Halloween Samhain Essay

Selected Halloween & Día de Muertos Resources at the Library

The Library of Congress is home to an array of resources on the folk customs, fine art, pop culture, and literature of Halloween and Día de Muertos. Collections range from classic film clips from "The Bride of Frankenstein," "Nosferatu," and "Carnival of Souls" to recordings of storytellers spinning yarns about ghosts and witches. There is even documentation of spooky séances with the great Harry Houdini, iconic artwork of Edward Gorey, and the timeless poetry of Robert Burns.

Special Pop-Up Exhibition: Oct. 27–Nov. 1, 2017

The Library of Congress is presenting a host of tricks and treats with an autumn pop-up exhibition of more than 200 collection items that embodies seasonal traditions of fantasy and folklore. Making a variety of rarely seen collection items more accessible to the general public, "LOC Halloween: Chambers of Mystery" will show-and-tell the intriguing tales of Halloween and Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, through a variety of treasures representing a wide range of resources within the Library. Learn more »

The exhibition will be on display October 27-31, from 11am-4pm, and November 1, from 11am–2pm, in the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building. Free tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but are not required.

Learn More About It

Begin exploring materials at the Library of Congress on the topics of Halloween and Día de Muertos online. Here are some places to begin your journey:


Highlights from the Library's Collections

PRINT MATERIALS

The general collections at the Library of Congress contain a multitude of books and publications that depict the Halloween, Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), and autumnal traditions that are celebrated in the United States and around the world. Search the Library's Online Catalog to discover a wide variety of materials relating to these traditions. In addition, some special collections are highlighted below.

Harry Houdini (1874-1926) and Magic
Master magician and escape artist, Houdini, died on Halloween. In 1927, the Library received 3,988 volumes from his personal collection on psychic phenomena, spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, and more. In addition, the McManus-Young Collection, numbering 20,000 items, includes publications and pictorial material relating to magic.

  • Harry Houdini Collection(Rare Book and Special Collections Division)
    Publications, scrapbooks, and other material relating to spiritualism and magic.
  • Variety Stage: Harry Houdini(digital collection)
    143 photographs and 29 related items of personal memorabilia that document Houdini's career.
  • Harry Houdini, Master Magician(Topics in Chronicling America)
    A sampling of articles from historic newspapers
  • McManus-Young Collection(Rare Book and Special Collections Division)
    A rich survey of illusion practices, conjuring, ventriloquism, fortune-telling, spiritualism, witchcraft, gambling, hypnotism, automata, and mind reading
  • Things Magical in the Collections of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division [PDF, 1.01 MB]
    An illustrated guide to the Library's magic collections by Leonard N. Beck

Literatura de cordel
Literatura de Cordel (literally “Literature on a String”) is a genre of chapbook literature native to Northeast Brazil. The genre takes its name from market stalls where chapbooks were strung on clotheslines for the perusal of customers. Cordel literature consists largely of popular poetry, which can be sung to folk tunes and illustrated by woodblock prints, line drawings, or cartoon art.

PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS

The Library's rich visual collections feature a wide variety of fine prints, photographs and other materials related to Halloween and Day of the Dead traditions and celebrations. Search the Library's Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) to view a wide variety of visual materials celebrating these traditions.

Edward St. John Gorey (1925-2000)
The Edward Gorey Collection, comprising 802 items (467 books, 89 periodicals, 92 posters and theater-related materials, 147 items of ephemera, 7 works of art, and 25 reference documents) collected by Gorey expert Glen Emil, is now housed in the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

José Guadalupe Posada (1851–1913) and Calaveras
Posada was a Mexican illustrator known for his satirical calaveras (from the Spanish word for "skulls"). After his death, Posada's illustrations featuring skeletons would become closely associated with the mexican holiday Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Photographic Documentation of Halloween Traditions
Several collections housed in the Library's American Folklife Center feature Halloween traditions and celebrations.

