The season of the witch is once more upon us. The shops are filled with the spooky accoutrements of Halloween; devilish tridents, ghost masks, spray-on cobwebs and of course tumescent pumpkins. Halloween (or Samhain, or Samuin or whatever reconstruction/neo-Pagan name one prefers for this event) is for me the most archetypally occult of the eight sabbats. Whatever its imagined roots, this festival, for many people across the world, represents a time for us to celebrate the weird, the uncanny, the mysterious.
Halloween is a commemoration of the universal fact of death and a time to remember our ancestors, but also and crucially, a time for children, for spooky fun and for practices such as trick-or-treating. As callow youths we naturally become interested in death and, as a former goth, I was no exception. However as we get older and we experience the fact of death – the ageing and death of beloved parents, the tragic demise of our peers that have lost their battle against mental and other illnesses, our view of death may become less devil-may-care, better informed by the reality of our mortality, and perhaps more sombre.
Halloween is a counter-point to this. The significant role of children as participants in the folk customs of this time (and in Britain as the key group who (re)imported Halloween activities such as trick-or-treating from North America culture into Europe) is emblematic of this. Today many young people in the west are strangers to death and that’s probably not a bad thing. Depending on when and where we look kids in the past had, by-and-large, a much higher chance of dying in infancy, of having a least one deceased sibling, or of encountering death through infectious illness, industrial injury or a thousand thousand other means. So while death still stalks the land in many nations (not least those currently wracked by war), it is outside the commonplace experience of many of us, and outside the ken of many of our children.
Some people, perhaps those who do not yet have personal experience of death, or who suffer from a reduced imaginative capacity, may seek to engage with death vicariously. For them the adult horror industry of gory movies or novels maybe their preferred style. They may fetishise serial killers or other mentally and socially damaged people. Wishing that, in the fact of their emotionally numb life, they were an actor (or viewer) of some terrible twisted drama. While I’m sure that some folk who dig the horror genre may have other reasons to be fascinated by these things I can’t help but think that a knowledge of history and a sense of human empathy is probably all you need to conjure more than enough tragedy into one’s mind.
Meanwhile, in one of the museums in which I work we are preparing for our Halloween celebrations. We switch off the main lights; deploy a range of scary sound effects, atmospheric illumination, prepare the gallery where kids will meet the witch (a costumed member of staff with a cauldron full of trick-or-treat goodies) and Mexican style cut-out and colour skull masks for our younger visitors to make as they listen to ghost stories in the museum cafe.
For those of us who are older; having lost loved ones that have passed into the realm of the ancestors – this child-like delight in death, the gruesome, the frightening, is a way of shaking us out of a funereal, perhaps depressed mindset in the face of this festival. The carnivalesque, wild delight of Samhain, whether that’s expressed by children donning fearsome costumes and going stalking the night in search of candy, or of adults dressing up as anything from zombie pirates to sexy witches – for me these things are as much part of this festival as altars to Guédé, prayers to our ancestors and silent time spent scrying in the cauldron on the night when the veil between seen and unseen worlds are at their thinnest.
Halloween itself, and the wider season of this time, are full of (apparent) contradictions; the young dress like skeletons, we buy our poppies to remember the war dead, we celebrate (at least in England) the attempted destruction of Parliament by gunpowder with fireworks and bonfires. We burn effigies, we bob for apples, we enjoy the darkness and yet also fear it, as the day length is sharply cut back here in the far north. Children roam the streets (ideally with a caring adult in tow if they are young ones), out and abroad (even though it is night-time!) looking for strangers (typically indicating that their house is ‘fair game’ by displaying Halloween decorations at the window) from whom they can score sweets. We celebrate death by engaging with the thrill of being alive, like Guédé (patron loa of both death and fertility) at a cultural level we create a cut-up of contrasting iconography.
This is Scorpio time; the sign of sex and death, the chaoists’ favourite astrological 8th house that rules magick and the occult. Outside it’s time to do the last harvest, the apples drop from the trees in my orchard and are brewed up on the stove. Stewed with cinnamon and cloves and honey we feast on the fruits of the year. Orion the hunter rises in the sky, winter is coming and we play with the edges of excitement and fear as the dark rises and the wheel of the year turns again.