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The History of All Hallows’ Eve

CGS lecturer on vampires, zombies, things that go bump in the night

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Look around any fall, and it’s clear: Halloween is now a major holiday in the United States. Stores begin selling costumes and candy shortly after Labor Day, and where once a house might sport a lowly jack-o-lantern, many yards are now ghostly habitats. Purists point out that with all of the dressing up, decorating, and candy consumption, the origins and true meaning of the holiday have been lost. Halloween is based largely on Celtic religious traditions, says Regina Hansen, a College of General Studies master lecturer in rhetoric and an expert in the supernatural and how it’s portrayed in literature and film. She is also a scholar of Neo-Victorianism.

Hansen’s affinity for the supernatural began as a child, fueled by her love of authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Edgar Allan Poe. In graduate school she joined the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, a scholarly organization devoted to the study of the fantastic, which includes the genres of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. There, she says, she “found a home for people who wanted to write about scary stuff. Now my scholarship has moved from writing about Victorian literature and sneaking in supernatural stuff to being more on top of it.”

Hansen is the editor of Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film (McFarland Publishing, 2011) and coeditor of Supernatural, Humanity and the Soul: The Highway to Hell and Back (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and a contributor to The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (Ashgate Publishing, 2014). She is working on a special Stephen King issue of the Science Fiction Film and Television journal and has a story published in All the Night-Tide: Steampunk Stories Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe (Aädenian Ink, 2014). She won the CGS Ismail Sensel Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2011.

BU Today asked Hansen about the history of Halloween, how the holiday arrived in the United States, and the evolution of zombies and vampires.

BU Today: What are the roots of Halloween?

Hansen: The practices of Halloween mostly come from Celtic paganism in the British Isles, and their feast of Samhain, the new year. They believed it was the time when ghosts and spirits came out to haunt, and the Celts would appease the spirits by giving them treats. The feast was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and parts of Britain.

Halloween also has some elements of the Romans celebrating Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. That was like a harvest feast, and we have elements of that today in our Halloween celebration—we bob for apples, for instance.

When Christianity came to Britain—just like what happened when Christianity came to other cultures—they figured the best way to convert people was to incorporate their practices instead of banning them. It just so happened that November 1 was the Christian Feast of All Saints and the next day is All Souls’ Day. October 31 became the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows’ Eve. So the modern practice of Halloween incorporates Christianity and pagan rituals.

A lot of people think of Halloween as an American holiday. In some ways it is a very American holiday, because we’ve made it big, but because of that, people don’t remember that its roots are Celtic-European.

How do other countries celebrate the holiday?

In Britain they celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, which is observed November 5, with fireworks. In Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England, you’ll find Halloween celebrated the way Americans celebrate it.

In America, the real explosion of Halloween happened when the Irish immigrants came and brought their practice with them. It looked like a really fun thing to do. So other people wanted to do it.

When did it become the holiday we know today?

Little by little it became more of a children’s holiday. People found a way to make money off of it. There are people who won’t celebrate Halloween because of its pagan origins and this idea that it’s associated with witchcraft. There are certain groups in Christianity that embrace Halloween exactly for what it is—this combination of what came before we incorporated the holiday into our American culture. So now it’s paganism, Christianity, and money.

Christmas, too, was a pagan festival for a long time, and then it went away as a practice, and then it came back in the 19th century.

Boston University BU, halloween, College of General Studies CGS, rhetoric lecturer Regina Hansen, halloween supernatural myths history mythology, vampies zombies

Regina Hansen is a College of General Studies senior lecturer in rhetoric, whose research interests range from the supernatural in literature and film to Neo-Victorianism. Photo by Frank Curran

Much of your research focuses on what you characterize as the fantastic. What does this term encompass?

Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov described the fantastic as “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” Sometimes the fantastic elements are explained and sometimes they are accepted as real. So lots of films and stories can have fantastic elements.

