Halloween: Frights, Lights, and Ancient Rites by Kimberley Ford

Today, Halloween is seen as a time to munch on candy corn and scare the neighbours with the freakiest trick you can find. A time when pumpkins with terrifying faces lurk on porches, and spider webs, black cats and witches are everywhere you look. But why is it that Halloween is associated with being scary? And why do we carve pumpkins?

Scary Spirits: A Short History of Halloween

Halloween has its origins as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead known as Samhain. It is a time when the veil between the living and the dead is believed to be thinnest. This festival is still celebrated by Pagans today, although many also celebrate it as marking the end of summer and the beginning of the new Celtic year which starts on the first of November. It is believed that, on Samhain, those who have died during the year will be able to walk as ghosts amongst the living before their souls pass through to the underworld. Death is respected by Pagans as a natural and necessary part of life rather than something to be feared, so the spirits of recently departed loved ones are welcomed and honoured. Those born during the past year are also welcomed into the community.

In the time of the Celts, Samhain was celebrated with a feast of harvest fruits and vegetables which the spirits of recently deceased relatives were often invited to attend – as well as the sacrificing of animals in aid of helping the spirits on their journey. It was also a time when the presence of these spirits was believed to help priests make predictions about what would happen in the future. During the celebration, people would wear costumes made of animal skins and attempt to divine each other’s fortunes, whilst bonfires were built to scare away unwanted spirits that could also get through the veil. After the festival, homes would be lit with flames from these bonfires for protection and to keep warm. The idea of scaring the unwanted spirits away still lingers today in the way we dress up and place candles inside of pumpkins.

Halloween pumpkin jack o' lanterns
Pumpkin Jack o’ Lanterns by Chris Goldberg. Creative Commons – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Jack of the Lantern: How Pumpkins Became Jack o’ Lanterns

Pumpkins are now so synonymous with Halloween that you can’t get away from them come October, but pumpkins weren’t always used at Halloween. When a mass immigration of Irish people to America occurred in the 1800’s, they brought with them the tradition of carving turnips and other vegetables, such as beets, and placing an ember inside them to ward away malicious spirits. But, upon their arrival in America, they discovered that pumpkins, which they had never seen before, were much bigger and easier to carve. And so, the jack o’lantern as we know it now was born. 

Halloween carved pumpkins
An assortment of carved pumpkins by John Phelan. Creative commons – CC BY-SA 3.0.

The name Jack o’ Lanternactually comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack (or ‘Jack of the Lantern’) who invited the Devil to have a drink with him. But, living up to his name, Jack refused to pay for his drink and convinced the Devil to transform into a coin he could use to purchase their drinks. But, once the Devil had become a coin, Jack decided to keep it and put it in his pocket, along with a silver cross which prevented the Devil from regaining his previous form. Eventually, Jack did free the Devil, but only on the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for a year or claim his soul if he died. 

However, the following year, Jack tricked the Devil again by sending him up a tree to pick some fruit. Once the Devil was up the tree, Jack carved a cross into the bark so the Devil couldn’t come down unless he promised not to bother Jack for ten more years. Jack died soon after, but God would not allow such a bad fellow into heaven and the Devil, despite still being angry, would not let Jack into hell either as he’d promised not to claim Jack’s soul. So, Jack was sent out into the night to roam the earth with only a burning coal from the flames of Hell inside a carved-out turnip to show him the way. And he’s been roaming ever since.

neep lantern
Turnip lantern. Image taken by Amelia Starling.

People from Ireland and Scotland then began to replicate Jack’s turnip lantern, giving them spooky faces and placing them by doors and windows to ward off the spirits of the dead – as well as Stingy Jack himself. The tradition still continues today, and is my favourite part of Halloween. For anyone interested in the most epic of all pumpkin displays look up the Griffith House in Kenova, West Virginia. Featuring rows of thousands of grinning pumpkins, their glow covers pretty much the whole house, even from the highest roof!


Kimberley Ford is a Creative Writing graduate and book blogger. She writes YA, and is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @kimwritesthings.

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is living in Scotland and studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Creative Writing. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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6 thoughts on “Halloween: Frights, Lights, and Ancient Rites by Kimberley Ford

  1. That's exactly what I ended up finding! It also seemed like a lot of the Headless Horseman legends also linked back to Europe, which wasn't particularly helpful when originally trying to find out about American legends. Thank you for explaining it so concisely!

  2. The story of the “Headless Horseman” (or “The Galloping Hessian”) is a legend from the area of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown in New York State. Though, the legend itself pretty much comes down to “He rides at night looking for his head”. Typical ghost story stuff. All the stuff with Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones and Katrina von Tassel comes from the mind of writer Washington Irving.

  3. This is great! I was just wanting to read up on the history of Halloween! And that picture of the pumpkin house is incredible! Thanks for sharing,

  4. Thank you!! Most of it was new to me, too! Initially I wanted to see whether there was any folklore behind the story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the headless horseman, but then the pumpkins just kind of took over!!

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