Holiday Horror (Part I)

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October 13, 2022

The presence of pumpkin spice, fall color, and lengthening shadows heralds the holiday season. Spectacle soon follows with creepy costumes, jack-o’-lanterns, and haunted attractions. It is the beginning and the end, that dreaded time when the dead walk among the living. After all, there’s a reason one of the most successful slasher film franchises in history is named after a day that symbolizes all things spooky.

These days, however, you’re more likely to experience frolicking rather than fear on Halloween. In Canada and the United States, the holiday is noted for costume contests, trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving, bobbing for apples, and horror film marathons.

Día de los Muertos

Although not as popular in other countries, some related customs have migrated beyond man-made borders. For instance, if you visit Mexico on October 31, you’ll discover Día de las Brujas, a festival day for children that closely resembles Halloween. This event precedes Día de los Muertos, a significant cultural commemoration  of the dead.

During this joyous occasion, home altars are decorated with candles, marigolds (cempasúchil), sugar skulls, colorful paper flags (papel picado) and other offerings (ofrendas). Although Día de los Muertos is historically rooted in Mesoamerican culture, native customs eventually combined with elements from the western Christian observance of Allhallowtide: three days marked by All Hallows’ Eve (October 31), All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’ Day, November 1), and All Souls’ Day (November 2).

A Brief History

In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a holy observance honoring Christian saints, now known as All Saints’ Day. When used as a noun, the word “hallow” means “saint,” which accounts for the name All Hallows’ Eve, or what we now call Halloween, on October 31.

Although controversial, there are many who trace the roots of Halloween back to Samhain, a Gaelic festival commemorating the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. The transitional time between the old and the new was considered dangerous because boundaries between the physical and spirit worlds were at their thinnest. In the Celtic custom, Samhain started when the sun set on October 31.

On this night, Druids disguised themselves from evil spirits and held the dark at bay with towering bonfires and ritual sacrifice. These customs later merged with the Roman festival Feralia and then again with the Catholic tradition of All Souls’ Day (November 2).

Practical matters

Writers seeking stories rooted in Allhallowtide and its cultural predecessors have a treasure trove of traditions to mine for inspiration. Although Halloween is primarily celebrated as a commercial holiday in Canada and the United States, it is also observed in other parts of the world. In many cases, it overlaps with existing folklore and religious rites. In some instances, ancient practices such as Samhain have been resurrected and are now observed as contemporary religions. Due to this practice, it is important to respect living traditions to avoid issues with cultural appropriation in the stories we choose to tell.  

However, this doesn’t mean that aspects of these other experiences are completely off-limits. A bit of research can reveal alternate ways to explore and interpret sacred symbols in a completely different cultural context.

Measuring the Marigold

For instance, as part of the practices associated with Día de los Muertos, the Aztec marigold (Targetes erecta) is known as the flower of the dead. In England, on the other hand, the common marigold (Calendula officinalis) is known as Husbandman’s Dial or Summer’s Bride because it faithfully follows the sun as it travels across the sky. As such, it’s associated with consistency and endurance in marriage and love.

In other circles, due to its color, the marigold can also represent jealousy, grief, and uneasiness. In folk remedies, this flower is said to cure the pain of bee stings, an interesting connection as bees are often associated with death. And then, there is an old superstition that marigolds can protect a person against witchcraft. Once you start following the branching connections, you’re bound to discover endless possibilities to immerse yourself in story.

Resources and Starting Points

There are many resources available that you can search for creative prompts. Start with the Library of Congress project “Halloween: Topics in Chronicling America” to look for historic photographs and links to in-depth topics ranging from Halloween fairies in Hawaii to the shady specters of San Francisco.

For a vintage point of view, check out the pages of Dennison’s Bogie Book for Halloween (1920) or The Book of Hallowe’en (1919). Other options might be to riff off an old pastimes in the pages of Games for Hallow-e’en (1912) or to draw inspiration from a historic holiday postcard (New York Public Library).

By using this varied approach, you’re bound to create a unique tale of terror that will haunt long after the last word has been savored.

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