Halloween horrors aren’t always connected to the spirits of the dead, even though the ancient holiday is. Some of the spookiest creatures on the planet are products of human imagination trying to explain the workings of Mother Nature, or using Mother Nature to nefarious ends. A quick look at the history of some myths and misconceptions shines a light on frightful tales.
The legendary witch hunts of Salem in 1692 may have root in a fungus, Ergot (Claviceps purpura), which invades rye and other grains. Colonizing the flower and growing in place of kernels, the fungus can get mixed into the grain before milling and end up in food. It is here that a chemical found in the fungus — lysergic acid, from which LSD can be extracted — causes problems.
In the winter of 1692, two young girls in the home of the Rev. Samuel Parris began acting strangely, with contorted postures, “foolish, ridiculous speeches,” throwing items and “blasphemous screaming.” While we consider this normal, reality-TV show behavior, Salem and surrounding communities found no other explanation other than witchcraft, and three women were accused and imprisoned.
Over the spring and summer of 1693, 200 people were accused; ultimately, 20 were executed and others died in jail. Eventually reason prevailed, and wise leaders released the accused, offering apologies and funds to help the affected families.
Witches weren’t the only ones to suffer from bad public relations; wolf spiders also have a bad rap. In the Middle Ages around Italy and the Mediterranean, the belief held that a bite from the wolf spider caused Tarantism, a listless, fainting condition that could only be cured by music.
Victims described by eyewitnesses in the early 1500s seemed to be insane, singing absentmindedly to the beat of a drum, with arms, legs and the entire body moving in time with the music. The same could be said of me as I gyrate around the garden in time to the music on my iPod, so I hope the neighbors don’t call an arachnologist. Having one of my colleagues see me dance could be embarrassing.
Arguments abound on the real cause of the myth: superstition, mass hysteria or sunstroke have been suggested. Some hold that it was a ruse to get money from sympathizers of the afflicted, others that it was a means for peasants to dance in public and skirt the ban of the church. Either way the innocent victim of this myth is the spider.
The iconic symbol of Halloween, the jack-o’-lantern, hasn’t always been the cheerful orange pumpkin we use today. The original Irish myth, in which a man named Jack tricked the Devil not once, but twice, into promising not to take his soul when he died, led to a comeuppance for the Irish rogue when he expired, and neither heaven nor hell would take him.
The Devil, in a fit of temper at having been tricked twice, banished Jack to wander the dark night, hurling a burning coal from hell after him. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been using it to light his way as he roams the Earth ever since, becoming known as “Jack O’ Lantern.”
In Ireland and Scotland, people made their jack-o’-lanterns from turnips or potatoes; the English used beets. Immigrants from these countries brought the tradition with them when they came to the United States, where they discovered that pumpkins are perfect for carving the ghostly decorations.
Placed in front of the home, the jack-o’-lantern protects against evil spirits and witches, which reputedly fear fire. Jazz up yours with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg inside the top of the gourd; the heat from the flame will have your goblin guard double as a delectable air freshener that smells of pumpkin pie.