Halloween Encyclopedia Excerpts

The Halloween Encyclopedia BANSHEE - Literally, fairy woman (from the Irish bean and sidhe); often described in Irish folklore as a messenger of death. Although the banshee doesn't figure prominently in Halloween lore, there are a few fairy tales which seem to mention the banshee in connection with Halloween: In "How Thomas Connolly Met the Banshee", the man of the title is walking home at dusk during "the first week in November" when he spots an old woman crouched by a bridge. Upon closer examination he sees not an old woman, but a creature wearing an otherworldly green gown, with unnaturally long hair and a corpse-like pallor. The thing screeches at him, then glides under the bridge and disappears. Thomas runs home, and the next day discovers that the banshee was heard wailing around the house of a neighbor who died early in the morning.

Banshees were also popular story subjects on Halloween, and were often described in stories as being accompanied by a headless coachman.

The male equivalent of a banshee was a fershee, although in all the banshee legends only female spirits are named.

NUTS - As with apples the significance of nuts at Halloween is often linked to the (supposed) Roman harvest goddess Pomona, but probably stems more from Celtic beliefs. The Celts especially venerated hazelnuts, and nuts and apples are often linked in Celtic lore.

A Scottish fortune-telling belief centered on the burning of nuts on Halloween: A pair of nuts are named for each member of a couple, then placed on a fire. If they burn to ashes together, the couple will enjoy a long, happy life together; but if they sputter and roll apart, they will separate soon. Sometimes this rhyme was recited as the nutes were placed:

If you hate me spit and fly;
If you love me burn away.

The ashes from the nuts might be collected and placed under the pillow to promote prophetic dreams.

In a version from Hertfordshire, a girl threw one nut on the fire, which represented her true love. If the nut burst quickly, it was a good omen, but if it never burst at all, the unfortunate girl was destined for spinsterhood. A variation of this custom is more specific: Chestnuts are used; if one hisses and steams, it indicates a bad temper in the human counterpart, but if both perform in this manner, it augurs strife. Charles Graydon lays out the custom in these lines from "On Nuts Burning, Allhallows Eve":

These glowing nuts are emblems true
Of what in human life we view:
The ill-matched couple fret and fume,
And thus in strife themselves consume;
Or from each other wildly start,
And with a noise forever part.
But see the happy, happy pair,
Of genuine love and truth sincere;
With mutual fondness while they burn,
Still to each other kindly turn;
And as the vital sparks decay,
Together gently sink away;
Till life's fierce trials being past,
Their mingled ashes rest at last.

A variation is suggested in this anonymous 1937 poem, "The Test of the Nuts":

I've named three nuts and placed them
Side by side on the grate,
The one which cracks is unfaithful,
The lover I know I should hate.
The one which blazes with brilliant fire,
Tells of high regard, 'tis said,
But the one which burns with a steady flame
Names the man whom I shall wed.

Sometimes this method involved only two hazelnuts, with the choice involving nuts which cracked (unfaithful) against nuts which burned steadily to ashes (true). A variation of the three-nut custom involves three chestnuts named and placed on a hearth. If they separate, so will those for whom they are named; those jumping toward the fire are going to a warmer climate; those jumping from the fire, to a colder climate; if two gentlemen jump toward one another, it means rivalry. In a Welsh custom, nuts thrown onto a bonfire predict the future: If the flames dance about when the nuts are thrown in, the coming year will be full of fun and excitement; but if the flames don't change, the coming year will be dull.

In another roasting custom, a nut was named for each person present, and placed on the fire. If a nut burned quietly, life would be even and uneventful; if it popped right out of the grate, it might mean that that person would travel; if it stayed in the grate but popped and exploded the owner would have an exciting time without traveling; and if the nut burnt up, the owner would not get his or her wish.

One fortune-telling method involved three different nuts - a walnut, a hazel-nut, and a nutmeg - which were grated together and mixed with butter and sugar into pills. A young woman seeking to know the occupation of her future husband took the pills just before bedtime on Halloween, and her dreams supposedly foretold her future: Golden dreams indicated a gentleman; odd noises and tumults, a tradesman; and thunder and lightning, a traveler.

In Wales, on Halloween people would cast walnuts or hazel nuts (or sometimes stones or pebbles) into the fire. When these were shot out by the heat, or if the nuts burst, the younger folk ran away, fearing the "goblin black-tailed sow" would come and drive them into the flue.

