MYSTERIES OF HALLOWEEN – Unveiling its morbid past

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words | Nicole Macedo

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With October comes the promise of crisp auburn oak leaves, milky mid-evening sunsets, an extra layer of clothing and the likelihood of rain. However, it also means the ghoulish delights of Halloween, a holiday that few know the real history of. To me, Halloween provokes memories of plastic insects dotted over ghoul themed party foods, bin bag witch’s cloaks, late night school discos, moulding marzipan spiders, the long awaited Simpsons ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes and digging around in the dressing up box. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that my mother has always made holidays as festive, creative and all emcompassing family fun as she possibly could. Her delight in hosting amusing activities has been passed down to the next family generation, since having a child my sister gets so much joy out of planning Easter egg hunts, orchestrating Christmas baking sessions and buying out all the limited edition Halloween Haribos in her local supermarket. But where do these, and all the other macabre traditions come from?

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Samhain and Christian influence

Dressing up and ‘guising’ dates back to Halloween celebrations in Ireland and Scotland in the late 19th century, although the earliest reference to dressing up has been found to date back to the 1500s to a festival that pre dates the more modern Halloween that we are familiar with. Samhain (meaning summer’s end in Gaelic) is a Celtic festival observed on 31st October that marks the commencement of winter with the harvest – much like pre-Christian Easter folklore predominantly celebrated the time as the end of the dark and baron winter and the beginning of spring and new life. Some have suggested that this period leading up to the winter marked ‘the death of life’, which ties in nicely with the Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows, on November 1st . All Hallows’ Eve, the night before, commences the three-day Allhallowtide ritual, a Christian observance dedicated to remembering the dead, particularly saints and martyrs. Before Christianity became widely observed, the Roman festival of Pomona, held during the same time, also filtered into the Samhain celebrations, honouring the apple harvest and observing some of the traditions of their festival of the dead. The links between the Celtic and Christian celebrations are often debated, with some claiming that older traditions were absorbed into the Christian holiday. During this time, Christians would wear masks and costumes to disguise their identities and avoid being recognised by the souls that found their way through the overlap between the physical world and the afterlife. Followers of Samhain similarly felt that spirits could find themselves mixed up in the material world on the 31st. It’s from this that an obsession over the paranormal and Halloween has led to a scary film, haunted house fuelled mania.

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Tricking, treating, pumpkins and turnips

Today’s tradition of Trick or Treating was started by the Irish, the true vanguards of Halloween who passed the holiday on to the US, with the influx of immigrants in the mid-19th century. People disguised themselves going door to door to ask for food, a practice similar to the medieval souling, which saw poor people knock at strangers’ doors to ask for food in exchange for prayers for the dead. Bygone superstition dictated that visiting souls could pose as beggars, and if you didn’t give them money or food, your house could be cursed or haunted. The tricking element of the act comes from a longstanding tradition of pranking on Halloween. Having started in the US in the late 1800s, original pranksters would knock over outhouses, egg buildings, and leaving farmers’ gates open. When these escapades began to get more serious, the concept of handing out sweet treats was coined, to curb the misbehaviour. Samhain celebrations also included pranks. the_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_035_image_0002
Picking and carving pumpkins dates back to an olde Irish folktale of a drunken farmer who, after death, was forced to wander a dreadful purgatory after dealing with the devil. To guide his soul, Jack made an o’lantern out of a turnip. Honouring the legend, the Irish would carve their own turnip lanterns to ward off Jack’s wandering spirit. Celts believed that leaving Jack o’lanterns outside their homes would hold all the other lost souls that rise on Halloween, to find their way back to the afterlife. Pumpkins took over the tradition as it swept over North America and an abundance of them were found sprouting across the land. Now, over £800,000 worth of the orange vegetable is sold in the US on Halloween alone. The pumpkin imagery is also widely used to commemorate harvest time. Witches have long been associated with the ghoulish holiday, with their stereotypical pointed black hat, wart-ridden noses, big cauldrons and black cloaks. The figure stems from pagan goddess the Crone or Earth Mother, who was honoured during Samhain for ‘turning the seasons’. Her cauldron is said to symbolise the ‘Earth’s womb’, an article by Live Science claims. After death, souls would await reincarnation in cauldron.

