Jack-o’-Lanterns

The Jack-o’-Lantern is an iconic part of modern Halloween but its origins are in much older traditions.

Humans have been hollowing out vegetables to use as lanterns for at least 10,000 years. The Māori of New Zealand use the word “‘ue” for both “gourd” as well as “lampshade.” While the jack-o’-lantern is Irish in origin, the pumpkin is a New World vegetable. So before 1492 the Irish used other vegetables to create makeshift lanterns, and one Irishman in particular used a turnip.

Jack of the lantern

Stingy Jack, Drunk Jack, Jack of the Lantern – his name varies about as much as his story does. The common thread among the variations of this folk tale is that Jack was a jerk. A bad drunk, or a liar, or both, Jack generally made trouble for the people of old Ireland. Eventually the devil came for Jack but, clever as Jack was, he talked the devil into going for a drink before taking him to Hell. Jack convinced the devil to turn into a silver coin that he could use to pay for the drinks (again, Stingy Jack). Once in coin form Jack put the devil in his pocket beside a crucifix, torturing the devil. He released the devil on the condition that the devil go away for some period of time – some versions say 1 year, others say 10. Eventually the devil came back for Jack but, incredibly, was tricked again. This time Jack asked for one final taste of this life and tricked the devil into climbing up an apple tree to fetch an apple. Once in the tree Jack either carved a cross in the trunk, or he placed a cross at the foot of the tree, but either way he trapped the devil up in the tree. This time the devil agreed to go away forever and to never take Jack’s soul.

Eventually Jack died and was obviously refused entry into Heaven, but as per their agreement the devil refused him entry to Hell. So Jack was forced to forever wander between worlds. To light his way in this shadow world of existence, the devil gave Jack a burning coal which he placed inside a turnip as a lantern. This was the first jack-o’-lantern.

Samhain lanterns

The Halloween we know has its roots in the ancient Irish pagan festival of Samhain. A Gaelic harvest festival marking the end of the pagan year and the start of the new year, Samhain is the beginning of the dark half of the year. Festivities begin at sunset on October 31st and go through the night to November 1st. This one evening is believed to be especially supernatural where the boundary between this world and the spirit world is blurred. The ghosts of the deceased as well as the supernatural fairy folk (the aos sí) are said to temporarily cross over into our world. To appease these spirits, and for protection from any tricks they may play, the ancient Irish would light bonfires, prepare special meals, and perform sacred rituals. Making lanterns from hollowed out vegetables was also believed to help ward off evil spirits.

Eventually the Samhain lanterns and Jack’s lantern came together. Jack-o’-lanterns supersized to pumpkins as early as 1834 as Irish immigrants brought the custom to America. Today most pumpkins grown in the United States and the United Kingdom are grown solely for decoration. Despite being high in fiber as well as vitamin A, most pumpkins are never eaten. Billions of pounds of pumpkins are thrown in the trash each year after serving as seasonal decorations.

So after your jack-o’-lantern wards off the evil aos sí during Samhain, find a second use for that pumpkin as food.

“Haunted” Houses

The feelings associated with haunted houses can be explained with science.

Chemical Spirits

Fear, the chills, seeing visions that disappear, hearing things without a source – some people also have headaches, nausea, temporary paralysis, a feeling of weakness and or dizziness. These are all classic signs of a haunted house … and carbon monoxide poisoning.

As far back as 1921 there has been a connection between “haunted” houses and carbon monoxide. Dr. William Wilmer published an account of his patient, “Mrs H.”, in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. Mrs. H., her family, and her servants moved into a large mansion and over time suffered a whole host of paranormal fear-inducing experiences. After months it was discovered that the furnace in the basement was pouring fumes containing carbon monoxide into the house instead of up the chimney. Upon fixing the furnace all symptoms of the “haunting” ended. This is not an isolated incident. As recently as 2005 a woman reported seeing a ghost in her shower, but it turned out that her visions were caused by a newly installed water heater that was leaking carbon monoxide.

When carbon monoxide enters your body it attaches itself to your red blood cells preventing oxygen from attaching to the cells and being delivered to your organs. This lack of oxygen is what affects your brain into seeing & hearing things that aren’t happening (among other effects).

The Fear Frequency

Another feeling in a “haunted” house is an overall sense of dread – a fear with no known source. People say they can feel a presence, that there is something in the room with them but they can’t see it. This too can be explained but instead of an invisible gas it’s invisible sound waves.

Infrasound are sound waves just below the range of human hearing. Even though we can’t hear infrasound we can feel it. The low wave vibrations of infrasound can cause panic, fear, disorientation, and it can even vibrate your eyeballs into seeing something that isn’t there. In 1998 British engineer Vic Tandy was the first to connect infrasound and “hauntings” in his paper Ghosts in the Machine published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. The Warwick lab he was working in at the time was said to be haunted, where people would feel uncomfortable, scared, and occasionally see a shape move in the room. It turns out this was all the result of a 19 Hz infrasound wave coming from the lab’s newly installed extractor fan. They fixed the fan and the “haunting” stopped.

So before you call 555-2368 to bust your ghosts, turn to science for a more logical explanation.

The Headless Horseman

A legend of a headless horseman and the need to cross a body of water for safety isn’t unique to Washington Irving.

Washington Irving’s 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow centers around an encounter with the headless horseman, a Hessian soldier of the Revolutionary War who rises from the grave at night in search of his head (which was shot off by a cannon). After attending a harvest festival at the Van Tassel house our protagonist, Ichabod Crane, is pursued in the night by the headless horseman. Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the Pocantico River as the headless horseman’s power ends at the boundary of the river. As Crane and his horse Gunpowder cross the bridge the horseman gives one last attack by throwing his own head at Crane (or so the story goes).

