman Catholic church had designated November 1 as All Saints Day and November 2 as All Souls Day, both intended to remember and honour the dead through parades, masses, and ceremonies. All Hallows Eve was the night before All Saints Day and marked the beginning of this three-day commemoration of the dead. Thus Halloween got its contemporary name.

The evolution of Halloween in Europe and North America into its current form is too complicated for this admittedly brief historical journey, but suffice to say that fear of ghosts, spirits, death, and the unknown were a vivid part of human experience since our early days, as was the belief that powers beyond ourselves controlled our destiny. Elaborate festivals and rituals evolved as attempts to provide reassurance and strength, as well as to trick, influence, appease, bribe, or defy those powers.

What does this have to do with crime fiction? I don't think we writers are attempting to influence fate. But perhaps we are trying to stare death and fear in the eye, shake our fists at it, perhaps demystify it a little, and at least in fiction defeat it so that justice and goodness prevail.

That's as far as I will go today. I have a couple of pumpkins waiting to be carved, a ghostly spectre to hang, and a scary costume to devise before the gleefully terrified children arrive at the door.


Thomas Kies said...

Great post, Barbara. Of course, I'm a big fan of Halloween.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Thanks, Thomas. I think it's great fun, although I regret the commercial influence that has taken over in recent years. There was a time when cleverly carved pumpkins and homemade treats and costumes were enough. But time marches on.