It’s All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, the night when the spirits of the dead are free to walk the Earth, a night of frightening sounds, horrible sights, terrible deeds…not to mention a night when forty-seven iterations of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers will appear at your door begging for candy.
Of all our holidays, Halloween is surely the strangest. Exactly what are we celebrating here? It’s a bizarre mixture of harvest motifs (all those pumpkins, not to mention bobbing for apples), dress-up games, and fear, not of such really scary things like disease and war and famine, but of mythical creatures such as vampires and werewolves.
Halloween can be traced back to the Druids, who believed that on this evening Saman, the lord of the dead, called forth hosts of evil spirits. Their custom was to light huge fires to ward off these spirits. Hence Halloween’s association with ghosts.
For the ancient Celts, Halloween was also New Year’s Eve, and therefore a good time to try to divine the future. They also believed that the spirits of the dead revisited their earthly homes during the evening…possibly the early inspiration for the custom of people dressed as ghosts going door to door.
When the Romans conquered Britain, they added to Halloween features of the harvest festival they were accustomed to holding on November 1 in honor of Pomona, goddess of the fruits of the trees–hence the harvest elements of our modern celebration.
The custom of lighting fires on Halloween unfortunately still survives in some large cities: on Halloween, also called Devil’s Night, arson skyrockets. The custom of trick-or-treating came along in the 19th century.
Adults may not go trick-or-treating (except to look after their small children), but they seem to get a kick out of Halloween, too. There are always new horror movies released around Halloween, and everyone enjoys visiting a “haunted house” on Halloween. In both cases, we’re hoping to be frightened.
This seems a little odd, considering fear is not something we seek out in the rest of our lives. It’s defined as “an emotional reaction characterized by unpleasant, often intense feelings and by a desire to flee or hide.” Does this sound like fun to you?
When fear kicks in, our body goes into “fight or flight” mode: blood flow shifts to the muscles, heart rate accelerates, breathing accelerates, etc. Fear may also be accompanied by muscle tension, irritability, a dry throat, nervous perspiration and butterflies in the stomach. Many of these are side-effects of the “fight or flight” preparations.
A hormone called epinephrine is the trigger for these symptoms of fear. Other emotions, such as anger, can produce the same effects; however, anger is more likely to make us fight than flee. When we’re angry, we’re also under the influence of an additional hormone, called norepinephrine. (Interestingly, rabbits show a predominance of epinephrine; lions show a predominance of norepinephrine.)
We learn to be afraid of things from a variety of sources: our experience, our parents (who can be very proficient at passing down fears that may have been in the family for generations by the time you get them), books, television, you name it. Yet some fears seem universal, and give rise to superstitions that continue to resonate with us today, long after you’d think we’d be over such things.
Werewolves and vampires are examples of two things humans have feared for centuries, and that still have the power to frighten and/or fascinate us today.
The werewolf (from the Old English “werewulf,” meaning “man-wolf”), in European folklore, is a man who transforms at night into a wolf and goes hunting humans. He must return to human form at sunrise by shedding his wolf’s skin and hiding it. If it can be found and destroyed, the werewolf dies. A wounded werewolf immediately becomes a human again and can be detected by the corresponding wound on his body. Legends of people who can become animals exist all over the world, even where there are no wolves: there are also were-tigers, were-board, were-hyenas, were-crocodiles and even were-cats. The belief in werewolves was so strong in Europe in late medieval times that many men were accused and convicted of being werewolves.
More recently, werewolves have been particularly associated with the full moon, thereby incorporating yet another ancient belief, that the full moon drives people mad. There is still a widespread belief that weird things happen when the moon is full, even though every scientific study of the subject has failed to turn up any correlation between the moon being full and human activities of any sort, except possibly midnight break-ins.
Today, there are still people who believe they are werewolves. The delusion that you are a werewolf is called “lycanthropy,” and it’s recognized by psychologists. One modern explanation for the ancient legend is that centuries ago, just like today, society had its share of psychopathic killers and other people suffering from severe mental illness, without any corresponding understanding of these conditions. Someone with a medieval mindset who comes across the trail of corpses left by a ritualistic serial-killer would be immediately prepared to entertain the notion that this was the work of a monster. And just as there are many mentally disturbed people among the homeless that wander the streets of major cities, so there must have been mentally disturbed people who wandered the forests of Europe, stealing farm animals to survive. In an already superstitious world, any mysterious occurrence was just as likely to be attributed to supernatural causes as natural.
