31 October 2012 a post by Steve Hollinghurst

Putting the horror into Halloween

I am likely to get some callers this evening and have some fun size sweets ready. They will be children wearing costumes; perhaps a ghost, or a vampire, or a witch, or a zombie or Freddy Kruger or Jason in a hockey mask. And the list could go on. I know some Christians are worried by this and view such costumes as a celebration of evil. I also know contemporary Pagans celebrating Samhain who feel this trivialises an important festival. So who put the horror into Halloween and is it a trick or a treat?

carved scary pumpkin face with candle for halloween

The name Halloween tells us this is a Christian festival. It comes from all hallows eve or in modern English all saints eve; the 1st of November being All Saints day when the lives of those who have been significant in the story of Christianity are celebrated. But this was not the original date of that festival. The Eastern Orthodox maintain the original tradition that celebrates this festival was on the Sunday after Pentecost at the end of the Easter season. Thus the date originally moved each year because of the link between the Jewish lunar calendar which determines the date of the Jewish Passover festival at which time Christian tradition records Jesus death and resurrection at the first Easter.

In the west Pope Gregory lll began the 1st of November tradition with the dedication of an oratory in Rome to the saints and martyrs in the mid 8th century.  Significantly this was a period of Christianity being established in northern Europe and the rise of the Frankish kings as a Christian military power culminating in the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. In many countries in northern Europe this date marked the end of the harvest and the start of winter. The Irish festival of Samhain, meaning summer’s end, was one such festival and this name has been adopted by many contemporary Pagans for this time.

It was also seen as a date when the otherworld was open to this world. For this reason it was a time to remember the dead but also to be wary of dangerous spirits that might be about. This fear of the spirits may well stem from the fear of entering winter and the need to survive on the rations stored after the harvest. There is evidence for a similar tradition at the start of summer on the first of May when the fear is associated with the growing season and the need for plentiful crops. Archaeologists are increasingly finding human sacrifices in northern Europe and these may back up traditions that associated human sacrifices with the start of summer and winter to Pagan deities associated with crop fertility like the Irish Crom. The fear of death, starvation and the spirit world goes right back to this tradition and was taken into Christianity by placing the Christian memory of the dead at this time, both on All saints and the following day All Souls when all the dead were remembered.

Following the teaching of St Augustine the early medieval church believed that Jesus had conquered the devil and the evil spirits and so they should not be feared. For this reason trials for witchcraft were banned by the church as witchcraft was believed to be impossible. However, this teaching began to change following the Black Death in the 14th Century which many felt could only be explained by the activities of evil spirits and human aid given them by witches.  A theology developed in which the devil had license on earth to cause harm for the testing of faith and the previous denial of witchcraft was reversed opening the way to the witchcraft persecutions. Needless to say this was what happened at the level of church teaching; there is evidence that, as in most societies, fear of evil spirits and witches existed at a popular level regardless of church teaching. So the horror was taken up in Halloween with a Christian slant, populated by demons and devils who looked suspiciously like Pagan deities and their consorts the witches.

The trick or treat practice seems to go back to later mediaeval developments, but drawing on an older theme. As the winter set in the poor would go round begging for fire wood and fuel and in the Christian period this became attached to the practice of ‘souling’ where in return the receivers of gifts would pray for the soul of a dead relative reducing their time in purgatory. By the 19th Century those going door to door would wear costumes in many parts of Britain, the practice then spreading to America. There seem also to have been independent traditions like this in other countries. With the 20th Century the associations have adapted from the Christian devils and witches to contemporary horror films. 

So the practice we now have is a mix of Pagan, Christian and secular but what of its significance? The trick or treat visitors are no longer the local poor needing provisions for winter, neither do they pray for the souls of the dead. Neither are they any real threat, the monster at your door will not be a genuine otherworld being, nor people who may put you to death as a sacrifice or a witch. For that we may be thankful. Indeed that children turn up at our door in such disguises is sign of how we have banished the belief in evil beings not a celebration of it. But are there things also lost that this may hint at? If neither Pagan nor Christian today would advocate sacrifice or witch hunt to rid us of evil we still have to cope with death, mortality, suffering and evil and real part so our world. We need also to remember those who we love and have died. Days on which we remember the dead, fairytales and horror movies are all ways we can face this reality.

