Our fascination with Halloween

Burning nuts at Halloween
Burning nuts at Halloween

by Heather Elvidge

At Halloween we can indulge our taste for spooky goings-on, not that we need much encouragement. Our fascination with the supernatural seems boundless.

Vampires, zombies, and the undead – we can’t get enough of them.

While blood-sucking vampires arrived in Britain from Eastern Europe and werewolf tales came from France, belief in the walking dead can be traced to medieval England.

In the late 12th century, William of Newburgh recorded accounts of reanimated corpses in Alnwick and Berwick-on-Tweed. And around 1400 a monk at Byland Abbey wrote down some “facts” concerning revenants, one of which emerged from the grave at night to terrify local folk and their dogs.

The Alnwick corpse was a real nuisance. In 1196 it roamed the streets every night, its “pestiferous” breath causing many to die from the plague.

Two brave men decided to dig up the body and burn it. But when they opened the grave, a terrible sight confronted them.

The body was close to the surface. Horribly swollen, its shroud in tatters, its face was “suffused with blood”. After they burned the body, there was no more plague.

The Berwick corpse was regularly seen around the city, being chased by a pack of barking dogs. Ten men cut this one to pieces and burnt it.

Ghosts took over after the medieval period, although the old beliefs lingered on in attitudes to criminals, witches, and suicides. People thought their bodies should be staked or buried face down, to prevent them from “walking”. Incredibly, staked burial for suicides remained law until 1823.

Just for luck

Our forebears certainly liked a hair-raising tale. In 1725, Henry Bourne, a Newcastle clergyman, wrote: “Nothing is commoner in country places than for a whole family, on a winter’s evening, to sit round the fire and tell stories of apparitions and ghosts.”

Unlike the tales of the walking dead, ghost stories were not all scary. The ghost could be a loved one, returning to comfort the bereaved; or a wraith, the spectre of a living person who was far away, come with a warning for a friend.

The ones that looked the same as they did in life usually had a purpose – to name a murderer, or to ensure a will was carried out.

Another popular pastime at Halloween, especially among young women, was love divination. Hazel or chestnuts were placed on the bars of the fire – a pair of nuts for each couple – to see what would happen: “If he loves me, pop and fly. If he hates me, lie and die.”

Another method was to drip hot wax into cold water and interpret the shapes it formed, which sounds rather like reading tea leaves.

Then there was the fortune-telling cabbage. When chosen at random and pulled from the soil, the cabbage’s root mimicked the attributes of the girl’s future husband. It’s a pity we don’t do that any more.


We’re in a wet and stormy period now and it’s likely to last until November 13, according to the old lore. Oddly enough this annual bout of wild weather often relents at Halloween to give a quiet night. However: “If ducks swim at Hallowtide, at Christmas they’ll slide.”