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  • The Current UMSL

A Brief History of Halloween and more

By: Lauren Johns

Halloween. It’s an annual spooky holiday where humans acquire shapeshifting capabilities via thick makeup, fake blood and eccentric clothing. Kids beg for treats from door to door, pumpkins are gutted, mutilated and filled with candles and people pay money to tour old warehouses with jump scares, hanging skeletons and chainsaws with the blades removed. We all know this, but do we know the history of this cryptic day?

Photo found on, credit to: Matheus Bertelli

Felia Davenport, (Associate Professor in Communication and Media, with a background in Theatre and Costume Design), explained that the official holiday has different names in religious customs.

“What’s interesting is that ‘Hallow’ means ‘holy’,” Davenport said. “In Christian history, these days are holy days that remember and honor the dead, especially saints.”

“All Hallows Day '' also known as, “All Saints Day” originated in May 609 as a feast where Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Roman Pantheon (a holy temple) to the Virgin Mary. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III changed the date to November 1, and dedicated a Vatican chapel to honor all the saints, (TheBasilicaofTheNationalShrine). “All Souls day” occurs November 2 and was founded by Roman Catholics to honor the “faithfully departed”, or baptized Christians who are in purgatory due to minor sins. Based on the Roman Catholic Doctrine, the departed remain in purgatory until their souls are fully cleansed through prayers of the living, ( Since Oct 31 occurs on the eve of November 1, “All Hallows Eve” or “Halloween” (the “ee” being an abbreviation of evening) was born.

Davenport explains that the customs of Halloween (such as dressing in costumes) are rooted in many cultures, going as far back as Gaelic folk festivals. “Gaelic” is a Celtic language primarily based in the highlands and islands of Western Scotland.

“During the Celtic festival of Samhain, (pronounced ‘Sow-in’ or ‘Sow-en’) , people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts,” Davenport said.

According to a blog by the Boston Public Library, this harvest festival would go from Oct 31 to early November and it symbolized the start of winter, which brought up themes of death. The Celts believed that the veil of the spirit world was thinner at this time of year, allowing the spirits easier access to the world of the living. Crops and animals were sacrificed in the fire to ward off evil and offerings were left for friendlier visitors.

In addition to Celtic rituals using crops and animals to expel bad spirits, root vegetables were historically carved and illuminated for the same purpose. In turn, paving the way for

modern day Jack-O-Lanterns.

"In Ireland and Great Britain, turnips and other root vegetables would be carved to ward away evil spirits and to light the path for Samhain and harvest festival participants," Nolan said. "When immigrants came to the North American colonies, they brought their rituals with them and eventually carved the plentiful, and more malleable, pumpkins."

Different cultures have different interpretations of this holiday. According to Jennifer Nolan, (Director of Gender Studies and Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Sociology and doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford), Halloween is a “syncretic” holiday, which means it is a blending of multiple cultural traits or traditions.

“In Mexico, there is ‘Día de los Muertos' (‘Day of the Dead’) and ‘Fet Gede’ in Haiti, both ancestor related festivals. Other cultures practice similar events, with countries such as China and Japan celebrating ghost festivals during other times of the year,” Nolan said. “Some cultures, such as religious practitioners of Wicca, view the Sabbat of Samhain as a sacred connection to Nature and their ancestors; other religions view it as taboo, but in the United States, it is generally viewed as a secular, yet meaningful, holiday.” For more insight, Wiccans are modern day pagans who may identify as witches. Followers of this religion utilize the pentagram, or five pointed star as their main symbol (

Moving away from the cultural standpoint, Halloween has many therapeutic benefits.

“From a psychosocial perspective, many celebrants of Halloween discuss the therapeutic aspects of seasonal roleplaying, as an outlet for stress and anxiety reduction,” Nolan said. “When viewed as a subculture, we see participants experiencing ‘communitas’, or an experience of shared humanity that transcends social structure, as defined by

Davenport recommends checking out Cherokee Street when Día de Los Muertos is celebrated, typically November 1 and 2. This time of year serves as a sort of family reunion where the guests of honor are dead. Ofrendas or home altars are utilized and can include: candles, marigolds (cempasúchil), fruit, tortillas, red cock’s combs (a type of flower), and Pan de Muerto (large day of the dead breads). In addition, favorite meals of the departed are typically left at grave sites.

Pertaining to the spirit realm, Davenport is a firm believer of the veil but feels that spirits surround us year ‘round and not just on these designated days.

“I love the notion of an altar at this time honoring [spirits], but I believe that spirits surround us daily and help guide our lives,” Davenport said. “I went to a séance in Key West when I was in college and was told someone wanted to speak to me. All she would say is ‘Road Runner’. My cousin's husband passed away when I was a senior in high school. He had a large tattoo on his leg of Road Runner. I truly believed he was there to let me know he was at peace.”

Nolan analyzes the concept of the spirit veil through a more scientific lens.

“From a scholarly perspective, I am interested in the context of how spirit myths originate and evolve and exploring the many cross-cultural commonalities we see with supernatural experiences,” Nolan said. “I think it is quite possible that in the near future we will learn more about supernatural experiences via the lens of interdisciplinary consciousness studies. In fact, various scientists are exploring the possibility of structures in the brain that serve as ‘antennas’ for consciousness.”

To explain further, the brain could act as a radio by channeling different levels of consciousness or frequencies in our universe, leading to a break in the veil. If you are interested in learning more about topics like these, check out Nolan’s classes that she offers: “Supernatural in Popular Culture”, “Urban Legends and Folklore”, and a new course, “Witchcraft, Magic, and Gender”.

Real life instances of the spirit realm interacting with our realm are not uncommon, as mentioned previously by the séance story. Nolan has one of her own short tales to share.

“I grew up in two Victorian homes that were viewed as allegedly haunted,” Nolan said. “When I was about 10 or 11 years old around Halloween, a friend was visiting, and we were playing a Nintendo game in one of the bedrooms. I decided to tell her a scary story about the bedroom, where the original owner had died of Tuberculosis in the late 19th century. As I was telling the story, the television and the ceiling light started flashing on and off. My friend screamed, ran out of the bedroom, and vowed never to visit again. Electrical malfunction or something else?” I guess we’ll never know.

Halloween is one of those times of year where it feels like anything is possible. You can be anything and do anything (as long as it's legal). You could run around like a maniac and howl at the moon and no one would question it. Besides filming it for later blackmailing purposes.

For those in need of last minute costume help, Davenport has a few tips.

“The one thing I do for Halloween is a blend of purchased items and made items,” Davenport said. “I order through Amazon because I can get it in 2 days and it’s also more cost effective than those pop-up shops. I always say keep it simple yet think outside of the box. Last year, I was a toy elf and my daughter was a life size bear. I altered a large teddy bear and my daughter stepped into it and I added a closure.”

Davenport dressed as an elf (left) and her daughter dressed as a bear (right).

Davenport and her daughter posing on a swing set as characters

from the popular video game, "Five Nights at Freddy's".


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