Raksha Dave For many parents, the meaning of Halloween lies in the annual rituals of selecting expensive and humiliating costumes, consoling crying children when pumpkins sell out in the supermarket, and spending the evening with the lights out hiding from trick-or-treaters. But the roots of the festival are much deeper, so let’s take a step back in time to when this peculiar festival first began – and then stop off at some hair-raising human remains that may have inspired superstitions thereafter.

Halloween has its roots in the Iron Age Celtic festival of Samhain, which lies at the beginning of November and marks the cross-over from summer into winter.  For the Celts, the day before Samhain was the end of the year; this was the day when animals which could not be sustained throughout the winter months would be slaughtered and eaten in feasts and celebrations, and the tribal leader would unite with the fertility goddess to ensure wellbeing of the community for the following year.

It was not all music and dancing, however. There was an undercurrent of fear, for it was believed that on the final day of October the veil between the human and supernatural worlds would be most fragile; the dead could emerge from their tombs, ancient monsters could come back to life, and any number of bizarre and frightening scenarios could occur.

And it seems this macabre fascination with spooks and ghouls ignited the imaginations of many other cultures as well as the Celts. Many burials recovered through archaeological excavation contain evidence indicating that the dead interred were believed to have unusual powers – or at the very least, the living who buried them believed they needed some extra help staying in their graves. Here’s a look at just a few of the witches, warlocks, vampires and other suitably creepy characters that have been found:

In 2011, a woman was found buried at a cemetery near Lucca in Tuscany with 7 nails driven through her jaw, as well as another 13 surrounding her body, presumably to prevent her escape when she awoke from the dead. A second woman was found nearby surrounded by 17 dice; an interesting combination, as 17 is an unlucky number in Italy and women were forbidden to play dice. Were these ladies just sore losers, or are their unusual grave goods the sign of something more sinister? Archaeologists believe the site might be a witches’ graveyard – though they remain puzzled as to why the women are buried on consecrated ground.

Moving on to more current creeps, in September of this year, a suspected vampire burial was found in Bulgaria. This unfortunate soul, who died in the 13th or 14th century AD, was buried with an iron stake driven through his heart – a custom that is still believed today to be the only sure method to put the undead to rest.

The idea of vampires became more popular during the plague, when many tombs and mass graves would be reopened to add more victims. For people who knew very little about the decomposition process of bodies after the stiff rigor mortis stage, this would have ben a terrifying sight. One of the key aspects of the vampire legend is the drinking of human blood. This may be related to the process of human decay, which often produces a fluid that runs from the nose and mouth – and looks suspiciously like blood. This fluid would also break down the shroud over the face, giving the impression that the restless dead person was attempting to eat their way out.

And what about this poor soul found on the Venetian island of Lazzareto Nuovo? God only knows what happened at the time of his death to cause the living witnesses to force a brick into his mouth, but it’s likely he displayed certain symptoms believed to call for ‘exorcism by brick’, to prevent the undead fied from rising to spread the plague.

So when you send your little monsters out trick-or-treating this Halloween, spare a thought for the witches and vampires that inspired their costumes. Perhaps it’s all a big misunderstanding, and science can sensibly explain away all the ghoulish tales that have scared us silly over centuries; or, perhaps there really are things that go bump in the night. With the Witching Hour fast approaching, all we can say is… we hope you’re not afraid of the dark!

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Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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