One British party game involved chestnutting on Halloween; the one finding the first burr would be the first to marry. If the burr opened easily, love would not last long; if it was hard to open, then the romance would be lasting.

URBAN LEGENDS - Urban legends are modern, orally-transmitted tales. As a holiday which serves in part as a commemoration of the dead, it's certainly no surprise that Halloween in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-centuries had its share of urban legends. By far the most celebrated, of course, is the poisoned candy/razor-blade-hiding-in-the-apple tale. This may have started with a case in 1964, in which housewife Helen Pfeil gave packages containing dog biscuits, steel wool and arsenic-laced ant-poison buttons to teens she thought were too old to be trick or treating; the razor blade motif surfaced in 1967. In their oft-quoted study "The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends" (1985), Joel Best and Gerald T. Horiuchi examine seventy-six cases of "Halloween sadism" which occurred between 1959 and 1984, and came up with startling facts: Of those seventy-six cases (which covered fifteen American states and two Canadian provinces), only twenty reported injuries (the most serious of which required eleven stitches), and only two deaths resulted. In 1970, five-year old Kevin Toston died after swallowing heroin, but police traced the drug to a stash in his uncle's house, not Halloween candy; in 1974, eight-year old Timothy Mark O'Bryan died of cyanide poisoning after eating Halloween candy, but police later determined his own father had tampered with the candy. The trend peaked twice, in 1982, when Halloween took place a month after seven people died from swallowing poisoned Tylenol pills; and the first time in the period covering 1969-1971 (there were thirty-one cases during this time), when Best and Horiuchi suggest that a combination of growing threats to children (including drug use), fear of crime, and increasing mistrust of others combined to fuel the Halloween sadism rumors. As an urban legend, that of the anonymous Halloween psycho hiding razor blades in apples or poisoning trick or treat candy combines two popular themes, those of danger to children and contaminated food.

Poisoned candy took a new twist in 2001, when Halloween occurred not only after the terrorist attacks of September 11, but also after several people died of anthrax poisoning by terrorists. Again, although fears were heightened, there were no genuine anonymous cases of Halloween sadism recorded.

Another popular 2001 legend inspired by the 9/11 terrorist attacks circulated largely via e-mail and reported that "my friend's friend was dating a guy from Afghanistan" until September 6, at which point he disappeared. On September 10, she received a letter from her boyfriend begging her not to get on any commercial airlines on 9/11, and not to go to any malls on Halloween. After the events of 9/11, the friend's friend supposedly turned the letter over to the FBI; on October 11, the FBI did its best to debunk the rumor, affirming that the letter described therein was nonexistent.

Another popular Halloween urban legend began in 1968. That year a rumor circulated on college campuses that popular psychic Jeane Dixon had predicted (on a radio show) a maniac stalking a college campus on Halloween. This legend popped up again in 1979 (the Midwest), 1983 (nationwide), 1986 (Central Pennsylvania), 1991 (New England) and 1998 (mainly Michigan); this time the psychic had appeared on a television talk show (usually given as The Oprah Winfrey Show) and predicted that, on Halloween, a knife-wielding madman (in some versions of this legend the psycho was described as being costumed as Little Bo Peep) would carve up a dormitory or fraternity. With each new cycle, details are added to indicate specific locales - for example, students at Florida State University claimed that the psychic had indicated that the killer would stalk a U-shaped building on a campus located near a graveyard (which FSU is). When the story arose in 1991, it spread through a number of east-coast colleges and sometimes cited Nostradamus as the source, noting that the murders would occur in a year with an onomatopoeic number (the ever-popular Nostradamus was also claimed to have predicted the catastrophes of 9/11).

The idea that children are kidnapped on Halloween for use in Satanic cult rituals probably started in 1973-4, after a wave of cattle mutilations. By 1975 officials were warning parents to keep younger children inside after dark; by 1988, this urban legend had appeared in at least nine states. A typical example of this story arose in 1990, when it was claimed that one cult was trying to round up one-hundred blond and blue-eyed children. In actual fact, the FBI has never confirmed any murder in the US as a "cult sacrifice".

By 1989 some communities had taken these legends seriously enough to ban Halloween because of them. National Guard Units offered free fingerprinting of children the week before Halloween, hospitals offered free x-rays of their candy, and children were encouraged to trick or treat at indoor malls and zoos instead of on the streets. In his essay "'Safe Spooks': New Halloween Traditions in Response to Sadism Legends", Bill Ellis suggests that "traditional images of ghosts and witches are simply augmented by images of contemporary fears".