Halloween’s Not Canceled: Exploring the Halloween Rituals of Yore

Start

Back in early March, when the pandemic was just beginning to sweep across the land, I opened Instagram to see an ominous post on a friend’s story: “Stay home, save Halloween.” In my youthful naivete, I assumed that the post was operating on doomsday logic—surely the pandemic would only last several weeks, not several months. Yet here we are, in the midst of beautiful October, still facing a national crisis far more frightening than any haunted house or slasher film.

“Halloween is canceled” has become the refrain of the masses these days. As a self-proclaimed optimist and “Halloweener,” I tried my darndest to create a COVID-safe schedule of Halloween activities as soon as October arrived. Living in LA, I was thankfully able to pencil in some outdoor movies and drive-through haunts. Still, I had a little more free time than would typically be desirable during the spooky season. When a friend sent me the link to an article about Halloween traditions from the early 1900s—the era of the Spanish flu, no?—I knew how I would be filling those hours. No way would I sit around mourning the age of hayrides and crowded costume parties—I would take a cue from the Halloweeners of yore and play the same kooky games they might have enjoyed at home while social distancing. 

The activities I tested were taken from two eldritch texts, both available online: The Jolly Hallowe’en Book (1900) and Games for Hallowe’en (1912). Some of them were spooky, others were silly, and the rest were just plain strange. All of them are strongly recommended to those who would never let October 31st pass by unobserved. 

RITUAL ONE: DRY BREAD?

The first thing I noted about my old Halloween tomes was that a lot of the games they described required elaborate props. (No, really—The Jolly Hallowe’en Book advised readers to put on a play involving an improvised clown show; dead soldiers singing “Stars and Stripes” while hoisting an American flag; and Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Mark Twain joining forces to “glide about stage in a mysterious manner.”) Thankfully, both The Jolly Hallowe’en Book and Games for Hallowe’en included a simple ritual involving “dry bread”: eat “a small piece” before bedtime and your dreams will be especially “sweet and peaceful,” according to the lore.

Bread—I had that! Come bedtime, I took a multigrain loaf out of the fridge and served myself a slice. Then I went to sleep, ready for visions of joyous Halloween balls à la the “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” music video. Unfortunately, I woke up with only a hazy image of Amy Coney Barrett in my mind.

I was fairly bummed out by this turn of events, so the next day, I decided to try the ol’ bread trick again, this time before a nap. When my alarm woke me up, I knew that I had been snapped out of a glorious romp—but what exactly had happened?

I stared at my ceiling for five minutes trying to recall the visions the bread had brought me. Ultimately, I was unable to piece together a plot, but I swear it had something to do with Disney’s The Haunted Mansion (2003) and a taco truck. 

RITUAL TWO: MIRROR, MIRROR

Another witchy practice mentioned in The Jolly Hallowe’en Book and Games for Hallowe’en: stare into a mirror by the light of a candle, and you’ll see your future partner in the glass. Heck yeah—classic old school spiritualism! I locked myself into my darkened bathroom with a “beach house”-scented candle around 3AM—late enough in the night that hallucinations wouldn’t be out of the question. 

Once my eyes had adjusted to the strobe-esque effect created by the flickering flame, I started to look for places where my future beau’s visage might appear. Would I see him looming over my shoulder? Would the shadows of my face slope and slant until they had rearranged my features into his? Would I spot his disembodied head resting on the shelf above the toilet?

After a few minutes of mindless gazing, I got bored and began to twist my neck around, watching how the light played off my bones in uncanny ways. When I reached a certain angle, I froze in startled recognition: I was the spitting image of Jake Gyllenhaal making his infamous “I-am-communing-with-a-ghost-bunny” face from Donnie Darko. 

It was settled then: Jake Gyllenhaal is my groom to be. You heard it first from The Herald!

RITUAL THREE: FUN WITH FORTUNES

For those who like their fortunes spelled out more precisely, The Jolly Hallowe’en Book also includes 36 pre-written predictions to incorporate into games as you please. Listing them all here would take up too much space, but some of my personal favorites are as follows: “Your forehead shows you know your onions. / That’s well, but don’t forget your bunions”; “In Wall Street you’ll provide a treat / Both bulls and bears will want to eat”; “Glad thousands to your door will come / For you’ll dispense free chewing gum.”

I fashioned a makeshift game board by writing the numbers of the fortunes on a piece of paper. Then I flipped a quarter to determine which fate would be mine. When the coin rolled to a standstill, I checked the key and read… “You’ll fall in love with many a man / But marry one you never can.”

What about Jake? What is truth and what is fiction? 

RITUAL FOUR: RIDDLE ME THIS

Games for Hallowe’en is well attuned to the human psyche. The book concludes with these words of wisdom: “Few children think they will ever tire of playing games; but all the same, towards the end of a long evening… the little ones begin to get too weary to play any longer, and it is very difficult to keep them amused. Then comes the time for riddles!”

Call me a child, then—after so many spells and sigils, I was feeling tuckered out. While going through my bedtime routine—which didn’t involve dry bread this time around—I read some of the head-scratchers aloud. 

Spell “blind pig” in two letters? P G; a pig without an I.

If all the seas were dried up, what would everybody say?—We haven’t a notion (an ocean).

What is that which goes from London to York without moving?—The road. 

Why is B like a hot fire?—Because it makes oil boil.

Simple. Satisfying. I fell asleep with a smile that even Freddy Krueger couldn’t wipe off my face. 

Title illustration by Robert Samec.

Leave a Reply