At their best both Pagan and Christian reflections on the end of summer and beginning of winter allow us to do this and we should not banish them or allow them to become wholly the domain of people franchising horror movies, selling merchandise or children’s fancy dress. We need the horror in Halloween to deal with the very real horrors of life. As a Christian I do so in hope believing in a God who entered into the horror of death and defeated it and did indeed defeat the evils that we fear too. But this side of the fullness of God’s Kingdom they have not left our lives and so we need Halloween, All Saints and All Souls to remind ourselves, honour our dead and also to look forward in hope.

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Some Celtic history (legend) of halloween (samhain):
Some of this may repeat from above.

At this time, the beginning of the season of death (samhain) or winter as we call it, the veil between the physical world and the Otherworld was believed to be at it’s thinnest, and the spiritual darkness to be at its strongest.

Spirits were believed to come over from the Otherworld, both the souls of the dead and malevolent spirits (we might call them demons).

At this time Pagan priests would travel through communities and ask for offerings from each house to appease the malevolent spirits. If this was given (which could include a virgin daughter for sacrifice, but was more often offerings from labour) then the priests would leave a turnip with a face carved in it and a candle burning as a sign that something was given.

The belief was that the malevolent spirits would travel around each community with the intention of cursing households, but if they saw this turnip they knew the house hold had given (a treat) so they would not cause trouble (play tricks) on that house hold.

Another way a household could stop the malevolent spirits from playing tricks without having anything to give the priests was to dress up as one of the spirits, so that when a ‘real’ one came to the house it saw a ‘spirit’ already in the house (or so it thought) and left it alone.

In this we can see the origins of ‘trick or treat’; pumpkin lanturns; and dressing up at this festival.

#1. By david on October 31, 2012

David - i have come across such stories too and i think you have linked them well - do you know how far back they go or have any ancient sources for them?

#2. By Steve Hollinghurst on October 31, 2012

Thank you - this is not an “evil” festival but a celebration of life; of the earths goodness & her resources.  A time for settling down for winter & restoration; for giving thanks for those that have walked their path & gone before for the gifts they imparted & still do.

A time when the veil between worlds can open & be brought together as one.

Celebrate have a joyful Samhain

#3. By Tilly on October 31, 2012

I’ve thought for a long-time that the late mediaeval development of witch-hunts must have had its roots in the black death but this is the first time that I’ve seen it argued anywhere. Do you know if any historical research has been done into this?

I always stopped my children from dressing up at Hallowe’en - sorry kids I got it wrong!!

#4. By Anne on November 01, 2012

Anne witch hunts started way before medeival times starting in BC see Exodus 22:18.  I can’t say I have any knowledge of it being linked to the Black Death, historical evidence can be found you try Cambridge Uni. or any reputable source.

Most “witches” were wise people who had gifts of healing or knowledge that the “church” did not approve as with many other groups the Cathars, Muslims to name but a few as they did not conform.

Unfortunately what is not understood is often blamed or evil which is not normally the case. 

People have to make up their own minds but Samhain is not demonic but a celebration unfortunately it has been hijacked somewhat over the years.  Remember children do not have to dress up as witches or goblins to celebrate.


#5. By Tilly on November 01, 2012

Anne and Tilly - Anne you sensibly ask for evidence - firstly so you know a bit of my background here i have studied witchcraft as an academic on several occasions from the mid eighties onward and try to keep abreast of study in this are because of its importance to contemporary discussions around the revival of witchcraft since the 1950s.  what i don’t want to do here is write a notated academic article! a good book on the whole subject would be ‘the witch hunt’ by Robert Thurston see here on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Witch-Hunts-Prof-Robert-Thurston/dp/1405840838/ref=sr_1_fkmr3_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351862703&sr=8-1-fkmr3
I would also recommend the following article which is well researched. it is also important because this subject is understandably sensitive to contemporary Pagans who feel and affinity with the witches who were persecuted - a major contribution here has been a growing academic scholarship by Pagans in this area which is part of a growing academic consensus in this field and this is one such article http://draeconin.com/database/witchhunt.htm

Tilly you are of course right to say with trials happened long before the Black Death in the 14th century - indeed a lot earlier than the Jewish people and Exodus it is a well documented practice among ancient Pagan societies that pre-date this. indeed it is very difficult outside of modern scientific societies to find any society that didn’t try people for witchcraft. however what can be seen from this long history is that whilst in most societies people where sometimes accused of witchcraft when soemthing happened like a child dying suddenly these amounted to small numbers of accusations and it must be remembered that the discovery of witches was usually carried by witch doctors or cunning folk who used what was deemed as good magic - at times of major disaster often witchcraft would be blamed and mass accusations might result. the idea is often that disasters can only happen due to evil magic and must result from many witches working together. Pagan Rome had several large scale witch trials for instance at times of major disaster. in later Christian Europe the same thing happened with the Black Death and then even more so following the reformation and the 30 years war. so it was not until 1326 that Witchcraft was added to the inquisition as a legitimate charge the church having banned trials for witchcraft for many centuries.

