Carina Bisset: Walking Between Worlds

Horror writers and Halloween are a mischievous mix. After all, there’s no better holiday to celebrate the ghosts and ghouls populating the pages of horror’s most celebrated literary pursuits. But it’s not just about those pop culture celebrities such as Dracula and Frankenstein; Halloween and horror have been walking hand-in-hand for centuries.

Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve occurs every year on October 31st, the ancient Celtic observance of Samhain: a liminal time when the door between the world of the living and the world of the dead allowed passage between realms. In some countries, the Faery Court is said to ride forth in a procession across the land during this time of the year; in others, the fearful Wild Hunt gallops across the hills with ghostly white hellhounds leading the way. Despite varying superstitions and beliefs, one thing is for certain—on this night straddling seasons, boundaries are blurred and the dead are free to roam.

In ancient times, hearth fires were doused while bonfires burned bright on the hilltops, beacons lit to protect mortals from the faery host and the lost souls. In later centuries, traditions linked to Samhain were incorporated into the three-day Christian celebration of Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day). Those traditions survive today in the modern holiday of Halloween which is marked by revelry, costumes, divination games, haunted houses, and trick-or-treat.

Although this dark time of the year and the accompanying traffic between the living and dead has been accompanied by fear in many parts of the world, there are some cultures that celebrated these times when the doors to the Otherworld stood open. One of the most well-known modern incarnation of these traditions can be seen in Dias de los Muertos (the Days of the Dead), a widely observed holiday found across Mexico in the American Southwest. Created from a mix of indigenous folk beliefs and medieval Spanish Catholicism, Dias de los Muertos traditionally takes place over the days of October 31 through November 2 and is celebrated with street processions and graveyard gatherings. Ofrendas or offerings such as food, drink, clothes, and toys are set out on home altars as gifts for departed loved ones and golden paths of marigold petals are strewn along the streets to the cemeteries to guide the souls of the dead back home.

Whereas Dias de los Muertos is marked by such colorful offerings as marigolds, alfeñiques (sugar skulls), and papel picado (a decorative paper folk art form), American Halloween celebrations tend favor darker traditions such as jack-o’-lanterns, haunted houses, and spooky stories. Tales centered around this fall holiday tend to run the gamut from such culturally-based stories as “En la Casa de Fantasmas” by Brian Holguin to traditional tales of terror such as “Universal Horror” by Colorado author Stephen Graham Jones. And, if you’re looking for a creepy collection of Halloween-inspired stories to add to your reading list, editors Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran have you covered. Haunted Nights, released earlier this month, contains a stunning selection of 16 stories that explore the traditions and roots of Halloween and such related holidays as All Souls’ Day, Dia de los Muertos, and Devil’s Night.   

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