Yes, it's that time of year again - time to dust off your broomstick, carve out a pumpkin and select a suitably ghoulish costume for a night of shameless celebration of all things dark, ghostly and macabre. From spooky decorations around the neighbourhood, to carved pumpkins adorning front porches and giant bags of sweets piled high in supermarket aisles, it’s impossible to ignore the seasonal festivities which culminate in Halloween this Thursday. Few festivals in the calendar divide public opinion so much as this one though. To some Halloween is a piece of harmless fun and a chance to indulge their innate love of horror and gore. To others it's a serious pagan rite marking the end of summer and the transition into the months of darkness. Others, particularly the elderly, understandably dread the prospect of having masked strangers lurking on their doorsteps on a dark October night like something out of The Purge movie franchise, while many even view Halloween as something distinctly sinister with roots in occultism and devil-worship. I'll happily put my hand up and declare that I absolutely adore Halloween. October 31st has always been one of my favourite days of the year and I make no apology for that whatsoever. I have a lifelong affinity with dark autumn nights, bonfires, Gothic horror and dressing up. I love witches, wizards, vampires, magic and mysticism. Halloween could frankly have been made for me. Hell, I even have a black cat and he drinks his water out of a cauldron rather than a bowl. What's not to love about a day in which such things become normalised?
I'm far from alone in loving Halloween but unfortunately not everybody feels the same way, as the 22-year-old supermodel wife of Justin Bieber found to her cost last week when she came under fire from Internet trolls who questioned how she could reconcile her love of the spooky holiday with her faith in God. Devout Christian Hailey Bieber (née Baldwin) was attacked online after she asked her 23 million Instagram followers to help her brainstorm Halloween costume ideas. As she considered fun options like Catwoman or Bride of Chucky, her followers labelled her a ‘FAKE CHRISTIAN’ for even daring to mention the upcoming holiday. And while Mrs Bieber has tried to contrast the “real, funny goofy side” she displays on Instagram with a more pious desire to “represent Jesus” within the modelling industry, that one comment has since resurrected the age-old debate as to whether celebrating an ancient pagan holiday associated with occult practices is compatible with Christianity. I grew up in a Christian household but that never stopped us from celebrating Halloween - in fact we went big on it (my sister's witch's cackle has to be heard to be believed). And looking at it now from a more inter-faith perspective, my reverence for the festival and its origins has only increased with the passing of time. Two years ago I marked Halloween by attending a Festival of the Dead celebration at which I donned full death-mask make-up and black top hat to join other revellers for a night of glittering raucous fun at the ATIK nightclub in Edinburgh. One of the joys of Halloween for me is that it provides a welcome opportunity for us to embrace those darker hidden aspects of our own nature which are usually suppressed by the restraints of society's expectations. My experiences as a therapist have taught me that suppression and repression are seldom a good thing. Our dark sides are yearning for acknowledgement and recognition and the more we try to deny and stifle them, the more strongly they will fight back. What we resist persists. I'm not for one moment condoning that we behave badly or commit acts of violence - simply that we occasionally allow those darker aspects of our nature free artistic expression through safe outlets such as role-playing and theatre so that they don't continue to bubble away beneath the surface of our conscious awareness like a volcano waiting to blow its lid. Life is about finding the perfect balance between light and shade and this concept is one of the cornerstones to the therapeutic approach we use at Phoenix where we actively encourage clients to explore those aspects of their personality which have previously been denied expression. It doesn't matter whether you choose to express it through song, artwork, acting or writing, so long as you let it out and give it a voice.
Halloween provides a perfect opportunity to do so. It's a day when you can dress up outlandishly, don make-up, role-play and walk brazenly down your local high street in fancy dress without anybody batting an eyelid - behaviour which might normally attract negative comment or even land you in trouble. It's a day when the narrow parameters of society's expectations are dissolved and you can allow your inner child to sing freely without fear of judgement. My abiding memory from my full costume experience at Festival of the Dead was the sense of fantastic liberation I experienced as a result of being completely unrecognisable. Concealed behind the painted mask of my skull-face, I could be whoever I wanted to be that night. Quite simply, I could allow my true self to flourish. I cast off all the usual anxieties and inhibitions which come with worrying what other people might think and instead embraced the glorious anonymity of the character I was playing. As kids we dress up and play roles all the time, whether that be superheroes or doctors and nurses, but sadly as adults we're not expected to behave that way. Instead we're forced to play another type of role - one which conforms to society's expectations. This is extremely limiting and denies us the chance to explore and indulge all the multifarious aspects of our glorious personalities. We lose that connection with our inner child and much of the joy of life along with it. Halloween is a night when the normal rules of society are suspended and we can be whoever or whatever we want to be - whether that be witch, wizard, vampire, superhero or Jedi. In the words of the old pagan mantra "Do as thou wilt, as long as it harms no-one".
