Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Restless Spirits

It's that time of year again. That time of year when the ghost stories and the ghoulie images and the badly clichéd horror movies are all dragged out, dusted off, and given an airing. I found a few vintage "ghost" images by doing a simple Web search:

These classic photos are heavily influenced by the Spiritualist craze of a century or so ago. THe ghosts are painted in, or multiply exposed. One image contains Spiritualist symbols hovering in the air around the person's head, no doubt meant to be seen as floating in his aura. During that time, lots of mediums held seances to contact the dead, the Ouija board became popular, and it all became rather a parlor game. Some mediums were exposed as hoaxes; Harry Houdini made a particular crusade of debunking Spiritualism. The Ouija board does work, certainly—but it doesn't contact any spirits you really want to talk to. More parlor games. Cheap thrills. A little spooky titillation. An evening night's fun scaring each other.

Randolph Stow, an Australian writer, set his novel The Girl Green as Elderflower in Suffolk, where he lived towards the end of his life. It's one of the most memorable novels I've ever read, along with another of his, Visitants. A lot of The Girl Green as Elderflower is based on Suffolk folklore, including the local Green Man nature spirits, and one contacted via Ouija board who appears to have evolved from ghost to genius loci. In this novel, the Ouija board is believable, and benign; it's operated by a rather fey child, who seems half-spirit herself at times. Anyway, it's an excellent, even thrilling novel, which I recommend.

Otherwise, I hate Ouija boards. They're nothing anyone wants to fool about with.

The Spiritualism of seances, mediums, and contacting the dead, even though it was a popular craze a century ago, never developed into anything substantial. It's associated somewhat with some of the founders of The Theosophical Society, many of whom were influenced by the Eastern mysticism just being discovered in the West at that time, and some of whom were active explorers and documenters of psychic and supernatural phenomena.

The Day of the Dead, Hallowe'en, All Hallow's Eve, All Saints' Eve, has an older history. It's the old Celtic pagan festival of summer's end, called Samhain. In Mexico, it's the Day of the Dead, when people go to the cemeteries to commune with the ancestral dead. Whole hosts of cultures have similar celebrations. The Japanese festival of honoring the ancestral dead, the O-Bon festival, ostensibly Shinto-Buddhist, is in fact much older, and predates the arrival of Buddhism in Japan. Other cultures all have their days of the dead, when the living connect with the dead. Many cultures feature rituals of cleaning and decorating the ancestral gravesites, be they cemeteries or caves.

This time of year, it is said, the Veil between the worlds grows thin, making it easier to contact the dead. And making it easier to walk between worlds, especially on Samhain night, when the Doors open between worlds. So modern neo-pagans will often scry during Samhain rituals, to divine their near future, to finish whatever unfinished business with the dead is left to be handled. It's a rich time.

Ray Bradbury wrote a short illustrated novel titled The Halloween Tree, a version of which was made into an animated TV movie special, first aired in 1993. The story takes a small group of children traveling through time to discover the real meaning and historical roots of Hallowe'en, and where some of the customs of the night originated. It's a genuinely scary and thrilling story, even for adults. I recommend the book and TV special alike to your attention; actually, I recommend Bradbury's entire opus as some of the best writing of the 20th C. Two Bradbury novels which made a huge impact on me, and which I still re-read occasionally are Dandelion WIne and his genuinely creepy fantasy thriller Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Last Hallowe'en, handing out candy to the many neighborhood kids from my front door, I received what I took to be a great compliment. A group of older teenage girls came up to me, all smiles, and told me that I had the spookiest house in the neighborhood. that made my day. Although I've been ill a lot, and am tired, and have been struggling to do errands this month, I intend to have the spookiest house in the neighborhood again this year.

Of course, one of my secrets to achieving that honor was that I hid a small sound system in the bushes in front of the house, next to the walkway, where no one could see it, but from where emerged lots of spooky sounds that I'd edited together. I mixed for this playback event a custom full-length CD of horror sound effects, spooky classical music tone-poems such as Mussourgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," and other material. It was lots of fun making that edit, actually.

Having led off with some silly vintage photos, I'll end with two more serious ones, which for me evoke the mood and spirit of this time of the year's turning round.


the Witch Tree

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

This Halloween malarkey is quite a new thing over here. Not sure when it started, probably around the time of the first Halloween film, but it’s never really got out of first gear. When I was a kid there was the odd thing in the shops but now weeks in advance they’re stocking stuff. That said I think we got two callers last year, none the year before and two again the year before that. We’ll have stuff in just in case but I think it’ll be a long time yet before it becomes as popular here as it is in the US. It’s the same with decorating houses. You make a big deal of that at Christmas whereas most of us put up a tree and that’s us done with it. But over the last ten years or so I have noticed more and more houses with outside decorations. There’s a flat at the end of our street that has a wee, fat Santa crawling into a window which is cute. Three big celebrations in a row, Halloween, Thanksgiving and then Christmas though - that feels burdensome and costly.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

It's funny, because a LOT of Halloween customs come from Great Britain. The original customs, I mean, before all the commercialization of recent years.

Thanksgiving, though, is a uniquely American custom. I can't imagine anyone in Europe caring about it at all, or even doing it—I suppose unless there's a Euro-dollar to be made off it. They have their own Thanksgiving, on a separate date, in Canada, but it's a North American thing. My sister and her husband usually gather in HOlland with their other American friends, and do a feast, but otherwise the Dutch properly shrug about it.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Carrie made a half-hearted effort to keep up Thanksgiving when she first came over here but it fell by the wayside quickly. I think standing apart from America did a lot to open her eyes and she's not so desperate to hang onto her Americanness. She even says tomAHto these days too. Her parents tease her about her Scottish accent but no one here would ever take her for anything other than American or possibly Canadian; she gets that quite a bit.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

When traveling in Great Britain, I've often been asked if I was Canadian. Probably because I was polite and interested, and not acting like the stereotype of the rude "ugly American" tourist. Granted, that stereotype has been earned, but I find it interesting that so many Britishers assume you're Canadian just because you're a polite North American.

I guess it's possible to be provincial no matter where you're from. In my experience, big-city people are often among the most provincial, often astonished that anyone might choose not to live in the big city. I've run into that in Europe at least as often as in the US. I suppose it's the same everywhere.

On the other hand, as I've written elsewhere recently, I have more in common with Canadians than with people from the "deep South" of my own country. I grew up so close to Ontario, after all, that we watched CBC TV out of Windsor as often as we watched Detroit-based US network TV. And when we were in India, most of the other non-Indians we spent most of our time with were Canadians or Brits.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

This is a great interesting blog.

Samhain for me means renewal and I am very fascinated about the tradition of the "break on the continuity of the time" during these days.. I am sure there is some truth in this.
Have a great Samhain
Be blessed

1:05 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


I'm certain there's some levels of truth in it, as well, that break in the continuity of time. The new year cycles as the Yearwheel turns.

9:42 AM  

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