As the sun abandoned the world of the living, the line that separated the dead became unseen and the darkness interwove two worlds. The unnerved, masked in disguise, displayed carved gourds to deter the haunts; while others lit candles and placed treats near the road to assist loved ones back to the spirit world. It was a night that predictions about the future were clear, summer was laid to rest and the cruel winter began; October 31st marked the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.
The two-thousand year old tradition was initiated by the Celts that inhabited areas known today as, Ireland, United Kingdom and Northern France. Samhain was observed the night before the Celtic New Year – November 1st represented the end of the harvest and the commencement of winter, which was associated with death and struggle. This correlation is the assumed reason behind the belief of the blurred boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead.
By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered most of the Celtic territory but adopted some of the customs of Samhain and fused them with their own celebration, Feralia, for the passing of the dead. The mingled holiday continued until once again altered by the spreading of Christianity. Wanting to replace Samhain with a church-sanctioned holiday, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st, All Saints Day – also called All Hallows or Hallowmas; a day to honor Saints and martyrs that had passed through to the heavens. As centuries past, the customs of the three holidays blended to form our American tradition of Halloween.
Imagination, folklore and historical tragedies have all been influences on Halloween superstition. Salem brought us witches, carrion eating crows brought the omen of death and Irving Washington brought the Headless Horseman. In his short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hallow, Washington tells the fable of a Hessian missionary hired to suppress the American Revolutionary War. In Sleepy Hallow, New York, the Hessians head was severed by a stray cannonball; with his head in his hands he haunts the small town on horseback. A main character, Ichabod Crane, fell victim to the headless haunt when trying to pass through the woods one October night. The Headless Horseman makes his ghostly appearance in many forms of literature which makes visiting Sleepy Hallow a legendary Halloween tradition.
It’s debatable whether a headless horseman haunts the woods of Sleepy Hallow or folklore captured imagination but there are stories in history that are based on bone chilling truth. Severe mistreatment, experiments gone wrong and questionable procedures make for an inevitable haunting. Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, Kentucky was erected in 1926 and dedicated to the treatment of those affected by the tuberculosis epidemic of the 20th century. It is estimated that hundreds died behind the doors of the sanatorium at the height of the epidemic. The bodies were thrown down a shoot into a waiting train and hauled away so patients wouldn’t see how many were dying. The sufferers were left outside until they were snow covered and experiments such as exposing the diseased lungs to ultraviolet rays then inserting inflated balloons in them resulted in death. Tales of nurses being pushed out of the fourth-story window where the mentally insane dwelled coupled with the agony of the patients and the constant noise from the abandoned building makes Waverly Hills one of the most haunted places in the nation.
Folklore and true haunting tales make the meaning of Halloween and the traditions of the holiday as we know them today. Still, after thousands of years when the sun abandons the world of the living, the unnerved mask in disguise and display their carvings to deter haunts while others try to connect with deceased loved ones. It is a night for storytelling and the settling of the winter chill; October 31st commemorates Americans ability to embrace all culture and continue traditions like Halloween.