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Halloween chills and thrills

[October 2008]

Pumpkins, gory costumes, spiders and E-numbered-up kids hammering on your door. Are you ready for this year's Halloween-fest? The supermarkets have been since the last Bank Holiday in August, so what's it all about?

Some people exist quite happily without ever acknowledging Halloween. However, most of us surround ourselves with spooks, ghouls, demons, magic and spells, wizards and witches and the living dead every year because of an ancient pagan festival called Samhain and All Saints' Day from the Christian calendar.

While we are munching on pumpkin pie and bobbing apples dressed as zombies we may want to remember the Celts who 2,000 years ago would have been throwing the bones of slaughtered livestock onto bonfires and wearing masks in order to calm evil spirits. This festival traditionally celebrated the end of harvest time and the beginning of the Celtic New Year on November 1.

In later years the Christian church began marking All Saints' Day at the same time of year. Their belief was that souls were released from purgatory on All Hallow's Eve, the night before All Saints' Day, for 48 hours. This was parallel to the pagan belief that the spirits of the dead could spill into the land of the living on this particular night.

Halloween is marked around the world in similar form, from Mexico's Day of the Dead to China's Ghost Festival, and increasingly as a result of the influence of American culture in areas such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe.

Since the Americans hijacked Halloween it has become an excuse for any kind of themed event for adults as well as kids: from Halloween club nights to midnight screenings of horror films at cinemas and spooky TV specials.

If you fancy a night of dastardly devilry, there are plenty of events on around the country. The All Hallow's Eve Ball at The Crypt, near Chancery Lane in London, is being held in aid of UNICEF on Friday October 31. Food is being provided by The Bleeding Heart restaurants in the rooms where King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon feasted on their wedding day.

For those interested in exploring the pagan roots of Halloween, the Caduceus Pagan and Witchcraft Halloween Bash at Conway Hall, Holborn in London could be just the ticket. The changing seasons will be celebrated with dance, song, drama and ritual on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 October.

Nicely coinciding with school half term holidays, Bristol Zoo is running a series of family activities from October 24 to November 5. These include an interactive trail with residence witch, Ninny Noo; a pumpkin carving competition; and a Halloween Parade with prizes for the scariest costumes.

Along the country's heritage railways, ghoulish ghost trains will be steaming ahead for a range of family and adult seasonal rides. Railways to search for include Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway, Mid-Norfolk Railway, Darlington Railway Centre and Museum, South Tynedale Railway, Kent & East Sussex Railway, Bodmin & Wenford Railway, Foxfield Steam Railway and North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

The Spooky Sleepover at the London Bridge Experience invites guests to join the Society of Paranormal Investigation and spend the night of Saturday November 15 soaking up the unexplained in a historic setting. This special event is in aid of St John Ambulance and is for over-18s only.

If you can't face going out in public on All Hallow's Eve, you can always get decorating and create your own haunted house. Put on your fangs and fake blood, get some Halloween spirit and enjoy a good old fashioned fancy dress knees up. You should frighten off the youth demanding sweets at least.

by Maxine Clarke