In the olden days of the Church, this was the start of a three-day observance called Allhallowtide, which included All Hallow’s Eve, All Hallow’s Day (or All Saints’ Day), and All Souls’ Day. It’s the season when we pray for the dead: for the saints and martyrs on November 1, and everybody else on November 2.
Like most Church traditions, Halloween has pagan roots, in the form of Samhain, a Celtic festival that kicked off at sundown the night before the first of November. The word Halloween is a truncation of Hallow E’en, which is how even, or evening, was pronounced in old Scotland. Robert Burns wrote a poem with this title in 1785.
Allhallowtide is the time when the earthly plane and the land of the dead are the closest in proximity—or so they say. The souls in purgatory could be particularly boisterous, which is why priests went around in ninja black clanging bells, and children wore scary costumes: to spook those evil spirits. Even today, Halloween costumes tend to be frightening: ghosts, skeletons, Steve Bannon.
I’ve never been a big fan of horror movies. Few pieces of entertainment are as reliably and yawningly dull as the slasher film. I’ve never been able or willing to summon my disbelief that some weirdo in a hockey mask is really a deranged killer. The blood always looks fake to my cynical eyes, the acting never good enough to move me to fear. But my kids love horror flicks. That seems to be a thing with Gen Z—an outsized fondness for the spooky, the creepy, the scary. Probably that is an ominous sign for the future, but I’m going to enjoy my breakfast of Snickers and Twix instead of thinking about that right now.
For “Sunday Pages,” I am sharing a Halloween-worthy poem by Anne Sexton. A friend of mine used this stanza as her senior quote in the yearbook, which I always thought was badass. In “Her Kind,” Sexton channels the ghosts of the women burned at the stake in her native Massachusetts—victims of an obdurate and terrified patriarchy that made an entire colony mad.
There are three verses to the poem, and I can only run the first, for copyright reasons. You can read all of it here.
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
Photo credit: Still shot of the silent movie The Phantom of the Opera (1925).