It’s a style of literature and film that incorporates that which we don’t understand, things that don’t seem like they could possibly happen. In a world where everything seems realistic and mundane, those are things that stand out. The different kinds of genres that fall under the fantastic include horror, fantasy (swords, fairies), science fiction, and anything having to do with other worlds.

Do you think religion falls under the umbrella of the fantastic?

What I discovered in working on Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film is that religion is the everyday fantastic. People are quite able to go through life believing in really unbelievable things, and living their lives by principles that are believed to be supernatural in origin. Most times you find films and novels that seem to be about everyday life with no magic in it, but then there’s an element of the fantastic added. The fantastic is often introduced through the avenue of a religious character or ritual.

What entries did you write as a contributor to the Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters?

Because I’ve written about Catholicism, they first asked me to write about angels. Then I got demons in American literature and film, then imps and maenads, and also death as a character.

What are maenads?

Maenads are characters in Greek mythology, like in The Bacchae, a Greek tragedy about the women that accompany Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. They represent what happens if we have too much to drink. They start off being really happy with Dionysus and celebrating, but then they become uncontrollable as they drink more wine and rip him apart. The True Blood character Maryann Forrester was a maenad and the first time one had appeared on TV in a while.

How did you go about researching maenads, angels, and demons?

I always started with the earliest sources I could find, whether that was Greek mythology or medieval scholastics or the Bible. From there, I put everything in context and moved forward to film and television, so I could show how these things are presented now, compared with how they were first introduced.

My research on angels came from the Bible and Midrash and Talmud sources and works by Thomas Aquinas, and then I watched the television show Supernatural, which has angels. The same thing with demons—I looked at the theology first, and then early American literature.

How have these creatures changed over millennia?

What I find interesting is that they change and change back. There seems to be more interest right now in looking at these creatures from their original or early sources. A lot of television shows, like Supernatural, use the Bible’s Book of Revelation, and try to modernize the stories. Right now there is an interest in going back to those earlier texts, whereas a few years back, writers seemed to be making it up as they went along.

Are the vampires in the Twilight series based on older descriptions of vampires or newer interpretations?

Right now there are some nice, pleasant vampires out there. Vampires’ roots go all the way back to oral culture and folklore, and some of those vampires were pretty creepy and scarily violent. The rules of how vampires were supposed to behave were introduced in the 19th century.

In the 19th century people rediscovered folklore. That’s when Grimms’ Fairy Tales came about. Artists at that time incorporated folklore into their fiction and paintings. That’s what Bram Stoker did—he took the real folklore and made it into a vampire who follows particular rules. Stoker was the one of these writers who said that a cross would stop a vampire; not all writers used the same rule for their vampires. That really became popular in the 19th century. Some of the rules came from the folklore, and some of the rules he made up.

What’s interesting about the Twilight vampires is that they largely follow Stoker’s rules. For instance, they can’t go out into the sunlight because they’ll “sparkle,” instead of the old rule that they can’t go into the sunlight because they’ll burst into flames. That has to do with taming the monster.

Where do zombies come from?

Zombies started out as part of the folklore of the Haitian culture. The voudoun religion talks of zombies, but they don’t become zombies in the way they are portrayed in movies. Zombies in the movies and television started with Night of the Living Dead. They are more akin to ghouls, in that they are flesh-eating monsters. Folkloric zombies are not really that.

There are many reasons I think zombies are popular right now, and one is this fear of contagion, the fear of disease, because you can so easily “catch” being a zombie. Vampires are interesting because of this fear of contagion as well.

I find zombies depressing. People you love that don’t know you anymore and want to eat you? You have to run for the rest of your life? There’s enough of that in the world. Some Americans play zombie games and run from evil creatures, and they are criticized because other people in the world are running from real villains.

Do you have a favorite monster?

Werewolves are my favorite because it’s not their fault. They always seem so tortured. This terrible thing happened to them, and they’re trying to be good. I like the cyclical nature of what happens to a werewolf, the full moon.

