My first few paragraphs of this piece are largely paraphrasing from Judy Grahn’s wonderful tome published in 1984 entitled; Another Mother Tongue along with a dash of Wikipedia. Grahn and most other sources seem to agree that the roots of Halloween date back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-on or sow-in) which means roughly summer’s end. Irish, Welsh and Scotch folklore in particular use a celebration of this day as a setting for supernatural encounters.
Grahn quotes a Celtic specialist named Daniel Melia who describes this time of year as dangerous and that it is easy for a person to slip from one world to another. The “other” world is not thought of as either heaven or hell but rather one where the spirits live. Grahn goes on to describe Halloween as the “Night of Nights for the Gay Community.” One in which impersonation, drag if you will, and the dangerous business of “crossing over” are the order of the evening. And I would add who better to do that than us queers, experts at crossing over.
She further expounds that impersonating a spirit was the only safe way to travel outdoors on Halloween since there were already many spirits afoot. These spirits left their usual world on Halloween and cruised around amongst the mortals doing “extraordinary” (trick or treat) things. They could though of course be placated with gifts, much more sophisticated one would hope than the boring individually wrapped candies of today.
Another way to deal with these spirits rather than placating them with treats was to scare them away and this seems to have been the root of the “jack-o-lantern” .The origin of jack-o-lanterns apparently surrounds the Irish tale about a guy named “Stingy Jack”. He was an unrepentant sinner who had the bad habit of making deals with the devil that wound up keeping him out of both heaven and hell. In order I guess to keep an eye on Jack and not ever let him even sneak into hell the devil sent him away with a carved turnip with a lit candle in it. Original jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips or beets. A great American contribution was the pumpkin a vegetable much easier to carve that a turnip or beet.
Returning to Grahn and imitating the spirits as a way to protect you from them, she saw gay people as those who could best imitate spirits. She describes one of our traditional roles as that of shaman, which of course required exactly that sort of intercourse with the spirit world. For a much more detailed exploration of out traditional spiritual roles I would refer you to Christian de la Huetra’s 1999 book Coming Out Spiritually. Though he does not address our role on Halloween specifically he does describe in detail the ancient queer roles we have as the in-between people, sacred functionaries and guardians of the gates. Roles that unfortunately we rarely, at least as a community, explore these days in our rush to assimilate into the larger hetero world.
On a more personal note I have always been very fond of this time of year and though I have never been trick or treating myself I have attended several Halloween parties over the years in the role of impersonator. I was always too lazy to really do it right rather instead coping to the much easier gender-fuck form of drag.
I do have one very intense Halloween experience to relate. I will shy away though from describing it as a “spiritual experience”. It occurred in the fall of 1979 and may actually have been on October 31st though the exact date escapes me. It involved imbibing, as it turned out I guess, a few too many homegrown psilocybin mushrooms and a trip to the Empire Bathes and a subsequent very possible encounter with the spirit world. Though I would describe myself these days as certainly agnostic if not atheist I still hold out for all sorts of possibilities that my own lack of evolution have not brought to my consciousness.
I was I thought quite an experienced user of psychedelic substances but that night resulted in a rather minor, in hindsight, freak out that at the time seemed very overwhelming. About an hour into the journey and after some halfhearted cruising things got very strange and scary. I wandered out to the outdoor patio/pool area alone, too cold for most naked people that night. It seemed to me at the time I was greeted by many grimacing and laughing gargoyles along the walls of the outdoor pool patio. They seemed to be warning me about some clear and present danger and that I should leave the bath immediately, which I did. The rest of the evening is another story in and of itself ending up with one of my dearest friends who brought me back to earth with the simple exercise of sitting in a corner and peeling an orange. This dear friend was certainly a spirit guide if I ever had one and seemed very adept at bringing me back to this side on several occasions over the years.
I have thought back on this evening many times since then and wondered if I had not crossed over or at least was knocking on the door of the spirit world. Were already dead gay brothers disguised as animated concrete monsters warning me of the danger all around? HIV was certainly already afoot. I was after all in a wondrous fuck palace and condoms were universally derided as hopelessly hetero. Not a few folks were already infected and deaths had already occurred we now know by late 1979.
Or did I just do too much too fast and I should have stayed home and passed out candy to little roving neighborhood ghost and goblins. I am certain a few of those little folks were very enthralled with being able to dress up for a change and not get the crap knocked out of them for practicing their innate heritage as spirit guides, gate keepers and sacred functionaries.