Paranormal link and local ghost stories

Halloween’s link with the occult has filtered so much into our popular culture that we have become completely enthralled by it. We love an insomnia inducing ghost story; a cringe filled, and badly produced horror film, and scaring the holy hell out of our loved ones and pets. What is it that entices us? A fear, or intrigue of the unknown, of a world we have no control over? I sat down with two keen believers of the paranormal, Kayron and Krisanne Pozo, who orchestrate ghost hunts across varied historical sites on the Rock. ‘Gibraltar has always had a very strong belief in the paranormal, but up until very recently everybody has had it kept quiet. Catalan Bay area was known for having mediums and a circle that practiced,’ Kayron tells me. The duo have witnessed many a paranormal anomaly, not least during a séance I attended and covered for the May 2015 issue of the magazine. Kayron and his soul seeking peers also appeared on GBC’s Ghost Trail show which saw them scout out some of Gib’s most infamously haunted haunts, and document what they saw and experienced.
the_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_036_image_0001With such an abundant military history, many sites are claimed to have spine chilling stories behind them, not least the Covent. Built in the 1530s, the very well known story of the Grey Lady claims a former nun roams the corridor outside one of the guest rooms after having been buried alive behind a wall in what used to be her room. ‘The new magistrates court is supposedly very haunted. The area was once known as Los Nueve Tumbas, the nine tombs, and there used to be a bar there.’ Kayron retells the story of a military officer and his dog, alleged to be roaming in the depths of the Fosse Way World War II tunnel within the Rock. ‘That story’s repeated quite often.’ Some of the tunnels date back to the Seige, but were updated to suit the military facilities of the Second World War. We chat about Grand Casemates Square, which has an incredibly rich and gruesome back-story, having been used for public military executions up until 1864. After the Great Seige, most of the buildings within the Casemates Barracks were demolished after having suffered damage. Hangings were also carried out in other spots around Gibraltar, namely Alameda Gardens and The Moorish Castle Prison. Capital punishment was ceased on the Rock in 1965, except as punishment for Treason and piracy, which, by some fluke, was still retained until 2001. ‘The old St. Bernard’s hospital maternity unit was renowned, according to the nursing staff, for being haunted.’ the_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_037_image_0001

The wandering violinists

It seems almost everyone in Gibraltar has their own ghostly story to tell. Kayron’s belief in the supernatural was first cemented when he felt a hard pat on the back during a night in on his own, as a teenager. Krisanne has felt the presence of the supernatural since a young age, telling me she used to see an old woman walking around her family’s first home. My own experience has been justified to me as a perfectly rational occurrence, with no paranormal influence. As a teenager, and very into the occult, my group of friends discovered the joys of exploring abandoned and derelict buildings and war tunnels, particularly along the Northern Defences. On one particularly bleak morning, the kind when you just can’t bear to go to school, a friend and I snuck off in the early morning, up Clutchett’s Ramp, and into the unknown territory colloquially known as ‘the Jungle’. Our favourite spot was just outside the entrance to the first of the Northern Defences tunnels, hidden beyond a dense thicket. We sat there quietly for a couple of hours, pondering life, until the dulcet sound of two violins wafted from within the tunnels. We thought nothing of it until it slowly grew louder, and hours later, two top hatted men in wing tipped wedding suits appeared from the darkness and wandered straight past us and off into the light of the afternoon. We were left baffled. Earlier in the morning we had ventured into the tunnel slightly, not walking too far as we had nothing to illuminate the pitch-black. We’d seen no sign of them in the tunnel, and no sign of light. They hadn’t appeared to have any torches or lights with them as they exited the tunnel. I consider the incident a paranormal sighting or, perhaps, I’m just hopeful, because I’m keen to believe in the unknown.

Good intentions

I probe Krisanne and Kayron on their previous paranormal experiences, wondering if anything has ever gone wrong on their charity fund raising driven ghost hunts. They both nod cautiously, looking back on their first séance in the tunnels at Maida Vale that follow the Great North Road, a passage that allowed lorries to travel from the north to the south of Gibraltar entirely within the Rock. ‘We stood in a circle and asked everybody to close their eyes and relax, I remember one of the guys involved, and one sceptical friend of mine started to feel unwell and fell into trance, talking about his military experience. At the end of the night, the medium that we used put three individuals from the group into trance and antagonised them, it was pretty scary. That was a learning curve.’ the_gibraltar_magazine_october_2016-photos_page_036_image_0002

The group that orchestrates the hunts also includes friends of Kayron and Krisanne and an intriguing collection of heat, infrared and soundwave testing technology to help them detect any otherworldly presence. Since their first experiment, the group has worked with various mediums, who are able to communicate with the spirits of the dead and lead the séance. They retell stories of tipping tables, door slamming, flying rocks, temperature dropping, footsteps, unexplained coloured lights deep within the WWII tunnels and mediums that could recall group ghost hunts without having been on them. ‘I do believe that the intent of what you’re doing plays a big influence. If you’re intending to find ghosts, because it’s Halloween and you’re looking for a scare, that’s obviously what’s going to happen,’ Krisanne explains. They are adamant that you must always have respect. What kind of response do they receive from individuals who join them? ‘We’ve had all sorts, including non believes, now believing. We’re not trying to change anyone’s beliefs, we’re opening their eyes to the possibility of something else being there and then each person can make up their own minds. We do make sure that it is realistic. We try to keep a level head and rule out all the logical explanations of things. In all honesty, sometimes your imagination can play a big part in it.’

Although they’ve been out of the game since last year, the duo discusses plans for another fund raising charity hunt at the Alameda Gardens, once they are granted permission. For more information check out their Facebook page Soulseekers.