Glitter and Gravedust

Halloween past and present.

Like it or loathe it, Halloween is here to stay! It is a night of contradictions: a night of glitter and gravedust. But is it Pagan or Christian, ancient or modern, spiritual or commercial? Is it a time of diabolic fiends, of scary ghosts and awful ghouls or a sombre time to commune with the ancestors? Is it a harvest festival with sacred symbolism of apples and nuts or a night of complete meaningless trash fuelled by endless sugary sweets? Is it a false construction of a mythical past which never existed or an instinctive yearning after something beautiful and poignant that has been brushed aside by the forces of modernity?

One thing we can say for certain about Halloween is that it is a time of mystery and imagination. A time of darkness when strange things can happen. In whatever guise it takes, October 31st seems to have always been seen as a special time when impossible things become possible, where imagination lets loose, where spirits roam the earth.

We all know the symbols and motifs of Halloween (grinning pumpkin lanterns, ghosts, witches, cats, skeletons) and we all know what we are supposed to do (bob for apples, go trick or treating, watch horror films) but few understand the origins of this most mysterious of festivals. There is even confusion over the name itself with many Christian evangelicals condemning Halloween as Satanic while forgetting that the name itself means “Holy Evening”.

Halloween is a night of inversion, a night of freedom, a time to have some fun before the long darkness of winter. It defies categorisation, it inspires improvisation, it does not belong to any one religion, nation, culture or age group. It appeals to the darker side of ourselves and the darker side of life while offering a release from the mundanity of modern life. It is a chance to connect with our primordial selves, to reawaken our childishness, to put the thrill back into life. Halloween is more popular than ever and this exhibition seeks to explore is history and appeal. Come and explore the magic of Halloween!

The exhibition includes:

  • A History of Halloween (a timeline of October 31st from ancient times to today)
  • The Magic of Halloween (people used to predict the future on Halloween, this area of the exhibition explores the different methods used and includes a film showing different divination techniques being used)
  • Pumpkins and Halloween (a look at the legend of Jack O’Lantern)
  • Halloween customs throughout the British Isles (a map exploring different regional variations some Christian, some Pagan, some a blend of both!)
  • Witchcraft and Halloween (including Halloween in witchcraft trial records and methods of protection from witchcraft traditionally taken on October 31st)
  • The taste of Halloween (modern sweets and more traditional foods such as Soul Cakes)
  • Halloween costumes (photos of costumes through the ages, a Skekler costume from the Scottish Isles and more modern Devil and pumpkin costumes)
  • Halloween in popular culture (including books, films, TV series and events such as Salem’s Haunted Happenings)
  • Samhain (objects and rituals to explore modern witchcraft practices)

See our gallery of the exhibition here.

To coincide with and augment this exhibition, the Museum will be holding a day of talks on October 15th at the Wellington Hotel. Find out more here.