One year ago, American families prepared for a Halloween that came on the heels of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. As the annual holiday of masking and mischief approached, a sense of foreboding hung in the cooling air of autumn.
Fears were fanned by a widely circulated e-mail in which an Afghan warned his girlfriend in the US to stay clear of airplanes, shopping malls, and public spaces on Halloween. Instead of trick-or-treating, many families threw parties for their children for fear of anthrax-laced candies or other acts of malevolence.
The e-mail proved to be a hoax: No one laced their treats with poison, and the All Hallows' Eve specter floated by quietly. As author David Skal argues, last year's fright was understandable, but not new. In his new book "Death Makes a Holiday," he suggests that urban legends, social tensions, and death anxiety have long been the stuff of Oct. 31.
Skal delivers a page-turning look at Halloween's evolution from a pagan harvest rite to one of the biggest and most profitable holidays in the US. He looks at how the Salem witch trials shaped the American imagination; explores haunted houses; confronts urban legends about razor blades in apples; and examines the culture wars that incite Evangelical Christians, Wiccans, and gays.
Halloween is a uniquely American holiday. But in the melting caldron of the US, the main ingredients come from 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century European immigrants, who mixed disparate seasonal and religious rites into a witches' brew, with a dash of macabre and a sprinkle of play. And an eye of newt.
The earliest rites are traced back to the ancient festival of Samhain (pronounced SOW-win), where Celts of the British Isles and Northern Europe marked the end of harvest and the start of the new year. During this time, the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds was believed to be especially thin, allowing spirits to slip back for a visit.
This supernatural interlude carried into the Roman Catholic observance of All Saints' Day on Nov. 1, when saints could petition on behalf of the dead to ensure their exit from purgatory to everlasting life; and with All Souls' Day on Nov. 2, when departed spirits were permitted to return to families for an evening of revelry and treats. In Italy, various macabre traditions arose around those days, such as throwing open charnel houses and dressing up corpses.
Because people perceived the veil between here and hereafter as thin at this time, they tried to peer through it to the future - to see whom they would marry, or whether the coming year would bring death. Holiday rituals grew up around divination - roasting chestnuts to see how they pop, apple-bobbing, and peering into mirrors.
The jack-o'-lantern comes from British folklore. An inveterate trickster, Jack managed to offend both God and the devil. When he died, he was denied entrance into heaven and hell. Instead, the devil threw Jack a fiery coal, which he caught inside a hollowed turnip to light his way on earth until Judgment Day. (Fortunately for carvers, the pumpkin replaced the turnip in the US.)
The tradition of Halloween pranks was exported by Ireland and Scotland, whose fabled pixies and hobgoblins inspired boys to mischievous antics on Oct. 31 - throwing cabbages at homes, starting fires, and the like.
During the Great Depression in America, Halloween was all trick and no treat. Undercurrents of class resentment and economic disparity came to a simmer over the heat of financial collapse. During the topsy-turvy night of Halloween, the underclass vented anger on the wealthy, and pranks and vandalism grew increasingly severe. So in the '30s, middle-class Americans began to bribe their tormentors with treats in lieu of tricks as a property-protection strategy.
But the distant menace posed by Halloween has not left the American imagination, Skal writes. It has always represented a night where people mock death, but in the 1980s, urban legends arose suggesting there were real bogeymen in our midst. Although reports of spiked apples and poisoned candies were never substantiated, they forever changed what had become a night for children.
In the '90s, Halloween sparked a battle over values. Evangelical Christians decry what they see as a celebration of the occult. Several churches now sponsor truly scary "horror houses," where thousands of visitors witness a gruesome afterlife allegedly waiting those who engage in premarital sex, abortion, drugs, and other vice. Meanwhile, modern-day Wiccans defend what they see as a day of spiritual regeneration.
Considering this grab bag of serious and silly issues, fans of cultural history will devour each chapter of "Death Makes a Holiday" like a toothsome treat.
• Julie Finnin Day is a freelance writer currently traveling in Vietnam.