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Halloween for Real

There’s more to Halloween than egging houses and gorging on candy. This could get scary…

The author (right) fighting evil in Queens; Halloween 1973.

Okay, so you’ve had enough of Donald Trump masks, sexy nurse costumes, and serial killers dressed as hockey goalies, but you still want to celebrate Halloween as a grown-up. Is there a way?

Yes. It means going back to occult practices from the distant and not-so-distant past. Folklore holds more meaning and intrigue than choking on candy corn and watching Friday the 13th (again) on cable.

Strap in — we’re going on a little Halloween time-machine journey. The old practices provide frightfully interesting ways of observing the ancient holiday.

Halloween has its roots well over 2,000 years ago in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow’an), which marked a seasonal change, with the pumpkin or gourd as a symbol of the harvest. It was a time to ready fields for winter, round up livestock, and light bonfires throughout the night to honor and consort with the spirits of departed relatives.

By the early Middle Ages, the Christian church incorporated the enduring pagan ceremony into its calendar as All Soul’s Day on November 1. But the evening before remained popular as an occult celebration: Generations of Europeans regarded it as a time when the veil between the living and dead was at its thinnest, and spirits, both good and evil, were on the roam. Fortunes could be told, mischief wreaked, and ghosts encountered.

Practitioners of modern-day Wicca and neo-paganism have kept Halloween alive as a way to honor cycles of the earth, spirits of ancestors, and fertility and sexuality. British occult historian Richard Cavendish recalled:

In 1963…a journalist watched the Hallowe’en festivities of a coven of witches at St. Albans. The high priestess, naked except for a string of beads and watched by the other 12 members of the coven, drew a circle on the ground with the point of her magic knife. A candle burned in each quarter of the circle, with a fifth candle on an altar in the middle…“We’re not anti-Christian,” she said, “we just have other means of spiritual satisfaction. It’s hard to explain that satisfaction.”

Those interested in a less, um, explicit approach can look to folklore once practiced in the American South. One alluring ritual is called the Dumb Supper, which was observed on Halloween night from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century. A report from West Virginia in 1958 went this way:

Three girls would do this together when they had the house to themselves. Walking backward, they set a table just before midnight, not speaking or laughing. A word or laugh breaks the “charm” and everything must be done over again. Places and food are set for each girl, and a place opposite for the expected guest. When all is ready, the girls seat themselves and wait. On the stroke of midnight, each maid will see opposite her the man she is to marry.

But danger lurks: If a girl is prophesied not to marry, she sees a sign of her death.

Many Halloween rituals involve divination by doing things backwards, and often using a mirror. An American and English ritual involved a young woman walking backwards down a staircase while gazing in a mirror, in which would appear the visage of her future husband. An early-20th century Halloween postcard featured the rhyme: “Let this design on you prevail / To try this trick (it cannot fail) / Back down the stairs with candle dim / And in the mirror you’ll see HIM!”

Mitch conducts a Ouija board experiment; Halloween 2016.

When I grew up celebrating Halloween in Queens, some friends and family would break out the Ouija board or embark on slightly horrifying bedtime rituals. The scariest involved invoking the murderous spirit of Bloody Mary. This practice required entering a bathroom, shutting off the lights to create total pitch darkness, and then gazing into the mirror and reciting: “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, come see me tonight.” None of my friends were murdered by a bloodthirsty revenant, but there were screams and scares — and maybe something more. Several Halloweens ago, I challenged a dinner table of very rational, hard-driving investment bankers: “If you’re so sure that life consists only of what you can see and feel, go into the bathroom right now and perform the Bloody Mary ritual.” No one would take me up on it. A little occult challenge reminds us that our certainties aren’t always so certain.

Folklore and ghosts aside, Halloween remains a serious religious festival for many Wiccans and neo-pagans. Harkening to the traditional belief that Halloween is when the veil between worlds is at its lowest — and “contact with the spirits is a bit clearer” — writer, curator, and teacher of magical history Pam Grossman treats the festival as a uniquely contemplative time:

I light candles, give thanks to my loved ones who have passed, and request that they help me fulfill my purpose here on earth. Traditionally, this also is an ideal time to do any sort of divinatory practices, so I read my tarot cards and do other forms of oracular work to get messages that help me set intentions and receive assistance for the year ahead.

In all likelihood, Halloween is fated to become America’s next major faith-based holiday. For a hint of that, we can look to the U.S. military — often a bellwether of trends in race, gender, and religion — where Halloween is recognized as a day of serious religiosity. The Army’s Handbook for Chaplains offers guidelines and descriptions for Wiccan practice and holidays, written in remarkably fair and lucid language: “It is very important to be aware that Wiccans do not in any way worship or believe in ‘Satan,’ ‘the Devil,’ or similar entities,” reads the 2001 revision of the handbook. “Wiccans do not revile the Bible. They simply regard it as one among many of the world’s mythic systems, less applicable than some to their core values, but still deserving of just as much respect as any of the others.”

The handbook specifies October 31 — which it calls by the traditional names of “Samhain, Sowyn, or Hallows” — as a major festival or “Sabbat” for Wiccans. As the Army guide ably explains, the festival is “a means of attunement to the seasonal rhythms of Nature.”

For more, check out Mitch’s 2013 Halloween lecture at the New York Public Library:

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