Tis the season, so let's talk about ghosts - or at least, about the day on which ghosts are celebrated. What exactly is Halloween?
It's a holiday now remembered for its place in the Christian calendar. Formerly celebrated in May, Halloween is the day before All Saints, also known as All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas. All Saints is celebrated each November 1st, and is, as you might expect, dedicated to all saints and martyrs known and unknown - which conveniently covers those gallant souls who perished somewhere forsaken and alone, as well as those more spectacularly martyred where everyone could see it happen. The festival was introduced by Pope Boniface IV in the 7th Century, probably to supplant a pagan ritual dedicated to the dead. Boniface's saint day is in May, which, when he first invented the festival, was also when All Saints was celebrated - May 13th, to be exact.
The date was changed by Gregory III to November 1st and has remained so to this day. It's not clear why Gregory felt the need to change the date. Gregory's time in the Papal seat is only a century after Boniface's. He was a great opponent of iconoclasm - the destruction of religious relics, on the grounds that idolizing relics is anathema - and was an enthusiastic builder, or rebuilder, of churches, shrines, and holy places. His changing the date may have had something to do with the changing emphasis of the church; up till now, its focus had been on the East, and the former Empire, but in Gregory's day the focus shifts to Northern Europe, Germany, and really anywhere Gregory could get support to help him against rampaging Muslims and Lombards. Since All Saints is ultimately an end-of-year festival, it may be that this shift in Papal focus, and climates, meant a shift in dates was prudent.
All Saints is followed by All Souls, on November 2nd. All Souls is when everyone who isn't a saint gets a place at the table. Many cultures have a similar point in their spiritual calendar, a day, or perhaps a festival, set aside for remembering the dead. For the Japanese, it is the Feast of Lanterns. China's fifteenth day in the seventh month of its lunar calendar is its Ghost Day, when the gates of Hell open and the living offer sacrifices to the wandering dead. In each case the day of remembrance is usually towards the end of the year, when crops have been harvested, new fields sown, and there is nothing to do but wait.
So technically Halloween, which in the West is celebrated on October 31st, is only the start of a three-day festival of the dead, and probably the least important of the three, but it's the one that's been drummed into us by commercial interests as being the only day worth remembering. However if you're worried about ghosts returning, the day you want to pay attention to is November 2nd, All Souls. For those Keepers setting their games in the 1920s and 30s, this is also when Catholic traditionalists will set out food and presents for the returned dead; I doubt it's something many Catholics in the United States do nowadays, though south of the border on the Dia de Muertos the ritual is still remembered.
Incidentally, Dia de Muertos was originally a summertime ritual - but as often happened, when Catholic Christianity took over, the date was changed to better reflect Catholic tradition. On the 31st children build altars to persuade dead children to return; on the 1st, the adult dead come back; and on the 2nd the living visit the dead in their tombs.
The trick-or-treat part of the celebration is a 1920s invention. There's always been a tradition of mummery or going about in fancy dress - ceremonial dress, really - but sending kids out in costume to get candy by threatening the neighbors isn't really a thing until the later 1920s, and then only in big cities. The idea caught on, and it should hardly be a surprise that it did - just then. We think of the 1920s as the Roaring Twenties, the Bootlegger Era, and tend to forget that it was also the decade of the booster, the advertiser, and the Boom. If it could be sold, you could bet your bottom dollar they'd sell it. For them, Halloween was a gift from Heaven. Postcards, costumes, decorations, accessories, and best of all, candy, candy, candy, all yours at never-to-be-beaten prices. Rather like Christmas, Halloween was heavily kid-oriented, the purpose being to get children on board so they would nag their parents to buy things for them.
Give me a child until he is seven and I shall show you the man, Aristotle is supposed to have said. If only Aristotle knew what he was letting the rest of us in for. Soon trick-or-treat becomes part of accepted tradition, accepted because adults who remember it fondly support their children's habit, who then grow up to do the same.
So what does all this mean from a gaming perspective?
Well, among other things it strongly suggests that if your game is set in the Victorian period or earlier, there really isn't a Halloween as you know it today. There may be an extra service on the 31st, but that's about it. On the other hand, come the 1st, or better yet the 2nd, sparks begin to fly. The Keeper may choose to use this as set dressing - food for the dead laid out on the table, that sort of thing - or may decide to dig a little deeper.
This is the point at which I turn to some very good advice in Trail's book Rough Magicks, where Ken Hite says the Keeper should decide ahead of time what Magic really is. It might be spare energy left over from the creation of the Universe, or genetic inheritance from the Old Ones, or any of a dozen other things. Whichever Magic it may be, will determine to a great extent what ghosts are, which in turn affects Halloween and its attendant rituals.
Let's say that magic requires blood sacrifice as a means of providing your 'public key' to the cosmos. delivering DNA to Yog-Sothoth, and that sacrificing something other than yourself - babies, cattle - is like hacking the universe using someone else's account. So it's all about blood - the ritual's less important than the claret.
In this instance, a ghost is created by blood. It may even crave it, in vampiric fashion, but probably lacks the intelligence to set traps for it or otherwise get it directly. An excess of blood spilt - like a battlefield, or a gruesome murder - creates excess energy, by hacking the building blocks of the universe and then not doing anything with the power that results. A ghost is spoilt magic. It has no real human characteristics, but since it was created by humans it mimics them to an extent - borrowing human form, creating sounds, and so on.
In this version of events, the All Souls rituals - the feasts, candles, and such - are humanity's response to this spoilt magic. In order to give ghosts something to do, other than cause mischief in their relentless search for blood, humanity creates a magical ritual, which varies from place to place but always has the same intent: pacify or get rid of the dangerous dead.
Of course, as time goes by people become less observant. All Souls stops being the important date in the calendar; now it's Halloween, the 31st and not the 2nd, and now it's not about the dead at all, but about the living. Which would be fine if people stopped shedding blood, but instead they gush gore more enthusiastically than ever. Moreover they do it just at a moment, after the Great War, when a massive excess of bloodletting creates more specters than has been seen before. Humanity hacked reality, and then left reality's doors wide open. The 20th Century becomes the Century of Ghosts, as blood-hungry creatures roam the earth seeking just that little bit more, that drop, that gusher, which will slake their thirst - for a while.
Say you're running a different game, Night's Black Agents perhaps, or anything with a modern setting. In this kind of game ritual is often de-emphasized; it's less about Latin and incense, and more about doing cool things and looking cool while doing them.
At that point Halloween becomes more set dressing than ceremony. It really is about the parties, the costumes, the laughter and the free-flowing bacchanal. Depending on where you are - Italy, say - there may not be a Halloween at all, and All Souls is still the important date. Some locations may really play up the ghosts and goblins side of things. Whitby, for instance, has a Goth Weekend in the final days of October, and that's all thanks to Stoker and his charming fiend. If you're playing Dracula Dossier, and your agents want to visit Whitby, you'd be nuts not to take advantage of the local color.
That's it for this week! Enjoy.