Headless Riders

Irving’s story is an American classic but it’s also part of a larger tradition of supernatural headless horsemen. The British Isles and Northern Europe have a variety of spectral headless riders but one of the most famous are the dullahans of Ireland. The dullahans are a kind of sinister magical creature. They’re dressed in black, riding ride black horses (who are also headless in some versions), and when they stop riding it’s to announce the name of someone who is about to die. Their decapitated head, which they carry in their hand, is said to have magical sight and speaks the name of the person to die. In their other hand they crack a whip made of a human spinal cord.

In some parts of Ireland a dullahan doesn’t ride a solitary horse but instead is the headless coachman of the Cóiste Bodhar, the death coach. The death coach rides to pick up someone who is about to die and carry them to the afterlife.

A dullahan as imagined by Ryan Van Dongen

Take Me To The River

In The Legend of Sleep Hollow Ichabod Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the bridge and reach the other side of the river. This supernatural nighttime chase, and trying to reach the other side of the river, is similar to Robert Burns’s 1790 poem Tam o’ Shanter. In the poem, the titular Tam o’ Shanter has ended an evening of drinking at the pub and sets out into the night on his horse Meg. As he is riding along he sees an old abandoned church with light coming from inside, so he stops to take a closer look. Inside is a satanic witches’ sabbath complete with the Devil playing bagpipes.

Upon seeing a witch in a nightshirt that is just a bit too small, an intoxicated Shanter comments aloud, which is heard by the supernatural creatures. The lights go out and what follows is a daring chase where Shanter has to reach the other side of the River Doon. Like the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, the witches won’t cross the river and so Shanter’s only chance of survival is in making it to the other side. As he gallops across the Bridge of Doon a witch pulls off Meg’s tail.

A detail from Tam o’ Shanter and the Witches, with Tam looking in from the window

Added info: Beyond being an inspiration for Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tam o’Shanter is also the naming inspiration for the Scottish hat of the same name. The Bridge of Doon, aka the Brig o’ Doon, is the inspiration for the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon and its fictional town that appears once a century.

Tam o'Shanter inspired the name of the Scottish hat as well as the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon. In this image is the Tam o'Shanter hat and the Brigadoon record cover.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

The witches’ ingredients for the cauldron in Macbeth are mostly coded names for medicinal plants.

Macbeth’s Act 4 opening scene is probably one of the most well known scenes in Shakespeare. The Three Witches (aka the Weird Sisters) are in a dark cave with a boiling cauldron at the center. The witches gather and begin an incantation of dark magic, adding ingredients as they go. “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Each witch then lists a series of ingredients that, at face-value, sound disgusting and macabre. But the ingredients are not what they seem.

Witches, like early alchemists, kept their knowledge a closely guarded secret. After putting all of that effort into R&D you didn’t want the competition getting a hold of your findings. But witches had other reasons for secrecy. Unlike the fictional witches in Macbeth, most “witches” were in reality female medical workers using herbs & botanicals to create medicines. In Medieval Europe medicine was a male-dominated profession and women caught practicing medicine were sometimes branded as witches. As such they had to keep their activity, and their recipes, secret. By using alternate names for their ingredients, the contents of one’s “spell book” were kept secret. Also, using alternate names worked as a safe-guard to keep their proprietary medical knowledge out of the hands of the general public who might mistakenly try to prepare these treatments themselves.

Some believe that almost all of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew are actually coded plant names, even the problematically named “liver of blaspheming Jew”. How much of this Shakespeare knew is unclear. All the ingredients together would make an unrealistic ridiculous concoction, so they were probably chosen for theatrical shock value. He may have found a list of real “witches” ingredients and used them without knowing they were coded names. Still, if you want improved blood circulation some eye of newt (aka mustard seed) might help.

A list with pictures of the 23 ingredients in the witches' brew in Macbeth
A list of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew, and their real world counterparts.
Learn more about these and other alternate ingredients.

Ghosts As Sheets

Ghosts represented as sheets come from the tradition of burial shrouds.

For thousands of years, unless you were wealthy, you weren’t buried in a coffin. Most people were buried in other ways and one of the most common was in a shroud or sheet of some kind (the original green burial). Coffins didn’t become common in Europe until the 18th century. So until then there were a variety of different kinds of shrouds but the basic idea was that the deceased was wrapped in cloth and lowered into their grave.

In this context, the idea of seeing a sheet/burial shroud walking about in the dark is terrifying. This is the origin of ghosts being portrayed as sheets – it’s from the understanding that a deceased person in their burial shroud was out of the grave and back from the dead. In 19th century Britain impersonating a ghost in this fashion became both a prank fad and a real problem. At best a prankster would wear a sheet, run around at night, and generally frighten people in humorous ways. At worst it was a way to terrorize and assault women. There are even a few incidents of these “ghosts” frightening people out of their homes, leaving the house temporarily free to be burglarized (the original Scooby-Doo villains). It was also used in mid 19th century America by the Ku Klux Klan who pretended to be the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, come back to terrorize the people of the south.

This motif of ghosts being represented as moving burial shrouds/sheets found its way into entertainment by way of the theater in the late 19th century. The ghosts of the stage would be in white sheets, move silently, and generally do the spooky things we think of today. Early animated cartoons portrayed ghosts in a similar manner, most notably with Casper the Friendly Ghost (who is shroud-like). Today the motif is fairly harmless and pretty ubiquitous. You see it in the iconic Ghostbusters logo, the ghosts in Pac-Man, Boo from the Mario games, the ghost mascot of Snapchat (aka “Ghostface Chillah”), Boo Berry cereal, the ghosts of LEGOs, Halloween Tootsie Pop ghosts, etc. The burial shroud ghost continues to live on.

A collection of pop culture sheet ghosts.