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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Halloween: Only a costume event?

Halloween has staked its claim in the isles of local grocery stores as bags of candy and costumes are abundant. On campus there exists a buzz between peers concerning costume parties. Children are especially excited about the holiday this year as it falls on a Saturday, which allows for plenty of time to trick-or-treat neighbors’ homes. The expected decorating is occurring as individuals carve pumpkins, line their doorways with fake spider webs, and prepare to humorously frighten those who dare to ring their doorbell. Here in New England, it is even beginning to “feel like Halloween”, as the nights are becoming brisk and orange tree leaves cover the sidewalks.

Although Halloween is revered as a social occasion, it is a holiday that has specific roots in Celtic history. Serving as a pagan holiday, Halloween was meant to mark the end of the harvest season, and the start of a new year. Gaelic tradition predicted that on October 31 the boundary between the living and the dead would disappear allowing spirits to create havoc through sickness and the killing of livestock. Celtic culture dictated that masks and costumes be worn so as to trick the dead thereby saving themselves from evil. On Saturday, as we eat candy corn by the handful, we can think of the Irish bringing this tradition to North America as they migrated during the Great Famine.

Halloween is primarily celebrated in North America, although other countries that do celebrate it typically follow the norms established by American popular culture. October 31 no longer represents the one evening of the year that the living and the dead cohabitate; today it is a commercialized holiday that crosses various cultural footholds, including film, music, food, dress, and expected behavior. There is a long list of visual symbols one can associate with the holiday, including: jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, bats, moons, black cats, and witches.

Being a witch is a popular choice for a Halloween costume as many young children can be seen asking for candy while wearing black pointy hats and carrying brooms. This is somewhat of an ironic costume choice considering the tumultuous story American history presents of witches.

Beyond the popular culture understanding of witches in North America there does exist a historical undertone, especially in New England, of persecution. By driving thirty minutes from Boston one can visit Salem, Massachusetts. There are a variety of museums offering performances as actors tell the story of witch hunts, trials, and hangings. The town also successfully provides a snapshot of American architecture from the 17th century as visitors can stroll through many of the original “witch houses”. A visit to Salem is a reminder of a part of American history where witches, with or without their pointy hats and brooms, were something to be feared.

Beginning in February 1692 the Salem Witch Trials lasted until May 1693. As described by the Salem Visitor’s Guide the trials “began in the winter of 1692 when some girls fell ill and blamed members of the community for their affliction. Hundreds of innocent people were accused during the hysteria, and ultimately 19 men and women were hung.” One man, named Giles Corey, refused to enter a plea and was subsequently crushed to death under a pile of stones in order to make him confess. That form of execution is referred to as “peine forte et dure” which was outlawed by the British government some twenty years earlier. Lastly, only three convictions were produced by the thirty-one witch trials conducted by “a series of hearings before local magistrates followed by county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex Counties of colonial Massachusetts.” The Salem Witch trials now serve as a “cautionary tale about the dangers of religious extremism, false accusations, lapses in due process, and governmental intrusion on individual liberties.”

Witches still exist in American society although are not as fully misunderstood as during the Puritan time. Neopaganism has become the term used to organize all contemporary forms of witchcraft, including the Wiccan religion. Modern witch practices involve the use of divination and magic. The “practice of natural medicine, folk medicine, and spiritual healing is also common, as are alternative medical and New Age healing practices.” Contemporary witchcraft is not limited to the United States as practices are found in South America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa.

There appears to be a cultural patchwork that exists between a history of persecution, Halloween’s commercialization, and modern religious tolerance concerning the practice of witch craft in the United States. It is due to this interlay that youngsters can parade around in their black pointy hats while carrying brooms; Halloween is an incredibly fun time of year and interestingly brings with it an enormous amount of history.