Why do people remain so fascinated by monsters and the unknown?

If you grew up religious, I think you are already primed for it. That’s the case with me, and I find others in my field were primed by having some sort of religious background. If you’re not religious and you don’t have a sense of belief in the supernatural already, it’s fascinating for other reasons. It’s a way to experience the supernatural without having to believe in it. Stephen King once said that horror is a way to face death. It’s an existential thrill, a way to laugh at death and be fine afterwards.

This article was originally published on October 31, 2013.

34 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

34 Comments on The History of All Hallows’ Eve

  • Erin on 10.31.2013 at 2:05 pm

    Professor Hansen is an awesome educator. I had her when I was at CGS and she brought a lot of enthusiasm to the classroom. I learned so much from her. She is one of the best at BU!

  • Ron on 10.31.2013 at 2:24 pm

    BOO!!!

  • Fred Masquin on 04.23.2014 at 11:10 pm

    Very interesting history of Halloween.

  • cambree jordan on 10.08.2014 at 2:24 pm

    i think halloween shouldnt be celabrated because your worshiping the devil think about your children and yes im a christain

    • Rbanks on 10.10.2014 at 9:28 am

      RE: Cambree it has NOTHING to do with the Devil. Pagans do NOT worship the devil please educate yourself. Halloween (Samhain) is to honor deceased relatives and show respect for the dead. The pumpkin/jack-o-lantern is intended to frighten away evil spirits. Very similar to the Mexican Day of the dead. Please educate yourself and do not further spread lies out of your fears.

      • Kimberley on 11.26.2014 at 12:21 am

        agreed. :)

        • mya on 10.10.2015 at 3:29 pm

          What do you mean aggressive

      • Dillivan on 03.29.2016 at 10:34 am

        yes i agreed too

    • hunter on 10.20.2014 at 2:32 pm

      really it is just for the enjoyment of kids being allowed to dress up as something they want

    • Emily on 10.31.2014 at 8:09 am

      Its not worshiping the devil. I’m CATHOLIC and its my favorite holiday. If you have kids, i feel bad for them.

    • Vennie on 11.19.2015 at 6:51 pm

      I agree with cambree

  • a christian on 10.13.2014 at 7:16 pm

    halloween is the devils birthday. end of story!

    • noah on 10.28.2015 at 7:22 pm

      No it isn’t

    • Tom on 10.30.2015 at 8:13 am

      I was raised Catholic in the 1950’s and we did Halloween in the Catholic schools. Many Christians think that Catholics are a satanic cult. So much for your hypocritical Christian love and charity.

  • A person on 10.16.2014 at 12:58 pm

    I agree with Rbanks

  • hunter on 10.20.2014 at 2:40 pm

    I think it is good because kids and some adults enjoy the feeling of Halloween because it makes their kids happy or just because they get candy.

  • hunter97 on 10.28.2014 at 1:43 pm

    in some beliefs it does celebrate satan but it depends on how u look at it

  • haidyn on 10.29.2014 at 1:36 pm

    Halloween started in the 20th century

    • noah on 10.28.2015 at 7:24 pm

      Are u sure about that hun?

  • Ryan on 10.30.2014 at 4:59 pm

    Did those of you who posted about the devil even read the article? I, definitely, have to agree with Rbanks: educate yourself. Ignorance may be blissful for you, but it is still ignorance, none the less. Great article, by the way. Thank you BUToday.

  • Leeford on 10.31.2014 at 2:17 pm

    If spending $7.4 billion on Halloween is a cool thing to do, then I will rather feed the hungry all over the world…this is a diabolic celebration. Common sense is needed in most of our actions folks!

