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Halloween history: the undead, spooky thrills

By Staff Sgt. Amber Corcoran 2nd Bomb Wing Public Affairs

What happens after we pass through this life? The notion of death and dying is fascinating and many cultures around the world celebrate in unique ways to honor deceased family and friends, along with traditions designed to keep evil spirits at bay.

Halloween seems to be the time of year when ghost stories are prominent; anything spooky, or that could spark fear, is welcomed and shared. It's also when costumed and sugar hyped children and young adults trying to "get one more year in" of trick-or-treating wander the streets in search of tasty treats. But Halloween wasn't always about the latest and greatest costumes or collecting bags full of the dentist's worst nightmare.

Originally, Halloween was known as Samhain. The Celts believed that during this day, the dead returned as ghosts, and the mere presence of these ghosts aided their priests in predicting the future. The Celts set bonfires, made food sacrifices to appease their gods and wore costumes to celebrate the day. Combined with influences from other cultures, Samhain has become the Halloween celebration Americans know today.

Halloween has always been a holiday filled with mystery, magic and superstition. The traditions held around the world are similar to our normal fright fest but have their own interesting flair as well.

Mexico celebrates El Dia de Los Muertos - Day of the Dead - the evening of Oct. 31 until Nov. 2, which is All Soul's Day. The belief is that deceased relatives come home and in their honor, living relatives prepare altars with flowers, the deceased's favorite foods and candles to help guide them home.

In China the Halloween festival is known as Teng Chieh. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of relatives and bonfires and lanterns are lit to guide the spirits back to Earth. Another festival is called the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts and is dedicated to earthbound spirits. Its purpose is to make them feel welcome and satisfy their spiritual hunger. They're offered joss sticks, food and gifts.

Halloween is known as Alla Helgons Dag, or All Saints Day, in Sweden. All Saints Day is a largely secular celebration where people from Spain to Austria, Lithuania to Poland, bring flowers, light candles and visit the graves of deceased relatives.

English children made punkies out of large beetroots, upon which they carved a design of their choice. They would carry their punkies through the streets and sing the Punkie Night Song as they knocked on doors and asked for money. In recent years, the American trick-or-treating custom for sweets in costumes has become a relatively popular pastime among English children at Halloween.

In Scotland, guising is a traditional Halloween custom. Children disguised in costume would go from door-to-door for food or coins. It was first recorded in 1895 when masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visited homes asking for cakes, fruit and money.

The lit gourds are more well-known as jack-o'-lanterns and are said to be originated in Ireland. In an ancient story, a man called Stingy Jack is not allowed into heaven because of the way he lived and isn't allowed into hell because he played tricks on the devil. It is said the devil gives Jack a burning coal to light his way as he wanders between the two worlds. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth ever since. The Irish began referring to the ghostly figure as Jack of the Lantern and then simply, Jack O'Lantern.

The excitement that swarms Halloween may be overrated for some, but for children and adults alike, the hunt for the perfect costume, the aroma of sugary confections and sticky face paint, the laughter in the darkness while trick-or-treating, the thrilling parties dancing to the Monster Mash and the scare tactics of your imagination through haunted houses, is what keeps this holiday spooktacular.

However you celebrate Halloween- trick-or-treating, wearing costumes to parties, honoring the dead, carving jack o' lanterns or telling ghost stories- be safe and have fun.