Early in the horror movie, Halloween II, a kid is shown being admitted to a hospital emergency room, a razor blade stuck in his gums. It’s gruesome and reminds us of the warnings we all heard about sickos putting sharp objects into Halloween candy. The third installment of the Halloween franchise includes references to the “Samhain, the Celtic God of the Dead” as the demonic originator of modern Halloween. This chimes with stories told with glee by neo-goths on the one hand, and with condemnation by hardcore Christians on the other.
Both of these memes, dangerous candy and Celtic demons, have only tenuous connections to the truth, but Buzzkilling them teaches us a great deal about the history of Halloween and about why urban legends spread.
The internet will be full of “5 Myths about Halloween” click bait posts, but only Professor Buzzkill can give you something worth thinking about.
Let’s start with origin myths. Pre-Christian Europeans are both credited and condemned for creating Halloween. Shallow and prejudiced interpretations of Celtic stories from Ireland and Britain generally take the following form. Halloween was a pre-Christian (pagan) celebration of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win), the “Celtic God of the Dead.” Samhain’s followers (devil worshippers) would practice door-to-door terrorism, demanding food for their god, and killing people who didn’t oblige. Sometimes Druids were involved, and sometimes pumpkins were used to mark houses that have already been “trick or treated” in this demonic way. Radical fundamentalist Christians like Jack Chick and David Brown have pushed these stories, and added the idea that proto-Christians were the ones terrorized and killed.
These tales not only have no real historical basis, they completely leave out the fact that modern Halloween is a blend of pre-Christian and early Christian practices, and that none of them involve devils. First of all, Samhain was not the Celtic God of the Dead. “Samhain” was a the word for a season (basically autumn). It was also used as a name for a Celtic festival in late October/early November that marked the end of summer or the end of the harvest. It was a time when fairies and spirits could come into the human world, and the souls of the dead could come back and visit their homes. Food was often left out for them.
Christianity arrived in Britain and Ireland during the 400s and 500s. What happened to to Samhain traditions and how did Halloween develop? By the early 700s, many churches in the Britain and Ireland started observing All Hallows Day on November 1, as a celebration of departed saints (the “hallowed”). Most scholars believe that Samhain traditions and practices were more or less seamlessly woven into the All Hallows Day observances. This took place over a number of decades. The two holidays almost certainly merged together easily over time as people converted to Christianity. Over the next thousand years, All Hallows Eve (the day before All Hallows Day) was celebrated in lots of different ways. These observances often involved representing (and praying for) departed souls, especially those in purgatory waiting to get to heaven. Sometimes people dressed in various guises representing these departed souls. They went from house to house, asking for food for their journey from purgatory to heaven. These were representations of departed Christian souls, not demons or devils from hell. So the idea that Halloween started as a demonic holiday is nuts.
In the 1500s, many early Protestants stripped Halloween of what they saw as overly Catholic and Popish doctrines, such as the idea of purgatory. Other Protestants created their own version of purgatory (variously called Hades, the Intermediate State, or the Bosom of Abraham) and kept the traditional Halloween practices. A tiny sliver of Protestant groups argued that the souls of Halloween were evil spirits, but they were so few as to be ignored.
Halloween customs were modified over the subsequent centuries to include pranks and tricks and other things that went along with the wearing of masks. Like all holidays, Halloween had its ups and downs in terms of popularity and went in and out of fashion over the centuries. By the 20th century, it took its relatively secular form that we know today and became mostly a holiday for children.
Cut to the late-20th century, and suddenly those very children were under threat during Halloween trick or treating. Stories spread across the United States that psychopaths were sticking pins and razor blades into Halloween candy. Children were being maimed after biting into these booby-trapped treats. Hospitals offered to x-ray bags of Halloween candy, and parents cut treats up, looking for pins and razors. There were even stories of candy being poisoned.
Like all the myths we study at the Buzzkill Institute, these stories almost never have a basis in fact. Actual cases of candy tampering are extremely rare, almost to the point of statistical insignificance given how many millions of people hand out Halloween candy. In 1959 a California dentist gave out candy-coated laxatives to children, but he was caught and convicted for endangering children and dispensing drugs illegally. No children were seriously harmed. A New York woman gave out inedible objects in 1964 to children she thought were too old to trick or treat. But these were things like steel wool or dog biscuits, so no one was stupid enough to eat them. She too was convicted of endangering children.
Since then, the only case of a child dying from eating adulterated Halloween candy was the tragic story of a Texas boy whose own father poisoned one of his Pixy Stix. The father wanted to collect on the boy’s life insurance, and gave out other poisoned Pixy Stix to trick or treaters in an effort to cover up his crime. (Those other children didn’t consume the Pixy Stix.) So the only child who died from adulterated Halloween candy was killed by a family member, not by a stranger.
These two big, evil myths (pre-Christian demons and modern candy tampering) have become pervasive in American culture. Many fundamentalist Christians refuse to observe Halloween because they think it’s Satanic. Some parents go to extremes in examining their children’s trick-or-treat candy. And both myths spread across the country for the same basic reasons. It only takes a few tweaks of ancient Celtic stories to make them sound demonic and essentially anti-Christian. “Departed souls” is easily changed to “demonic souls.” And the word “pagan” has long been misinterpreted as “anti-Christian” rather than “pre-Christian.”
Similarly, candy tampering is an easily-spread myth. It chimes in with paranoia about psychos and perverts around every corner. Like other urban legends, the stories are vague and always take place in a different town. And like every other urban legend, it falls apart under serious investigation.
So chill out, Buzzkillers. Enjoy Halloween secure in the knowledge that you’re not a demonic paganist threatening the foundations of Christianity, and that you can revert to your Snickers-bingeing childhood razor-blade free.
Lisa Morton, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween
Halloween has spread around the world, yet its associations with death and the supernatural as well as its inevitable commercialization have made it one of our most puzzling holidays. How did it become what it is today?
Trick or Treat is the first book both to examine the origins and history of Halloween and to explore in depth its current global popularity. Festivals like the Celtic Samhain and Catholic All Souls’ Day have blended to produce the modern Halloween, which has been reborn with new customs in America—but there are also related but independent holidays, especially Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Lisa Morton lifts the cobwebs off everything from the explosion in popularity of haunted attractions to the impact of events like the global economic recession, as well as the effect Halloween has had on popular culture through literary works, films, and television series.
Taking us on a journey from the spectacular to the macabre, this book is a treat for anyone who wants to peep behind the mask to see the real past and present of this ever more popular holiday.