Nowadays Halloween is so popular that it features prominently on mainstream TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, both of which have Halloween-themed editions in which contestants and judges alike dress up in macabre fancy dress and stage horror-themed performances. So given the festival's undoubted popularity with giant swathes of the public, why is it that some people, particularly certain evangelical Christian groups, regard it as such a threat that they feel need to attack the likes of Hailey Bieber on social media because of it? Admittedly Halloween can sometimes bring out the worst in human nature - over-exuberant youngsters may occasionally engage in criminal mischief and some adults may drink too much, but the same can be said of any other festival or public holiday. And the claim made by religious extremists that watching horror movies is a gateway to Satanic practices is frankly as ludicrous as the notion that black cats are witches' familiars. This utterly bonkers superstition resulted in the massacre of millions of black cats which were burned to death on bonfires in previous centuries. The prejudice sadly endures to this day - black cats are still the least likely to find homes, are the frequent targets of attacks and cruelty and are considered by many to be unlucky, no matter how irrational that might be. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why black cats and Halloween tend to resonate with the marginalised and the rejected. Both possess an archetypal appeal to anyone who's ever known what it's like to be an outsider on the fringes of society. Ironically, those who continue to condemn the likes of Halloween and black cats only succeed in increasing their appeal among those for whom they have a strong symbolic resonance. They are shooting themselves in the foot, just like their ancestors who by exterminating cats unwittingly contributed to the spread of bubonic plague by causing an increase in the rat population!
The origins of Halloween date back centuries to the customs of pagan and Celtic folk living in Britain and ancient Ireland prior to the spread of Christianity. In Celtic tradition, 31st October marks a holiday known as “Samhain.” Celebrating the end of the harvest season and the onset of the dark portion of the year, Samhain was ushered in with giant feasts and bonfires that burned late into the night. It also represented a time when the doors between the human world and the spirit world were thought to be the most open. This cast a far more sinister shadow on the autumnal festival as many believed ghosts, witches, goblins, black cats and demons were roaming about (horror of horrors!). Observers used this time to send messages to the supernatural powers who were believed to control the levers of nature. Some cast spells in favor of specific outcomes. But it wasn’t all sinister – people also left offerings of food and drink outside for the visiting spirits and fairies, an invitation for the ghosts of dead family members to join them at the feast table.
The complexion of October 31st changed dramatically as Western Christianity gained a footing in the area. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as All Saints’ Day. The night of October 31st then became known as All Hallows’ Eve. This was later shortened to “Halloween” (“hallow” means saint, or holy person, and “een” is a contraction of “eve”, or the evening before). His reasons for choosing this specific date have been the subject of widespread speculation but some scholars believe it was a direct attempt to undermine Celtic traditions and win more people over to the Christian faith. As Christianity became the dominant religion in the area, Samhain and its Celtic observers were increasingly pushed into the shadows. Since then, Halloween has evolved into the event we recognize today - a largely secular holiday that has become highly commercialised. Far from its spiritual roots, Halloween is now primarily a light-hearted affair full of fun costumes, tasty treats, and spooky decorations. However, it’s also important to note that Samhain is still widely celebrated in pagan and Wiccan communities today. Participants view it as a serious holiday to be treated with reverence and respect. In their belief system, Samhain is a solemn religious practice – not a light-hearted affair. In Edinburgh the dramatic Samhain Fire Festival is one of annual highlights of the calendar for the local pagan community and marks the transition from winter to summer with a spectacular mix of fireplay, drumming, and immersive performance. The theatrical celebration takes place on top of the city's Calton Hill on Halloween and acts out the story of the overthrowing of summer by winter, with a dramatic stand-off between the Summer and Winter Kings.
