For Hallowe'en, Neil Mackay explores the deep roots of our fascination with the occult and what it says about the modern world

A COLLECTIVE sense of despondency fell across the country when the Scottish Government effectively cancelled Hallowe’en earlier this week. Guising was out because of Covid, we were told; parties should be avoided. Stay home, the warnings said.

It wasn’t just that this signalled yet another curtailment of our lives under pandemic. The restrictions on Hallowe’en tapped into something much deeper in us all. Last night just wasn’t really the same, was it?

Whether it’s Hallowe’en – the modern incarnation of the Celtic celebration Samhain that’s spread from Ireland and Scotland to dominate Britain, America and the rest of the world’s English-speaking countries – or Día de los Muertos, the Day Of The Dead, in Latin America; China’s Ghost Festival; Obon in Japan; Chuseok in Korea; All Souls’ Day in Catholic and Orthodox Christian nations; Thursday Of The Dead in the Middle East; or Pitri Paksha in India – there’s something in human beings across every culture on Earth that needs to publicly confront the supernatural, the otherworldly, and fear and death itself at the darkest time of the year.

That’s why those restrictions on dressing up as ghosts and monsters, and visiting our friends and neighbours for apple bobbing and drinks, hit such a nerve with so many of us. For these rituals involving the dead and the afterlife to really matter have to be seen to be done.

Hallowe’en may be commercialised and modernised out of all recognition when compared to its ancient origins, but even in 2020 such festivals are not meant to be observed alone or in small gatherings – they are about the group, the tribe, coming together. We want others to know we’re paying attention to these primitive ceremonies, which at their very core honour the past and our ancestors.

But why is Hallowe’en so important? Why do we want to confront fear? What is it about the supernatural that obsesses us so much?

The answers lie in both the past and the present. To some extent, our need to confront terror head on is as old as humanity itself. However, some of the brightest minds in the world today are currently puzzling over humanity’s continuing fascination with all things ghostly, and coming up with astonishing new theories to explain why the supernatural still remains so culturally important to us all. The answers provided offer a very dark insight into the nature of what it means to be a human being.

The roots of terror

FEAR existed long before humans were human. Fear is actually a form of preparedness. Back when Homo Erectus was running around the savannahs of Africa, natural selection meant that those who weren’t quick to spot and react to the sight of a lurking leopard got shuffled out of the gene pool. Fear – and its adrenalin-fuelled fight or flight response – meant you lived to reproduce.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that the root of the instinct fear goes back a lot longer than humanity’s earliest ancestors, though. Mammals probably developed a fear of heights as long ago as the Mesozoic period, which dates back to 252 million years ago. Having the instinct to be wary of falling from trees was a pretty good idea in terms of evolution.

Monkeys seem to have developed a fear of snakes in the Cenozoic period, which goes back 66 million years – again, being scared of that slithery biting thing in the grass was a handy way of keeping yourself and your infants alive. Prehistoric humans probably developed a fear of mice and insects – a phobia which is unique to us as a species – in the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods, or the Stone Age, as bugs and rodents carried diseases and bacteria which could harm us and the food we ate.

Fear, then, is good – we need it or we’d be dead. But too much of anything is a bad idea. So, when humans began to settle down and build villages and farms, we had to find a way to deal with all this inherited fear instinct pulsing around inside us. Being in a permanent state of anxiety might be good out on the plains and in the jungles as a hunter-gatherer, but too much fear would be a hindrance in a “civilised” world. So fear needed to be tamed.

War was one outlet, but ritual became the primary, everyday way of controlling fear. Praying to the unseen, unknowable gods who governed our lives, appeasing them and making offerings to them, was the first route to calming our innate terror. “Please God, don’t let this happen” are words which every person has spoken at one time or another from the dawn of humankind until today.

Aristotle – seen by some scholars as the most intelligent person who has ever lived –thought that the human mind psychologically deployed what he termed “catharsis”, which means “purging” or “purification”, to help us tackle fear and other negative emotions. The ancient Greek philosopher believed that audiences watched upsetting plays – which dealt with death, suffering and terror – to get rid of negative emotions before they did us harm. Drama, we should remember, evolved out of religious rituals. Publicly performed religious rites for the gods – with all the associated prayers and offerings – eventually became publicly performed plays on stage deep in the ancient past.

