Zombies, Goblins and Ghouls
Here’s a rundown on what makes a zombie different from a ghoul or a goblin: a zombie, via Haitian folklore, is a corpse who’s up and about because a witch doctor has dug it up and stolen its soul. A goblin, from French folklore, plays pranks and steals wine–but can also be slightly helpful. A ghoul, of Arabic origin, eats corpses and, sometimes, young children; it was once thought to be the terror of the desert personified. These are all lower creatures of world mythology. Now a ghost–that’s a different story. A Gallup Poll taken around Halloween, 1999 found that roughly one third of us say we believe in ghosts, three times the number who admitted it twenty years ago.
The first Halloween ghosts were perhaps, as Ray Bradbury suggests in The Halloween Tree, memories of our great grandparents. It’s not hard to envision ancient tribes camped around a Samhain fire telling stories of heroes and battles, strange encounters and unexplained sights. As the night stretched on, we can imagine how the tales grew more vivid, the subjects more supernatural. There would be talk of ghosts.
Although it makes poetic sense for spectral activity to increase on Halloween, most ghost investigators I’ve talked with say it’s just not so. We humans may be more aware of the spirit world on Halloween, but the spirit world appears to treat the holiday as just another night.
As for vampires, they have no real folkloric tie to Halloween other than as a favorite costume choice and a certain similarity with the other undead characters of Halloween.
Fascination with vampires crosses all age groups and lifestyles, from the little boy ogling a slick black-cape-and-fang set in the Halloween aisle at Wal-Mart to the hordes of adults entrenched in vampire role-playing games. There are those who believe in psychic vampires, individuals who suck the life energy from those around them; human vampires, who claim they experience all the characteristics of fictional vampires except immortality; even in supernatural vampires who inhabit a netherworld also populated by ghosts. But among those who believe themselves to truly be vampires or take on a vampiric demeanor as a lifestyle, Halloween is still largely a holiday where they can delight in the freedom to be who they are; it’s is the only night when the rest of the world looks like them.
Imagine yourself answering the door and getting hit with a bag full of slimy, stinking muck from the bottom of the street gutter? Or being trapped in your own house by some kids who knotted a rope from your front door to your porch railing? Toilet paper in the trees seems pretty tame by comparison. Yet all these tricks date from a time when Halloween pranking was considered safe and fun. Most people didn’t object to these kinds of pranks; they tossed them off as mischief. Today they’d make the papers under headlines such as “Vandals Caught in Halloween Prank Gone Awry” or “Satanic Cult Linked to Cow Theft.”
It’s true that pranks have become more destructive. And a real shift has occurred between then and now, between a time when adults tolerated a certain amount of pranking and now, when angry seniors berate teens on radio talk shows. The change in attitude has less to do with the holiday and more to do with social tensions between classes, races and generations. Halloween’s just the backdrop for the drama.
When everyone knew their neighbors, pranks got pulled on the local grouch and people smiled guiltily to themselves. But when Americans moved into crowded urban centers full of big city problems like poverty, segregation and unemployment, pranking took on a new edge. Vandals struck out against property owners, adults, and authority in general: city kids setting dumpsters on fire didn’t know who owned the property they were torching. Tires were slashed without regard to whose car. It wasn’t about pulling off a good practical joke any more; it was about doing damage.
The war between kids and property on Halloween has been fought pretty hard over the last twenty years. There are notorious cities like Detroit, where in 1984, a record of 810 fires were set during the three-day period around Halloween. Halloween vandalism seemed to reach a peak in the late 1980s. The Halloween “Mall Crawl” in Boulder, Colorado ended in drunken fighting and property damage. There were a record number of arrests in New York City for Halloween-related assaults, and violence in the usually peaceful Castro district of San Francisco. Curfews and community action came into being to fight back against crime.
They scored some pretty dramatic wins. In 1994, Detroit enlisted 35,000 residents to patrol the streets and keep watch over abandoned properties and the number of fires reported that Halloween were fewer than on an ordinary night. Neighborhood Crime Watches and “Pumpkin Patrols” continue to crop up across the country to help ensure that the little kids got home safely and the bigger kids stayed out of trouble. And many cities have started sponsoring concerts and dances for teens on Halloween.
Arson, vandalism, and harassment are not a normal part of Halloween mischief, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room left for pranks. Pranks and vandalism are apples and oranges, and learning the difference between them is part of growing up.
The biggest Halloween danger is probably traffic. Former Boston helicopter traffic reporter Judy Paparelli says the accidents start first thing in the morning–it’s not just night that’s a problem on Halloween. Drunk drivers are part of it: the other parts of the problem are low visibility and carelessness.
Experts warn that most little kids aren’t ready to handle street-crossing by themselves, and often overestimate how quickly they can cross or rely too much on the “magical” power of a crosswalk to protect them. The Centers for Disease Control (together with the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control) compiled statistics of Halloween-related traffic deaths from 1975 through 1996 and found that: “overall, among children aged 5-14 years, an average of four deaths occurred on Halloween during these hours each year, compared with an average of one death during these hours on every other day of the year.”
Halloween sadists and Satanist psychos don’t hurt kids on Halloween. Cars do. No devil-worshipping cult lies in wait for us. But, yes, there are twisted pranksters and angry, unhealthy people in the world. Sometimes Halloween safety restrictions are really a smoke screen for intolerance, and sometimes Halloween mischief masks serious social ills. The real Halloween monsters are the same monsters we live with every day: bad judgment, anger and small-mindedness. The challenge is to battle these everyday threats and leave alone those traditions that strengthen communities and make childhood magical.
By Lesley Bannatyne excerpted from A Halloween How-To, 2001 Pelican Publishers ISBN 1-56554-774-8