Who Are the Dead and What Do They Want?

October 29, 2015
Orbital X-ray
An orbital x-ray.

Halloween has become synonymous with costumes and candy, but what lies beyond the ghoulish face paint and Tootsie Roll wrappers?

Kimberley Patton, Professor of the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion at Harvard Divinity School, has long studied funerary cult.

In an interview with MTS candidate Michelle Bentsman, Patton weighs in on the holiday's widely felt but forgotten history, and the ways in which its core elements continue to fascinate.

MB: Why is Halloween such an enduring holiday?

KP: Halloween represents the convergence on the same night of two important ceremonial dates from two historically intertwined traditions—ancient Celtic religion and medieval European Christianity. 

These are Samhain and All Hallows' Evening, which is the eve of All Saints' Day, November 1, followed by All Souls' Day on November 2. 

All Hallows' Eve seems to have been moved by the Western Church in the seventh or eighth century C.E. from its original date in May to replace the persistent celebration of Samhain on the night of October 31 in Gaelic-speaking cultures. 

Despite their mightily different religious thought-worlds, the two traditions have nevertheless fed and influenced one another around themes that have a timeless magnetism: That the attention of the living turns to the powerful and mysterious dead.

The portals between the worlds of the living and the dead are temporarily open on Halloween. We know of literal special portals in Ireland that were known to all, such as Oweynagat, the cave of Cruachan near Rathcroghan mound in County Roscommon. This is where ancient graves were opened on the night of October 31 and magical, dangerous creatures were loosed into the upperworld.

The dead, usually safely dwelling under the earth, are in some sense animate and mobile on that night; the spirits are abroad, and the living who venture out that night recognize the power of the denizens of "the other side," even disguising themselves to look like them. 

Whether through being welcomed home to hearths they left behind with lit candles set in windows or fed with special foods (Samhain's legacy), or being venerated as transcendent celestials whose earthly tombs still retain charisma and healing powers (the early Christian cult of the saints), the dead have their spotlight on Halloween. 

Our American skeleton and zombie costumes and our slasher films may burlesque death, but we can't escape the cultural anxieties of which these are symptoms: How should we relate to this strange thing called death that awaits us all? Who are the dead and what do they want?

With disguises, or ghoulishly carved pumpkins and gourds, one tricked the spirits abroad that night, originally the Aos Sí of the ancient Celts ("faeries," who were originally the powerful divinized dead, living in holy mounds and tumuli throughout Celtic lands).

But now it might be more about joining their ranks, at least for one night, and becoming them by imitating their looks and the weird behaviors we attribute to them. 

MB: What are the most misunderstood or forgotten aspects of the holiday's history?

KP: There are many, but here are a few: The way that the Celtic holiday of Beltane on May 1 and the corresponding feast of Samhain on November 1 bookended the driving of cattle up to the high pastures for the summer, then driving them back down, as the winter settled in, choosing which to slaughter.

Bonfires, lit for purification of humans and cattle, and the site of communal, clan, or royal gatherings.

Divination rituals have long been forgotten. Human sacrifice was faintly echoed in rituals from Scotland, Wales, and Brittany and survived into the nineteenth century and perhaps longer.

The carrying of a torch around a ring of stones representing members of the community were set around a bonfire. If any of the stones were missing in the morning, it was believed that person would die before the end of the year. 

MB: Where else, across time and culture, do we see similar celebrations?

KP: The "triduum" of All Hallows' Eve on October 31, All Saints' Day on November 1, followed by All Souls Day on November 2, are also the dates comprising the Mexican Day of the Dead.

The dead are honored and fed on home altars, and feted with candles, marigolds, specially prepared foods, and singing by the whole family at cemeteries, who visit their graves all day and picnic.

In the Day of the Dead, one finds a comparable symbiosis of Christianity with a much older Aztec religious complex, that of the lady goddess Mictecacihuatl, who presides over the underworld Mictlan and guards the bones of the dead.

The wonderful skeletal brides and mariachi players and truck drivers, all doing everything the living do but in their own mirror world, are the descendants of this rich Mexica heritage. 

There are elaborate, particular remembrances of the "near dead" and the more remote ancestors in Chinese Confucian and Buddhist traditions.

It is interesting to note that plaques with red lettering are set outside Chinese homes to allow the dead to find their way home after seven days, comparable to the lanterns once set on windowsills on Halloween  for the same reason (then set into the scarily carved pumpkins in Britain to become Jack-o-lanterns). 

Japanese celebrations of Obon, beginning on the 15th day of July or the 15th day of August, depending on the region, go back for centuries.

Obon is the occasion for family reunions, cleaning the graves of ancestors, and making it possible for them to return to their homes. It even has its own dance, Bon Odori.  

MB: Why are these practices so ubiquitous?

KP: We are never really abandoned by our dead, nor do we ever really wish to be. Holidays of communion between the world of the dead—that mirror place where we can't go and which we can't really know—and our own world allow this relationship to flourish in a ritual container.

Holidays of remembrance, where the living deliberately engage with the dead, making space for communing with the "friendly" dead while at the same time protecting ourselves from unfriendly ghosts and spirits, are nearly universal. 

Recent psychological research has shown that the fundamental urge of those who grieve is to seek to extend and strengthen ties with their lost beloved ones, not weaken and attenuate them—contrary to American bromides of "healing" and "moving on."  And it turns out that bereaved persons yearn more, not less, to strengthen such ties as time goes on.  

MB: Has Halloween become a completely secular holiday, or do its religious underpinnings persist?

KP: Because death remains a mystery, it is hard to completely secularize Halloween. We've tried, but failed miserably. This is actually a very good thing!

Perhaps counterintuitively, the more familiar we are with death, the less terrifying it will be—and perhaps the more precious life will appear to us. 

American Halloween, despite its commercialism and general ickiness, may be one of the only ways left to us to make friends with the universal rule of mortality, and the way that it has become very much a children's holiday might gesture in that direction. 

Since children do not see dead bodies in our country as a matter of course anymore (although of course many children elsewhere are far too familiar with death), and since death is now such an alien concept in the U.S. and we no longer visit our cemeteries or tend our dead, we allow our children to be scary for one night a year, encouraging them to dress up as skeletons or witches. 

We may know on some deep level that we and our children cannot and should not be entirely cut off from what Rilke called "the side of life that is turned away from us and is not illuminated." Halloween, even the weird slantways that we celebrate it here, tries to illuminate that turned-away other side of life.

The more we emphasize unending youth and vitality, growth, winning, and endless consumption and expansion as the most important social values, perhaps the bigger Halloween will grow as a corrective. 

—by Michelle Bentsman, MTS candidate