  • Jai Williams Collection
    This collection documents the D.C. High Heel Drag Queen Race, a Halloween tradition in the Washington DC area (AFC 2016/016)
  • Pinelands Folklife Project Collection
    A field project undertaken in the 1980s, the collection contains approximately 80,000 photos, hundreds of which document Halloween traditions (AFC 1991/023)
  • #FolklifeHalloween2014 collection
    Photographs taken by a diverse cross-section of Americans that document local Halloween traditions.

Spirit Photographs
Can you take a photograph of a ghost? Claims of capturing a spirit with the camera lens were made as early as the 1850s, when photography was relatively new to the world. Learn more about the techniques employed by photographers to capture ghostly images, and view images from the Library's Prints and Photographs Division.

SHEET MUSIC & AUDIO RECORDINGS

You can find plenty of titles in the Music Division’s coffers that tell of the lighted squash with which we celebrate All Hallows Eve. Printed music at the Library includes horror movie scores such as “Dracula’s Daughter Theme” (1936) and an assortment of Halloween-themed sheet music, including “When That Vampire Rolled Her Vampy Eyes at Me” (1917).

Tales of the Supernatural
The American Folklife Center has a wide variety of spoken-word recordings containing tales of the supernatural, as well as audio recordings of thousands of traditional folksongs, including many with supernatural themes. There are hundreds more such songs to be heard in the Folklife Research Center or AFC's online collections at loc.gov.

  • "The Hair-Raising Tale of 'The Witch Who Kept a Hotel',"Folklife Today Blog, October 24, 2017.
  • "Bessie Jones Tells a Spooky Story: 'Married to the Devil',"Folklife Today Blog, October 11, 2017.
  • "Spooky Stories for Halloween,"Folklife Today Blog, October 29, 2015.
  • Tales of the Supernatural(American Folklife Center finding aid)
  • Listen to a Ghost Story(collected by John and Ruby Lomax, American Folklife Center)
  • "Creatures of the Night,"Inside Adams Blog: Science, Technology & Business, October 31, 2012.

MOVING IMAGE MATERIALS

In silent films, the walking dead, vampires, and masked predators of 19th century novels came to life, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu created a new visual language. In the sound era, horror films developed an effective but familiar style, making later, innovative films like The Mask, The Masque of the Red Death, and Night of the Living Dead all the more frightening. The Library's Moving Image Research Center provides accesss to films dating from the early days of motion pictures to the present.

Film Series
The Library presents film screenings both in Washington, D.C. and at its theater in Culpeper, Virginia.

More About Films at the Library


Additional Resources

Home → Irish Symbols → Halloween


The origin of Halloween lies in Celtic Ireland

The dark side of Halloween

To find the origin of Halloween, you have to look to the festival of Samhain in Ireland's Celtic past.

Samhain had three distinct elements. Firstly, it was an important fire festival, celebrated over the evening of 31 October and throughout the following day.

The flames of old fires had to be extinguished and ceremonially re-lit by druids.

It was also a festival not unlike the modern New Year's Day in that it carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new.

To our pagan ancestors it marked the end of the pastoral cycle – a time when all the crops would have been gathered and placed in storage for the long winter ahead and when livestock would be brought in from the fields and selected for slaughter or breeding.

But it was also, as the last day of the year, the time when the souls of the departed would return to their former homes and when potentially malevolent spirits were released from the Otherworld and were visible to mankind.

Samhain: its place in the Celtic calendar

The Celts celebrated four major festivals each year. None of them was connected in anyway to the sun's cycle. The origin of Halloween lies in the Celt's Autumn festival which was held on the first day of the 11th month, the month known as November in English but as Samhain in Irish.

The festivals are known by other names in other Celtic countries but there is usually some similarity, if only in the translation.

In Scottish Gaelic, the autumn festival is called Samhuinn. In Manx it is Sauin.

The root of the word – sam – means summer, while fuin means end. And this signals the idea of a seasonal change rather than a notion of worship or ritual.

The other group of Celtic languages (known as Q-Celtic) have very different words but a similar intention. In Welsh, the day is Calan Gaeaf, which means the first day of winter. In Brittany, the day is Kala Goanv, which means the beginning of November.

