I watch Halloween movies throughout October to deepen my appreciation and extend my enjoyment of the holiday—movies about monsters, ghosts, and the line between the living and the dead (I never developed a liking of the slasher-movie tradition). For me, the month of October is the time when darkness comes noticeably earlier, when the weather turns noticeably cooler and breezier, and when outdoor life withers, dies, and changes into swirling piles of crunchy leaves and bare branches scratching across the sky. Even the summer song of cicadas, katydids, and crickets fades to the silence of wind through bare branches. All this deadening of the outside world forces us in onto ourselves in the shadows of early dark…culminating on October 31st, Halloween. So October, for me, is a 31-day trek of spookiness.
My inward focus in the dark may be a natural reaction to these changes in the outside world…or it may be a reflection of our most ancient tendencies and traditions. More than two thousand years ago, the Celts and their Druid leaders across northwest Europe observed October as the end of their year, naturally coming at the end of summer and the end of harvest time. Before the start of their new year— November 1—they believed that the border between the worlds of the living and dead grew fragile and that spirits of the dead could walk the earth. It was called Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) and it was celebrated with huge bonfires to ward off the coming cold, it was a time of communing with the dead in attempts to see the future, it was the predecessor to our Halloween.
In the early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church usurped the Druid observances and named November 1 as All Hallows (Saints) Day and November 2 as All Souls Day…they overwrote the Druid tradition with Catholic dogma: holy saints and faithful souls were to be honored, not feared. But the ancient traditions have held on…and over the month of October the world still grows dark, things still die, and we still sense Halloween as a time when we lose the fragile border between the living and dead. If saints will soon be honored, then demons and monsters and ghosts must first be endured!
Of course, Halloween has grown bigger than this ancient tradition to become a commercialized fun day for children. Costumes range from puppy dogs and princesses to Wonder Woman and Spiderman. For adults, sexy costumes are as common as monster costumes. And candy bars are ubiquitous—Reese’s started advertising their peanut butter cups in early September!
The month has absorbed the ancient tradition and I celebrate it each year all month through. I start by purchasing a pumpkin or two; I scatter tchotchkes of ghosts and witches around the house; I hang a banner with a black cat in front of the house; I’ve read Dracula almost every October and I read various ghost stories, too; and I watch Halloween movies all month: Frankenstein, several versions of Dracula, The Haunting, Corpse Bride, The Innocents, Rosemary’s Baby, and many others. But if the border between the living and the dead really is fragile this month, I’ve yet to have proof, I’ve yet to see a ghost. I become acutely aware each October that things might lurk under my bed or hide in my closet, I’ve been startled by many dark and twisting shadows, and heard many things that go bump in the night…because for me October has always been just a 31-day trek of spookiness.