The origins of Halloween most likely date back more than 2,000 years to the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Celtic lord of death. The Celts roamed over what is now the United Kingdom, Ireland and northern France.
Their new year began Nov. 1, starting with a festival the previous night honoring Samhain to mark the beginning of the season of cold, darkness, decay and human mortality. The Celts believed that Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes on this night.
On the evening of Samhain, the Druids, high priests and teachers of the Celts, ordered the people to put out their hearth fires and build a huge new year’s bonfire of oak branches, which were considered sacred. The Druids burned animals, crops and — according to some historians — human beings as sacrifices to Samhain. Each family then relit its hearth fires from the new year’s bonfire. During the festivities, costumes made of animal skins were worn and the remains of the animals that had been sacrificed were carefully examined for signs that would foretell the fortunes of the coming year.
The Romans began the conquest of the Celts in 43 A.D. and ruled the area for about 400 years. During this time, two Roman autumn festivals were combined with the Celtic festival of Samhain — Feralia, held in late October, honoring the dead and a harvest festival named after Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Apples later became associated with Halloween because of this fall festival.
| Bobbing for apples, circa 1933.
Regional Halloween customs developed among various groups of Celts. In Scotland, people paraded through the fields and villages carrying torches to drive away witches and other evil spirits. In Ireland, people paraded in costumes and begged for food. In Wales every person marked a stone and put it into a bonfire. The people believed that if a person’s stone could not be located the following morning in ashes of the burnt-out fire, they would die within the year.
In England, Halloween, sometimes called Nutcrack Night or Snap Apple Night, was celebrated by family members sitting by the fireplace telling stories while eating apples, nuts and treats. On All Souls’ Day, poor people went a-souling. They received pastries called soulcakes in exchange for promising to say prayers for the departed.
In the United States, settlers from England and other formerly Celtic regions brought with them their Halloween customs and beliefs.
The ancient city of Detroit also has a rich repository of haunting tales, many of which were passed down from generation to generation.
Early American explorers and Detroit settlers found local Indian folklore rich with stories about ghosts and sacred grounds. In Marion Kuclo’s book, “Michigan Haunts and Hauntings,” several stories relate to early Indian legends.
The legend of the Snake Goddess of Belle Isle
| Legend has it that the Indian maiden still roams Belle Isle as a deer.
There she runs free through the woods with the gentle winds and wildlife as her companions, since the Great Spirit made her immortal to reign over the island for eternity. The early white settlers first named the island Isle St. Clair and later Rattlesnake Island. Today the land is called Belle Isle. Legend has it that the beautiful Indian maid still roams the woods often mistaken by picnickers as a deer. Her suitor, the keeper of the water gates, is said to roam the forests of nearby Peche Island.
The Belle Isle ghost lady also attracted midnight riders to drive through the scary woods there. This search for a vision of a woman in a long white gown certainly entertained the joy riders and just as certainly irritated the neckers parked along the roads. The white deer scampering through the trees (probably frightened by the walking ghost) also thrilled the gawkers.
The Red Gnome Legend
Another early settlers’ tale that Marion Kuclo chronicles concerns “The Nain Rouge,” or the Red Dwarf. Although his origin remains unknown, the ugly spiteful monster with piercing eyes and rotten teeth plagued early Detroit settlers bringing or forewarning of misfortune whenever he appeared.
| Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac was haunted by the Red Gnome.
Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit, was haunted by the creature and soon lost his vast fortune and political standing.
On July 30,1763, the Red Dwarf was seen stalking Capt. James Dalyell on the banks of the Detroit River. The following day, the British captain and 58 of his soldiers were ambushed by Chief Pontiac at the Battle of Bloody Run. The small tributary of the Detroit River, which still flows through what is now Elmwood Cemetery, turned red with the blood of the soldiers for days after the battle.
The gnome reappeared to early Detroit settlers just before the entire city of wooden structures burned to the ground in 1805. A blundering Gen William Hull claimed to have seen the “Nain Rouge” in the fog just before his surrender of Detroit to the British without firing a shot in the War of 1812 .
Author Kuclo also reports eyewitness accounts by Detroiters who watched the creature roam the streets of Detroit in the hot summer days before to the 1967 riots.
The knock-knock legends
In one enduring Detroit urban legend, some unknown traffic victim’s ghost, usually a young girl or a child, knocks on cars as they pass the place where the victim supposedly died. One street, Strasburg south of Seven Mile, lured carloads of teens to drive up and down the street listening intently for the knocks. Nearly every generation of teens produced new knock-knock streets all over the city. But they all had one thing in common — police records showed no deaths at the locations. But all who drove the streets swore they heard the knocks. And just as many hung their arms out the car windows and denied they were knocking on the cars. And skeptics who suggested the knocking sounds were produced by seams in the pavement were quickly hooted down.
Other Detroit Halloween memories
Generations of Detroit kids spent the night before Halloween, which for some unknown reason has always been known here as “Devil’s Night,” taking part in innocent, if annoying, pranks like soaping windows or toilet-papering trees. But somewhere along the way Devil’s Night turned ugly. Brainless thugs took over the night and made arson a sport, touching off hundreds of fires in vacant and occupied buildings alike, running the city’s fire department ragged and drawing unwelcome attention to Detroit from all over the world.
Only in recent years have the combined efforts of police, firefighter, neighborhood volunteers and city officials managed to reclaim Devil’s Night from these half-wits and bring the fires to a halt.
During the 1960s, the patrons of The Hub, a downtown hangout for homosexuals, held a one-block parade on Halloween. At the time, it was illegal in Detroit for a man to dress as a woman, except on Halloween. Word of the parade spread, and soon the annual event was drawing big crowds as the cross-dressers displayed their outrageous costumes.
Female impersonators from The Gold Dollar on Cass sashayed down the parade route on stiletto heels dressed in shocking bright colors with equally shocking hair colors and ratted bouffant styles. Ostrich feather boas yards long trailed behind, inch-long eyelashes fluttered, and long gloved hands bejeweled with huge fake rings and gaudy bracelets parodied the movements of Marilyn Monroe.
Police provided crowd barriers and stood around hoping the event would fade away. Crowds grew each year until 1967, when The Detroit News, abandoning a policy against covering homosexual events, finally mentioned the upcoming parade. Bolstered by the publicity, paraders demanded the city issue a permit for a parade down Woodward, but city officials resisted. The Hub later closed and the tradition ended.
A few decades later, the movie, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” revived the Halloween cross-dressing tradition.
THE HEARSE SONG
Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by,
For you may be the next to die.
They wrap you up in a big white sheet
From your head down to your feet.
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks.
All goes well for about a week,
Then your coffin begins to leak.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout.
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
They eat the jelly between your toes.
A big green worm with rolling eyes
Crawls in your stomach and out your eyes.
Your stomach turns a slimy green,
And pus pours out like whipping cream.
You spread it on a slice of bread,
And that’s what you eat when you are dead.
A scene from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”