The Celts believed that the passage of a day began with darkness and progressed into the light. The same notion explains why Winter – the season of long, dark nights – marked the beginning of the year and progressed into the lighter days of Spring, Summer and Autumn. So the 1st of November, Samhain, was the Celtic New Year, and the celebrations began at sunset of the day before ie its Eve.

The Roman Autumn festival

Harvest was celebrated by the Romans with a festival dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of the fruits of the tree, especially apples. The origin of Halloween's special menus, which usually involve apples (as do many party games), probably dates from this period.

Pomona continued to be celebrated long after the arrival of Christianity in Roman Europe. So, too, did Samhain in Ireland and it was inevitable that an alternative would be found to push pagan culture and lore into a more 'acceptable' Christian event.

Sure enough, the 7th-century Pope Boniface, attempting to lead his flock away from pagan celebrations and rituals, declared 1st November to be All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows Day.

The evening before became known as Hallows' Eve, and from there the origin of Halloween, as a word, is clear.

The origin of Halloween's spookiness

For Celts, Samhain was a spiritual time, but with a lot of confusion thrown into the mix.

Being 'between years' or 'in transition', the usually fairly stable boundaries between the Otherworld and the human world became less secure so that puka, banshees, fairies and other spirits could come and go quite freely. There were also 'shape shifters' at large. This is where the dark side of Halloween originated.

To ward off the evil let loose at Samhain, huge bonfires were lit and people wore ugly masks and disguises to confuse the spirits and stop the dead identifying individuals who they had disliked during their own lifetime.

They also deliberately made a lot of noise to unsettle the spirits and drive them away from their homes. The timid, however, would leave out food in their homes, or at the nearest hawthorn or whitethorn bush (where fairies were known to live), hoping that their generosity would appease the spirits.

For some, the tradition of leaving food (and a spoon to eat it!) in the home – usually a plate of champ or Colcannon – was more about offering hospitality to their own ancestors.

Just as spells and incantations of witches were especially powerful at Samhain, so the night was believed to be full of portents of the future.

Ireland's best Halloween party is in Derry

While the origin of Halloween doesn't lie specifically in Derry, the world's biggest Halloween party is held in that city every year. More than 30,000 people take to the streets, most of them dressed as witches, ghouls, vampires and monsters from the Otherworld.

It's a time when you're almost certain to hear the Banshees screaming – assuming you can hear anything much above the marching bands, ceilidh music, hard rock and calypso as the carnival proceeds through the town.

Waterloo Place plays host to a free concert, and many events, including Ghost Walks, are held throughout the city before a spectacular fireworks display brings celebrations to a close.

Find out more about

Derry's Halloween Carnival takes place along the banks of the River Foyle

The original Celtic year

  • Imbolc: 1st February
  • Beltaine: 1st May
  • Lughnasa: 1st August
  • Samhain: 1st November

The original Celtic year

  • Imbolc: 1st February
  • Beltaine: 1st May
  • Lughnasa: 1st August
  • Samhain: 1st November
Three young witches prepare for Ireland's biggest Halloween celebrations in Derry.

Apples

Samhain marked the end of the final harvest of the summer, and all apples had to have been picked by the time the day's feasting began.

It was believed that on Samhain, the puca – Irish evil fairies (see right hand column) – spat on any unharvested apples to make them inedible.

Apples

Samhain marked the end of the final harvest of the summer, and all apples had to have been picked by the time the day's feasting began.

It was believed that on Samhain, the puca – Irish evil fairies (see right hand column) – spat on any unharvested apples to make them inedible.

Free Halloween booklet

The National Folklore Collection, which is managed at University College Dublin, has published a free booklet for Halloween. It explains the origins of Halloween and explores old Irish tales, legends and customs. You can download it (pdf 950Kb) here: Dúchas - Halloween.

Free Halloween booklet

The National Folklore Collection, which is managed at University College Dublin, has published a free booklet for Halloween containing old Irish tales, legends and customs. You can download it (pdf 950Kb) here: Dúchas - Halloween.

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