Tilly you also are right to link this to Cathars and Muslims - and we need to add the group most often attacked to that list the Jews. it is not that from Augustine till 1326 the church was wonderfully tolerant, it had an inquisition to root our heretics and since forced conversions became the norm after the 6th Century there where always people who followed another religion in secret ready to be found out as heretics. in 1326 witches were added to the list of those to be sought out whereas before that the teaching had been clear that witchcraft did not exist after Christ’s resurrection (hence no recourse to books like Exodus on the subject) the Black Death changed this and the idea that witches where working with the devil to bring disaster grew.

i’ll leave it there for now but am happy to supply more information

#6. By Steve Hollinghurst on November 02, 2012

Tilly further to the above whatever ancient and medieval societies may have believed about the activities of ‘evil witches’ most of those accused where almost certainly innocent of any such thing - indeed in the rural communities of Germany and Switzerland where this was most prolific most victims seem to have been people the other villagers didn’t like and hence where easy to accuse. more importantly ‘evil witches’ have nothing to do with ancient or contemporary festivals of honouring the dead like Samhain. there is evidence of human sacrifice as part of some ancient celebrations at this time but this has nothing to do with contemporary Pagan celebrations which are as you say a positive remembering of the dead and a celebration of life. as a Christian my understanding of what happens at death is different to a Pagan one and that view would be part of the Christian celebration of All Saints and All Souls - but those festivals and Samhain otherwise have a lot in common.

#7. By Steve Hollinghurst on November 02, 2012


I will certainly look at the material you suggest & yes as you say there are things both paths have in common.

Jesus the man & all that he stood for draws me to Christianity (& yes I do go to church) it’s the “church” itself with all its rules & regulations I really struggle with. Not to mention the grumpy character of “God”.

But my soul is drawn to my pagan path because it is more enabling for me personally as it speaks to my inner being.

Only time will tell which path my feet will finally walk, & I’m certainly no expert on either to put it mildly but I feel discussion improves knowledge and sharing can only lead to greater understanding on all sides.

#8. By Tilly on November 02, 2012


i think the problem is that people often only get to see ‘God’ through the lens of people in the church - and some of them seem to want a grumpy God who affirms all their fears and prejudices

i also find much of Paganism deeply attractive and feel it has much to teach people today about how to live and put the sacred back into life - for me this has lead me to find other facets of Christian faith that i feel are more in keeping with Christ ans the vision of those i admire most in the Christian tradition.

in part this site exists because a number of us are exploring these issues and trying to find an expression of Christian faith that welcomes such questions and dialogue and also expresses what we feel is God’s compassion for all living and non-living things and vision for a renewed humanity, and a renewed creation - so we value your own comments as you explore the questions you raise

every blessing

#9. By Steve Hollinghurst on November 05, 2012

Steve, this is a magnificent article about why we need the horror in Halloween, and why we need to be as honest as we can both with ourselves and our children about all the ‘dark’ parts of life, including death. Dressing up as ‘the dead’,or old, or injured, which is what most Halloween costumes boil down to,is a way of confronting the deepest fear of all and containing it.Overcoming it and living well is the task of all our lives,Pagan,Christian, Jewish,Hindu,Muslim or other. I can’t help feeling it’s what the New Atheists are strenuously avoiding dealing with…....

#10. By barbara on November 09, 2012

steve - one of the reasons i ended up on the path of Celtic Christian spirituality was just this. i was doing theology training through british youth for Christ and found much of what they were teaching me didn’t match up with the experiences i was having in the churches i was working in, and, more confusingly, some of what they were saying about how we should be in our faith seemed to be MORE in line with my Pagan past than my Christian present (at that time).
i began to explore an authentic Christ centred spirituality and found a great affinity with the church of the ‘Celts’. as i have continued down this road i have also found a great deal of comfort from the Christian mystics.

there is so much we (Christians) can and need to learn about awareness of the Spirit and the spiritual realms from those who have not been tainted by the church!

#11. By david cole on November 09, 2012

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