  • Sherrie Schwab on 11.01.2014 at 6:49 am

    God did not die a cruel death on the cross to pay the penalty’s for the sins of the whole world so we could turn our backs on him and have something to do with a satanic holiday that clearly is not innocent is wosrhop of satin.The Bible says in the last days their will be manybwho are lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.and also Jesus Christ said if you love me you will obey me!!! Do you love Jesus?

  • Eva Reyes on 09.16.2015 at 8:58 am

    Halloween is what you make it!…I also agree with Rbanks

  • H on 10.07.2015 at 12:09 am

    How are the pumpkins ..etc. meant for scaring evil if both they and evil are scary!!! If it’s to scare evil away u are suppose to put some thing that evil hates meaning something good.

    • Dáire on 10.20.2015 at 12:12 am

      The thought is that the only thing they are scared of is something as scary as themselves.

  • H on 10.07.2015 at 12:11 am

    And how does it show respect for the dead if it shows the dead looking that ugly and scary. That’s not showing respect but disrespect.

    • mya on 10.10.2015 at 3:28 pm

      If you say so that’s not true

  • sparkle on 10.11.2015 at 12:34 am

    along with everything else good in the world, americans, and americans ALONE are responsible for this great holiday

    • jaya on 10.28.2015 at 11:11 pm

      Halloween originated from Ireland/England. It has absolutely nothing to do with America. All America has done for it is to commercialise and ruin what was an ancient Pagan celebration. In the U.S. it is tacky and all about stuffing yourself with junk and wearing totally unrelated costumes. :)

  • Anita zhuta on 10.19.2015 at 7:36 am

    The practice originates from “PAGAN” worship not the True worship which Jesus taught us.

  • Professor K J M Bartlett on 10.28.2015 at 4:58 pm

    I find it unbelievable that so called educated people are so ignorant of the facts pertaining to “Halloween”
    Halloween began two thousand years ago in Ireland, England, and Northern France with the ancient religion of the Celts (Paganism).
    This day marked the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.
    On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. People thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes at this time, so they wore masks This way, the ghosts couldn’t recognize them!
    As the influence of Christianity spread into Celtic lands, in the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV introduced All Saints’ Day, a time to honour saints and martyrs, to replace the Pagan festival of Samhain. It was observed on May 13th
    In 834, Pope Gregory III moved All Saint’s Day from May 13th to Nov. 1st. Oct. 31st thus became All Hallows’ Eve (‘hallow’ means ‘saint’).
    November 2nd, called All Souls Day, is the day set apart in the Roman Catholic Church for the commemoration of the dead.
    During the All Souls Day festival in England, poor people would beg for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants
    Families would give soul cakes in return for a promise to pray for the family’s relatives,The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighbourhood and be given ale, food, and money. Children still go from house-to-house, but instead of ale, food, and money, they get sweets.
    In 1848, millions of Irish emigrants poured into America as a result of the potato famine. They brought with them their traditions of Halloween.
    They called Halloween Oidche Shamhna (`Night of Samhain’), as their ancestors had, and kept the traditional observances.
    The Irish used to carry turnips with candles in them to light their way at night and to scare away ghosts..
    soon they realised that pumpkins were cheap and plentiful so now we use these.
    I hope this fills up a few knowledge gaps. (No Devils, No Monsters)
    Happy Halloween.

    • Regina Hansen on 10.30.2015 at 11:08 am

      Quite so, Prof. Bartlett. Interestingly, my uncle recently told me that they were still using turnips as jack-o-lanterns on our family farm in Canada as recently as the 1940’s. It was a lovely discovery. Thank you for your helpful commentary and Happy Halloween.

  • George on 10.30.2015 at 4:13 pm

    You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. The devil is a deceiver, it is sad so many folks think Halloween is a innocent holiday. Seek the truth and your eyes will be opened. Praise the Lord.

  • Olivia Gordon on 11.01.2015 at 10:18 am

    I believe in ghost and Jesus.
    Halloween is fun but creepy.
    I believe that if u don’t believe in Jesus that u get haunted

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