Halloween is a holiday celebrated on October 31st mainly in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Ireland, or Australia. Japan has also adopted the holiday.
The holiday has its origin in the Celtic festival of Samhain. The boundary between the real and spirit world was thought to dissolve at this time. As with many European pagan details, the early Christian Church adopted the existing festival, moving its All Saint's Day from May to coincide with Halloween1. The name of the holiday is a contraction of All Hallows Eve.
The modern holiday celebrates mythology of the dead and spirit world. In the US, it is considered a "fun" holiday, rather than a serious contemplation of death or superstition, or a time of dread.
Halloween symbology includes the colors orange and black. In addition to ghosts and goblins, other creatures of the night and evil are associated with Halloween, such as black cats and owls. One major symbol of Halloween is the "jack o' lantern", which is a pumpkin hollowed out and carved to look like a face, often with exaggerated "scary" features like jagged teeth. A candle placed inside the pumpkin shines flickering light out through the eyes and mouth for an eerie effect.
Pumpkin carving is a traditional holiday event for the family. People create jack-o-lanterns, and generally place them outside their doors to decorate the house and be visible during trick-or-treating. Other holiday activities include parties, telling ghost stories, or watching horror movies. "Haunted houses" are decorated or even constructed for the purpose, offering a type of theme ride with scenes such as graveyards, the mad scientist's lab, or murders, with events to startle or scare visitors such as sudden blasts of air or dummies that swing out of walls.
People wear Halloween costumes to pretend to be ghosts, vampires, witches, devils, cats, and other such creatures. Less traditionally, but very common, are costumes for other cultural references such as Superman or other comic book figures, Disney-esque princesses, knights, Power Rangers, and so on. Topical references to current events are sometimes popular. These costumers are worn to Halloween parties, to compete in contests for the best costume, and also for "trick-or-treating" (see below). It is also fairly common to see Halloween costumes at work, and sometimes even worn about town even when there's no special event.
"Trick-or-treating" is a custom in which children, dressed in their Halloween costumes, go door-to-door in their neighborhood to collect candy. The children knock on the door and ask for their treat with the phrase "trick or treat?". The "trick" in the question is a mock threat to play a trick on the home if no treat is given. Halloween has also been at times for trickery such as strewing toilet paper about the yard ("TPing" a house), throwing eggs at the house or a car, or putting soap on the windows. But in practice the request isn't refused, nor are tricks played in revenge. Occasionally small gifts or money might be given instead of candy.
In the city of Detroit, the night before Halloween is called "Devil's Night" and was traditionally an excuse for small acts of petty mischief and vandalism. The vandalism escalated in the 1970s, however, and grew to include acts of arson. In recent years, community action and volunteer patrols has reduced the destruction.
An annual Halloween street party in Madison, Wisconsin, known as "Freakfest" also has been know to generate window-breaking and acts of property destruction and violence. In some years the police have broken up the crowds with tear gas, and the threat of the police presence has somewhat calmed the event.
In the '70s, there were widespread scares about children finding needles and razor blades hidden inside the candy the recieved when trick-or-treating, which led to some hospitals offering free X-rays of candy bags to nervous parents. Many communities today offer indoor parties for children as a safe alternative to trick-or-treating.
Similar festivals are observed in Japan (Obon, 15th July), Korea (Chuseok, September), China (Qingming, 5th April) and Nepal (Gai Jatra, August-Septemeber) although some of these are more focused around the remembrance of dead ancestors and the visiting and tidying of their graves.
Many parts of Latin America celebrate a "Day of the Dead" on or around halloween in which skulls and skeletal imigary generally play a major part, possibly with links to a pre-Columbian festival in which the actual remains of ancestors would have been venerated.
Game and Story Use
- Adventure Seed: The Fires of the Deep
Since Halloween mythology revolves around evil spirits, the holiday naturally lends itself to fantasy and horror tropes.
- Real spirits cross the barrier on the day and terrorize the night
- For those who want to meet with a specific spirit, this is probably the best time to do it.
- Or, as in the Babylon 5 Episode Day of the Dead, people come back to visit you anyway.
- Jack-o-lanterns come to life
- Even if they don't, in some traditions, the lanterns are a ward against the invading spirits and may act as such in your setting, either in general use or following correct preparation.
- People are possessed by their costumes, becoming the characters they portray
- This was the premise of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Halloween": Buffy became an 18th Century noblewoman terrified of monsters and unable to defend herself; Xander became a special forces commando armed with real weapons; Willow became a ghost, and could walk through walls and become invisible. The transformation was the result of a spell cast by Buffy's enemies, intended to leave her helpless and easy to kill.
- Possession generally would fit well with theme of spirits crossing the veil at Halloween, some of them looking to "borrow" bodies and re-live their previous lives. Some cultures - especially ancestor venerating ones (such as Shinto) or Spiritualist/Shamanistic ones (such as Vodou) - might even encourage this. Depending on the nature of the possession there may even be a payoff for the possessed when the spirit departs.
- Indeed this might be a favoured form of necromancy - the spirit provides the necromancer with an oracle in return for the loan of their body.
- The ritual of the evil cult climaxes on Halloween
- The premise of the film Halloween III: Season of the Witch involved fashionable mass-produced Halloween masks that would automatically sacrifice the wearer to the "Old Gods" at a specific time on Halloween Night.
- Halloween is a time when monsters can walk about openly in public, because everyone will assume they're wearing masks. Examples of this include:
- In E.T. the Extraterrestrial, the alien E.T. is disguised as a kid in a ghost costume trick-o-treating
- One of the better episodes of Galactica 1980; (the one with Wolfman Jack), a robotic Cylon and his humanoid commander crash a Halloween party.
- Neil Gaiman's graphic novel The Books of Magic features a nightclub for occult creatures on Halloween.
- In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Costello has trouble convincing anybody that there are monsters at the costume party because everybody is dressed as a monster!
- Acts of Halloween-themed vandalism and destruction such as "Devil's Night" are being triggered by supernatural forces.
- This would be a good fit with the idea of hostile - or at least irresponsible - spirits crossing the veil and either possessing mortals or influencing them to disorder.
- Your Fantasy Religions will probably need a day of the dead in one form or another - poach real life traditions. You may also want to follow it up with an 'exorcism festival' the next day, featuring things that are said to drive off evil spirits - bell ringing, fireworks, ritual cleaning, street dragons … all that sort of thing.
- The "contaminated candy" meme could be a useful hook - halloween treats contaminated with a biological weapon, a mundane poison such as LSD or even a supernatural affliction (perhaps literally humbugs) … PCs may find themselves needing to both fix the problem and trace the source.