In some cultures Halloween is also celebrated as an opportunity to remember and honour one's departed relatives and ancestors. On the Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos), families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration involving costumes and parades. Candles and incense are burned to help the deceased find the way home. Relatives also tidy the graves of their departed family members. This can include snipping weeds, making repairs, and painting. The grave is then decorated with flowers, wreaths, or paper streamers. On November 2nd, relatives gather at the grave site to picnic and reminisce. Some gatherings even include tequila and a mariachi band. The importance of honouring our roots and personal heritage surely cannot be overstated. It's only right and proper that we should sometimes pause from our busy lives and take time out to remember those loved ones who are no longer with us but who helped to shape us into the people we are. And what better way to honour our ancestors than with a massive party? The roots of the Day of the Dead, celebrated in contemporary Mexico and among those of Mexican heritage in the United States and around the world, go back some 3,000 years, to the rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Aztecs and other Nahua people living in what is now central Mexico held a cyclical view of the universe, and saw death as an integral, ever-present part of life.
International awareness of the Day of the Dead grew considerably following its inclusion in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre. Inspired by the movie, which featured a large Day of the Dead parade, Mexico City held its first-ever parade for the holiday in 2016. In 2017, a number of major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Fort Lauderdale, held Day of the Dead parades. That November, Disney and Pixar released the blockbuster animated hit Coco, a $175 million homage to the Mexican tradition in which a young boy is transported to the Land of the Dead and meets up with his long-lost ancestors. Though the particular customs and scale of Day of the Dead celebrations continue to evolve, the heart of the holiday has remained the same over thousands of years. It’s an occasion for remembering and celebrating those who have passed on from this world, while at the same time portraying death in a more positive light, as a natural part of the human experience. During contemporary Day of the Dead festivities, people commonly wear skull masks and eat sugar candy molded into the shape of skulls.
Given its rich heritage and association with traditional practices of honouring one's ancestors, you'd think Halloween might have won over its detractors by now. Sadly this isn't the case, as was evidenced by the recent antics of controversial Texas Pastor David Grisham Junior. Grisham used his Facebook page to spread the word about a fantastic plan he’d crafted to help convert nonbelievers and “lukewarm Christians” who participate in “pagan celebrations like Halloween" and advised his followers to go “undercover” to costume stores and pretend to shop for Halloween items. Once inside, they were to hide Gospel verses in costume bags and decoration boxes for the eventual buyers to find. The goal, supposedly, was to convince these unsuspecting Halloween enthusiasts to return to Christ. This isn’t the first holiday stunt that Grisham, the leader of a radical evangelical group called Repent Amarillo, has pulled in a bid to push his agenda. A couple years back Grisham went viral after he ambushed a group of kids waiting in line to see Santa at a shopping mall and told them that Santa wasn't real and that they should find Jesus instead. Apparently, Repent Amarillo has a long-running vendetta against Santa Claus – the group first got put on the map back in 2010 after posting a video of Santa being “executed” by firing squad. The video has since been deleted.
One has to ask whether Jesus, or any other spiritual leader for that matter, would really want people acting this way in his name. Halloween certainly has its roots in pagan tradition, but it’s hard to imagine Jesus forbidding people from participating in fun activities like dressing up and handing out sweets to their neighbours. Likewise, Santa Claus is about as harmless a figure as they come. Would Jesus really feel threatened by a friendly old man who passes out gifts once a year on his birthday? People like Grisham argue that these cultural traditions are helping push people away from religion, even though this claim lacks any substantial evidence. But logic suggests that these hardliners are only hurting their cause by campaigning so energetically against Halloween and Santa. After all, what better way to ensure a child never steps foot in your church than by ruining their favorite holiday? Whatever your views, beliefs or religion, the way forward for humanity surely lies in mutual respect and not through intolerance and narrow dogma. So, regardless of your personal views on Halloween, perhaps take a moment this Thursday to recognise the fascinating roots of this curious cultural tradition we’ve adapted. Moreover, be respectful to others you meet – you never know if they might view the day through a slightly different lens. And if you are going trick or treating, or guising as it's traditionally known in Scotland, remember that not everybody may welcome the presence of masked strangers at their door. For some, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, it could be genuinely terrifying. So be understanding and respectful. Happy Halloween!