Cross-curricular resources: All Hallows' Eve and Diwali

Why are we so fascinated by a festival focused on death, asks Dale Salwak

  • All Hallows' Eve, 31 October
  • Diwali, 26 October
    • Halloween as many of us remember it from childhood was light-hearted, fun-filled, festive - an autumnal holiday to look forward to, daydream about, and talk over with friends at school. It was a night when our parents and other adults around us could be kids again, too, and join in a celebration vividly coloured by fantasy, magic and mystery.

      Each year my neighbours transformed their two-car garage into a haunted house in preparation for the tiny witches and goblins, walking ghouls, skeletons, zombies, troubled ghosts and additional unfriendly creatures from the Otherworld who showed up to surprise and delight the living and demand: "Trick or treat!"

      My Halloween memories, therefore, are partly the product of ghoulish sounds, flickering lights, spiders and cobwebs, and a tingling sense of being watched.

      Then, as our parents stood behind at a comfortable distance, we left the haunted house and trekked from home to home, collecting more treats. If there was a full, yellow moon and a soft mist, all the better. The evening had an ethereal, mystical appeal for me; each autumn I could hardly wait for it. For one evening our neighbourhoods came alive in a festival focused on death.

      As children we were blissfully unaware of Halloween's complicated mix of cultural and religious origins, however.

      No one had told us that All Hallows' Eve is a remnant of the pre-Christian Celtic night of the dead (the official start of autumn) when it was believed that some spirits which had died in the previous year would come back to possess a body of the living. Nor did we know that, according to this mythology, the living would try to placate the returned souls with offerings of nuts and berries or would dress up in scary costumes to blend in unnoticed.

      Neither were we aware that the tradition of "trick or treating" probably originated in the custom of "souling" as children went from home to home, begging for treats called "soul cakes" in return for their prayers for deceased relatives. And we had no clue that the jack-o'-lanterns we carved so assiduously and lit so faithfully originated in an Irish folk tale about a farmer named Jack who had tricked the devil, angered God and was condemned to walk the earth forever with only a candle inside a squash to light his way.

      Only now, with the sunny outlook of those early years well behind us, in the college classroom and within the context of literary studies, do I look for opportunities to discuss these dark traditions, and others, and their lasting effects both good and bad upon Western culture.

      As my students have discovered, Halloween continues to appeal to both children and adults because it fulfils one of the most fundamental requirements of any great story - it must enchant.

      The importance of the enchantment factor becomes clear in an example related by the Russian poet Korney Chukovsky, who described a policy instituted by the Soviet government in the 1920s banning all fantasy from the education of children in favour of simple, realistic, factual stories.

      One of the educators, curious about the effects of this ruling, began to keep a diary of her own child's development and found that her son, as if to compensate for what he was being denied, began to make up his own fantasies. He had never heard a fairy tale, never read a folktale, but talking tigers, birds, and bugs, as well as beautiful maidens, castles, and underground cities soon populated his imaginative world.

      Chukovsky concluded: "Fantasy is the most valuable attribute of the human mind and should be diligently nurtured from earliest childhood."

      It seems we never outgrow our need for creative play, as evidenced by the participation of many otherwise mature and rational adults in Halloween's imaginative aspects.

      Halloween also offers what is perhaps the most eloquent and most sustained testimony to the triumph over fear - what HP Lovecraft called the oldest and deepest emotion of humankind.

      It is a time when children (and even some adults) can face death, monsters and the unknown by personifying them in a safe, even light-hearted context. The masks and costumes express a variety of messages about the individual and the culture. Some have to do with human fragility; some satirise and therefore deflate certain stereotypes about death; others make powerful statements about our own worst nightmares. Any horror loses at least some of its magnitude once we have looked squarely upon it. "When we become the dark," says American novelist PD Cacek, "the shadows seem less frightening".

      One of my colleagues who teaches a course in the Literature of Horror makes the holiday a centrepiece of his semester as students study the dark side of the literary imagination. Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, or the hauntings in Henry James' Turn of the Screw are just a few obvious examples. It's a short leap from discussions about Halloween to the witches in Macbeth or the ghost in Hamlet. And these discussions place the works of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Peter Straub, or Shirley Jackson - whose Haunting of Hill House still terrifies readers - within a literary tradition that is not just titillating but also far-ranging. Students are encouraged to keep a fear journal - in which they write down their nightmares and discover something about the darkness of the human psyche.

      Unfortunately, anything pleasurable can be made disagreeable by people behaving badly. Over the past several decades, reports of incidents in which individuals have taken the celebration of the supernatural outside the bounds of civility have added an element of real danger to Halloween festivities.

      "Sometimes," said Bertrand Russell, "people's beliefs are cloaks for evil passions." Given the risks and dangers now connected with Halloween, it's understandable why many parents and even schools try to channel the activities into safer ways of celebrating.

      And for some Halloween spirits, like myself, curling up in the safety of our bed with a terrifying book will do the trick to provide us a treat: as the wind blows and a barren branch taps at the window, we can once again experience, without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the wraithlike memories of childhood haunts.

      Dale Salwak is professor of English, Citrus College, Glendora, California. He is author of `Teaching Life: letters from a life in literature' (2008) and editor of `AfterWord: conjuring the literary dead' (2011)

      What else?

      Visit the Halloween resources collection on TES for ideas for spooky classroom activities, costumes and lessons

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      Original headline: Our long dark night of the soul

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