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Something’s strange, in the neighbourhood…

Friday 30 October 2020

Dr Rachael Ironside, course leader of Events Management at RGU's School of Creative and Cultural Business, writes about the history and traditions of Halloween and how it might be slightly different this year.

It is that time of year where the nights are drawing in, the colours in the trees are changing, and each gust of wind brings a new chill. Hallows Eve is approaching and our minds shift towards the eerie, and the supernatural. As I walk through my local village, windows display grinning pumpkins, cobwebs hang carelessly from the window frame, and the odd skeleton pokes its head out from behind a curtain. In many ways the run up to Halloween feels quite normal, however, like many events this year the festivities will be different.

Historically, Halloween has been a popular annual event in Scotland. Its origins can be traced back to Celtic traditions of Samhain, marking the end of the summer harvests and the start of the darker winter months. The festival was also a time for celebrating and acknowledging the boundary between the living and the dead. On the 31st October it was believed that this boundary faded, and ghosts could walk amongst the living. To ward off ghosts, bonfires were lit, and house fires were put out to ensure that spirits were not attracted into our homes. Nowadays, the tradition is to light a lantern carved out from a pumpkin (an American inspiration) or more traditionally a turnip! A common activity on Halloween in more recent history, and still to this day, is guising. Traditionally, dressing up as an evil spirit to go guising was to ensure that children would be disguised amongst the other ghosts walking the streets. In our contemporary world guising, or ‘trick or treat’, is a fun activity as children (and adults!) compete for the best dressed ghoul and visit their neighbourhood performing ‘tricks’ and gathering ‘treats’.

The season of Halloween has become a significant event in the tourism and heritage calendar. Borrowing from our American neighbours, the commercialisation of Halloween has seen numerous events emerge across Scotland and the rest of the UK, offering spooky storytelling, scare experiences and themed tours and trails. Indeed, the market for Halloween events has ‘boomed’ (don’t mind the pun!) in recent years offering an alternative activity to attract visitors and extend the summer season. Heritage sites and tourism destinations are very aware of the value attached to their supernatural stories and legends, and the popularity of these events demonstrates our continued fascination with the uncanny. Supernatural stories can offer an opportunity for us to engage in the extraordinary, explore issues around mortality, spirituality and morality, and take part in an organised form of legend-tripping.

In 2020, our Halloween looks different. There is something strange, in the neighbourhood, and it’s not just the creepy decorations! Last week the Scottish Government announced that guising should be discouraged due to the current pandemic. As an alternative, they offer various suggestions on the Parent Club website for activities to do at home from making pumpkin pie to playing musical monsters! Many events have also been cancelled with social distancing restrictions making many indoor and outdoor scare experiences, unviable. For the tourism and heritage sector, who have already been hit hard by the pandemic in the summer months, this will undoubtedly have an economic impact.

However, while Halloween looks a little gloomy this year local communities and businesses have been using it as an opportunity to offer alternative experiences. In my local neighbourhood, pumpkin picking experiences have emerged and there is a spooky window and forest trail. I have also seen virtual ghost tours, such as the one being offered by Befriend a Child in Aberdeen, and even a Halloween self-service brownie box in Forfar. We might not be able to celebrate Halloween in its commercialised form this year, but the storytelling traditions of Halloween can provide an opportunity to explore the heritage and legends of our local community, and experience some much needed ‘escapism’. So, let’s support those businesses that do offer an alternative experience, let’s turn off the lights and gather around the dining table for a spooky storytelling session, and let’s use this Halloween to embrace our fascination with the uncanny in new and traditional ways! 

If you would like to find out some more spooky stories from the North East of Scotland please have a look at our Local Legends page which provides some supernatural legends and folklore from this part of Scotland. 

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