Halloween Haunts: A Halloween Primer for Horror Writers by Lisa Morton
As a Halloween expert, I’ve been asked to do a lot of interesting things. I’ve been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal about the proliferation of sexy Halloween costumes, I’ve jabbered away on the supplements for the Blu-ray release of the movie Trick ‘r Treat, and I’ve been asked by writer and editor friends to fact-check works of Halloween fiction.
Most horror writers love Halloween (of course!), and I’m betting most of them know more about the holiday than the average joe. They’ve seen the yearly documentaries, they’ve read enough Halloween-themed fiction to fill a haunted house, and maybe they’ve even scoffed up a non-fiction history or two.
But do they really know enough about Halloween to write an accurate piece of fiction about their most beloved of holidays?
I’m going to address here a few of the most overused mistakes of the Halloween fiction sub-genre, the ones that make anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the festival’s history grit their teeth and wince, the ones that make me want to close the book or hit the “Stop” button no matter how far into the story I am.
Let’s start with “Samhain”, possibly the single most misunderstood part of Halloween’s history, and the one thing I see done to death in fiction (and film). Part of the dilemma regarding poor Samhain dates back to the eighteenth century, when a British engineer named Charles Vallancey was sent to Ireland on a surveying mission. Vallancey, who fancied himself a historian, fell in love with Celtic lore and Irish culture, and wrote hundreds of thousands of words collecting everything he studied. Here’s the thing: Vallancey was wrong…willfully, disastrously, wrong. Scholars had already deciphered the word “Samhain” as meaning “summer’s end”, and had linked it to the ancient Irish Celts’ New Years’ festival, held on October 31st; but Vallancey arbitrarily dismissed this standard definition and decided that Samhain was the name of a Celtic “Lord of Death”, who was feted on October 31st.
Even though Vallancey was dismissed by his own peers (one critic famously said that Vallancey had written “more nonsense than any man of his time”), his books had already found their way onto library shelves around the world, and soon formed a strange alternate history for Halloween, one in which savage, bloodthirsty primitives offered up human sacrifices to their diabolical Lord of Death on Halloween…as compared to the truth, which was that the Celts likely celebrated their end of summer with a great feast, governmental gatherings, and sporting events like horse races (and yes, it’s likely that the Celts really did practice human sacrifice on Samhain, but archaeological evidence suggests that it was an honor to be chosen for sacrifice, and that it was performed only in years when the harvest was substandard).
Now, compound Vallancey’s awful error with a mispronunciation – “Sam-Hayne” instead of the correct “Sow-in” – and you get the single most common trope in Halloween fiction. How many books/films can you think of that have included a character called “Sam Hain”? Believe me, there are a lot. Now, I’m not saying these works are bad; far from it. One of the most recent uses – in the afore-mentioned Trick ‘r Treat – produced one of the very best Halloween-themed horror films ever. But I am suggesting that before you read about Samhain somewhere and run off to write your epic novel about a Halloween maniac named “Sam Hain”, you should probably be aware that it’s both been done before and was wrong to begin with.
Halloween fiction in the past – and we’re talking late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century here – often focused on how the holiday was celebrated at the time, and stories centered on quaint descriptions of polite middle-class parties, usually revolving around a fortune-telling game which comes true. By the middle of the 1900s, writers like Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury modernized the Halloween tale, with Bradbury providing what many (including me) consider to be the single finest work of Halloween short fiction ever produced: “The October Game” is about a classic Halloween party prank that is revealed in the last line to be somewhat…er…unsavory.
However, by the end of the last century and the beginning of the current one, Halloween fiction both became very popular, and seemed to settle into a bit of a nostalgic rut. Most of those writing Halloween fiction now are old enough to remember the golden age of trick or treat, that astonishing ritual in which children were empowered by costumes one night a year and rampaged through suburbia, demanding candy. Trick or treat has been at the heart of the vast majority of Halloween fiction produced over the last twenty years; even works – like Norman Partridge’s Bram Stoker Award-winning novella Dark Harvest – that don’t directly refer to trick or treat nonetheless capture the nostalgia of being young and let loose on that one special night of the year.
Obviously most of the writers who pen trick or treat-related works can draw from personal childhood experiences…but I still see them get certain key elements wrong more often than you’d think. Here’s a CliffsNotes version of trick or treat’s history: It is not based on some ancient Celtic ritual, nor is it even strictly a European tradition (although it probably has its roots in practices like “souling”, in which beggars once went from house to house performing little songs in exchange for special breads on All Souls’ Eve, and some Guy Fawkes Day traditions, in which British children, on or about November 5th, costumed themselves in rags and begged “a penny for the Guy”, or money to buy fireworks). Trick or treat may have actually started in Canada – the phrase was first recorded in association with Halloween in Alberta in 1927 (although there’s no mention of costuming). It wasn’t until after World War II that the version of trick or treat we know now – i.e., costumed children going from house to house uttering the phrase “trick or treat” and being rewarded with candy – spread throughout the United States, and it came about largely as a way to control the destructive pranking that had cost cities millions of dollars in the 1920s and 1930s. It turned out to be cheaper to buy pint-sized vandals off with parties and candy than replace broken windows, burned buildings, and shattered light fixtures. Any suggestion that Halloween arrived in America via a direct line from some ancient practice is simply incorrect, as is the notion that it somehow derived from scaring off spirits on the most haunted of nights.
While Halloween fiction seems fixated on letting writers and readers recapture the magic of that special autumn night, the real-life celebration has moved on. Adults began to reclaim the holiday in the 1970s, and by the 2000s the haunted attractions industry – which incorporates everything from seasonal amusement parks to suburban front lawns – was generating a billion dollars a year in revenue. Halloween sales of beer and decorations have overtaken every other holiday except Christmas, and over the last decade Halloween’s popularity has exploded globally, with Halloween celebrations and events now recorded in places like Ukraine, South Africa, and China. The related holiday of Dia de los Muertos is catching on, especially in U.S. cities with a large Spanish-speaking population, and also with young people who feel that Halloween has become overly commercialized.
I mention all this just by way of suggesting that Halloween is a holiday that is almost constantly changing, and I have no doubt that we’ll see Halloween fiction change with it. But please – don’t keep saying that every new Halloween practice “dates back to the ancient Celts”; even though your work is fiction, you are endangering that all-important suspension of disbelief when you offer up false history like that. I’d frankly like to see us lay the ghost of Charles Vallancey to rest permanently.
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Lisa Morton’s most recent book is the non-fiction Trick or Treat?: A History of Halloween (from Reaktion Books). Forthcoming by the end of October is Hell Manor (from Bad Moon Books), a Halloween-themed novella that is most definitely not about trick or treat, and in 2013 JournalStone will publish her novella Summer’s End, which does not center on a character named “Sam Hain”. Lisa’s Halloween website, http://halloween.lisamorton.com, includes Halloween history, galleries of images, more about her other Halloween books, and her Halloween blog.