A legend with such a nugget of truth at its core–and surely today we’ve heard of enough serial killers to have no trouble believing that a vicious animal can lurk inside a human exterior–takes on a life of its own. Unfortunately, this probably led to people being accused of being werewolves whose only problem was being hairy or having eyebrows that meet in the middle of their forehead (one of the supposed distinguishing characteristics of a werewolf in human form).
A legend with even more staying power is that of the vampire. Originally this was an evil spirit, the ghost of a criminal, heretic or suicide, who took possession of a corpse and rose from its grave at night to suck the blood of sleeping people, who in turn would become vampires after their death. The Slavic vampire, who can only be killed by cremation or having a stake driven through its heart, is the best known example, but vampire legends, like the legends of humans changing into animals, are known in various forms all over the world, as well.
The reason the Slavic vampire is best-known is that English author Bram Stoker wrote a book about one: Dracula.Dracula begat films, which begat more films, which begat books, which begat more films and TV series, until today vampires are ubiquitous.
There are psychological explanations for the vampire legend very similar to those for the werewolf legend, and, just as there are delusional people who think they are werewolves, there are those who think they are vampires. The Vampire Research Centre conducts regular censuses of vampires, sending out questionnaires to people who claim to be vampires asking such questions as “How often do you drink blood?” “Do you sleep in a coffin?”, etc. Stephen Kaplan, the director of the Centre, doesn’t believe in vampires in the supernatural sense, but he says there are at least 50 “true vampires” in the U.S. alone: by his definition, people who have a physical addiction to blood, drink it and believe it prolongs their lives.
Various theories have also been put forward to explain the physiological attributes of vampires–pointy teeth, inability to face the sun, etc. In 1985 a Canadian biochemist, David Dolphin, proposed that vampire legends might have started with a rare hereditary blood disease called porphyria. Sufferers of porphyria have a deficiency of heme, one of the pigments in oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Dolphin suggested victims might have developed a craving to drink blood to alleviate their symptoms. Although the disease is treatable today, early victims were extremely sensitive to sunlight, and therefore went out only at night. The sun could horribly disfigure them, and cause their lips and gums to tighten until their teeth looked like fangs.
Another physical condition that could produce a vampire-like appearance was congenital syphilis. This can result in children born with all the front teeth shaped like incisors. The eyes are often pale and encircled with a dark ring, resulting in lightblindness–the sufferer can only seen in the dark. The palate is deformed, so that only liquids may be ingested, and the nose bridge collapses. All of these are attributes of vampires (although the collapsed nose bridge, while often noted in historical accounts of vampires, has rather disappeared from the modern version. It’s a safe bet you won’t see Tom Cruise with a collapsed nose bridge in Interview with the Vampire.)
Whatever the origin of the legends, it’s amazing that they still hold sway today. If they inspire fear, and fear isn’t something we enjoy, why haven’t we put these old stories out of our heads?
Again, theories abound. To begin with, we may like vampires, werewolves, and the ghostly trappings of Halloween precisely because we do enjoy fear–at least, we enjoy manageable fear. The great thing about being frightened by a vampire or werewolf in a book or movie or Halloween “haunted house” is that we’re never in any real danger, and consciously, we know it, even as our subconscious is freaking out. And all we have to do is close the book, leave the movie, walk out the door of the house, and the fear is gone…unlike other things we fear, like losing our jobs, over which we may have no control at all.
Werewolves, vampires and the other dark legends that get new life every Halloween are also thought to offer an almost religious appeal. Lots of articles are being written right now about the “new spirituality” that’s supposed to be sweeping North America. People are supposedly looking for something mystical to make sense of their lives, and finding it in all sorts of weird places…even in ancient superstitions once thought long put to rest.
Think about all this tonight as the trick-or-treaters come to your door. Perhaps you’ll even see a child dressed as a werewolf, and instead of opening the door and saying, “Boo!”, you can say, “Oh, I see you’ve dressed as a symbol of an uncontrollable eruption into the individual and collective unconscious of the disintegration of the self.”
Now that’s REALLY scary.