Halloween Haunts: Whatever Happened to Mischief Night? by Charles Christian
During the late 1970s and 1980s, the city of Detroit was plagued by Mischief Night or Devil’s Nights riots that saw widescale arson attacks taking place over the Halloween period, kicking off the night before on 30th October). The worst year on record was 1984, when over 800 fires were started. It was Mischief Nights like these that provided the setting for the cult 1994 Brandon Lee movie The Crow. But, Detroit was not the only place that used to have a Mischief Night.
Growing up in the North of England, in the 1950s and early 1960s, one of the highlights for kids during the long haul between the end of the summer vacation and the Christmas holidays was Guy Fawkes Night on the 5th November. Lots of bonfires, parties and fireworks. Think the 4th of July but in colder weather. For anyone living outside the UK, Guy Fawkes Night is a little hard to explain but in modern terms, we’d probably say it celebrates the defeat of a terrorist gang that was planning to blow up Parliament and kill the king – James the First, Jamestown is named after him –in the year 1605. “Remember, Remember, the 5th of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot,” is the song we’d sing as we danced around our bonfires waving sparklers.
(It should be noted that before the late 1980s, hardly anyone in the UK celebrated Halloween, with its fancy dress parties and trick or treating, in the way American style we are now all familiar with.)
However, for kids like me, there was also the added excitement of Mischief Night, which we celebrated on the 4th November. (We also called it Miggy Night, other variants included Punkie Night, Micky Night and Tick Tack Treat Night.)
For us, Mischief Night was a license to run around the town engaging in minor acts of vandalism and anti-social behaviour, such as knocking on doors or ringing doorbells then running away before they were answered. Sometimes called “Knock, Knock, Ginger,” the key was to run away very fast less an irate but speedy householder was out of the door and giving you a clip around the head before you’d made your escape.
Other activities including letting the air out of car tyres, filling keyholes with chewing gum (this was the pre-Super Glue age), and dropping lighted fireworks through letterboxes. Then there were the anonymous phone calls to random numbers where we’d take great pleasure in shouting into the handset “Get off the line Mister, there’s a train coming!” (I know, what wits we were!)
As for the unpopular teacher at school (we still had corporal punishment, spanking with a slipper or being caned with a stick in those days, so some teachers were really unpopular) their punishment on Mischief Night was to be on the receiving end of a string of taxis arriving at their door at 30 minute intervals throughout the evening to collect a passenger who had never ordered a cab.
Such activities would undoubtedly earn us all criminal records if we were caught doing this today but we generally managed to stay on the right side of naughty pranks and avoid committing serious vandalism (well at least not really serious vandalism). In fact there was a genuine belief (erroneous as it happens) that the police were not allowed to arrest you on Mischief Night!
And, it wasn’t just in my home town of Scarborough. Mischief Night was celebrated across all the Northern counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and as far south as Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. We had lanterns, called Punkie lanterns (“Give me a candle, Give me a light, If you don’t, You’ll get a fright”) only they were carved out of turnips or swedes, rather than pumpkins.
Where did Mischief Night come from? According to Victorian folklorists, its popularity spread from Yorkshire, because Guy Fawkes was born in York and he was up to mischief on the evening of the 4th November, when he was preparing the gunpowder in the undercroft beneath the House of Lords in London, which is where he was captured. (In true 17th century style justice, he was subsequently tortured, then he and his co-conspirators were gruesomely executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered.)
But, given the strong Viking heritage of these Northern counties – all part of Danelaw and ruled by the Vikings from the mid 8th, to mid 10th centuries – is there actually a far older tradition at work here, rolling back to Loki, the Norse trickster god (yes, the guy out of the Marvel movies) and the even more ancient Samhain pagan/druid fire festivals that were also held at this time of the year?
Sadly, we’ll never know the true connection to these celebrations of one thousand years or more ago. And, ironically, given the way Halloween has now eclipsed not just Mischief Night but also Guy Fawkes Night, it seems likely that within a generation the way we celebrated Mischief Night just 50 years ago will also be totally forgotten.
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CHARLES CHRISTIAN is a UK-based writer and journalist. His most recent book is A Travel Guide to Yorkshire’s Weird Wolds: The Mysterious Wold Newton Triangle is available on Amazon www.amazon.com/dp/B00XE3Z9TW. He can be found blogging at www.UrbanFantasist.com as well as on Twitter at @ChristianUncut