So it’s not hard to see the role that an ancient public ritual of the dead like Hallowe’en has when it comes to helping modern human beings deal with our sublimated fears and subconscious terrors. Millennia ago Hallowe’en was a religious rite, today it’s a public and collective act, a group drama, if you like – but both the ancient and the modern Hallowe’en have the same root: tackling fear and dealing with the idea of death.

Collectively sharing our fears is a key part of making ourselves feel psychologically better – that’s why we enjoy screaming together in a packed cinema when a monster appears on screen in a horror movie.

The dead are here

Our ancient prehistoric ancestors had no understanding of what death really was. Where did your friend or loved one go once their body no longer moved and their breath left them? Nor did ancient men and women understand the laws of physics, biology and chemistry governing the natural world. Everything was alive to them – a rock, a tree or a river had a soul just like a human. So surely, the dead lived on somewhere. Surely, they inhabited a world which we couldn’t see – or that we could only see at special times of the year, or with the help of special people like priests and shamans.

That’s basically how the concept of the afterlife came about in every culture on Earth. It’s both an explanation, and a defiance, of death. None of us – even now in this futuristic world in which we live – can tolerate the idea of our own demise. Today, scientists imagine the possibilities of downloading a mind, a human consciousness, into a computer in order that a “soul” can live on after death. Both the neuroscientist with their concept of the downloadable soul, and the ancient witchdoctor with their attempt to contact the spirit world, are both trying to tackle our fear and bewilderment regarding death.

Festivals like Hallowe’en allow us to confront these ideas which are almost too big for the human mind to grasp. Hallowe’en – or All Souls as the early Christian church refashioned the pagan festival Samhain – is the time when the dead can enter the world of the living, when the boundary between our world and their world breaks down. At its very root such rituals are an honouring of the countless generations which have gone before us –after all, if they hadn’t struggled and lived we wouldn’t be here. Hallowe’en, and these other festivals of death, allows us to remember them.

In our increasingly cynical world, though, it’s easy to scoff at attempts to place some meaning on rituals like Hallowe’en - or even Christmas and Easter for that matter – to say: come on, it’s just an excuse for a party these days, maybe such events had some significance 1,000, or even 100 years ago, but not today, it’s all commercial; it’s all just a bit of fun with no real depth.

That, however, would be a grave underestimation of what being a human is all about because the fascination with all things supernatural, and the need to confront fear, remains very much part of the modern world and the meaning of modern life.

In fact, this obsession with ghosts, the uncanny and the otherworldly, is so prevalent in today’s society that the study of it has even spawned a new academic discipline – “hauntology”.


Hauntology has been hovering around like a spectre on the fringes of academia since 1993 when the French philosopher Jacques Derrida first coined the term – but it’s now breaking through and becoming popularised as a way of understanding the modern world.

It’s a slippery idea but what it really boils down to is this: human beings are obsessed with ghosts because they’re a symbol of the past – and we’re obsessed with the past because the present is such a mess and a better future seems impossible.

Hauntology is basically the study of how we’re haunted by ourselves, and how our art and culture reflects that idea. Ghosts are the perfect cultural metaphor for a society constantly looking back to the past – either a past from which all our troubles were born, or a past which offers us a better world than the present. So no wonder we see spooks and spirits popping up everywhere from the craze for ghost tours to “live haunting” shows on TV and spine-chillers topping the bestseller lists.

Like Hallowe’en, hauntology is about a fixation on the past, and a need to deal with the “ghosts” of a bygone era.

Just look around you to see a world obsessed with the supernatural and the occult. Sales of weird paraphernalia like tarot cards and ouija boards are booming. Our culture is saturated in the “art of fear”. One of the most popular TV hits currently is The Haunting franchise on Netflix, first The Haunting Of Hill House and now The Haunting Of Bly Manor.

A new channel, called Shudder, has started, dedicated to horror movies. Even comedy seems obsessed with the supernatural – one of the biggest success stories of British sitcoms recently was Ghosts, a sort of updated version of The Ghosts Of Motley Hall from the 1970s, an adult take on Rentaghost. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig dominated bestseller charts this summer with its story of one woman’s soul drifting around time exploring all the possible lives she could have lived, but didn’t.

Hauntology is a bit like the ghost of Hamlet’s father at the start of Shakespeare’s play: it’s a spectre from the past come to tell us that something has gone wrong and we need to fix it. Right now, with the world order crumbling, capitalism falling apart and a global pandemic, trying to resolve the mistakes of the past – attempting to lay metaphoric ghosts to rest – has never seemed more vital. And the result when it comes to culture? A glut of the supernatural in books, film and TV, and an obsession with, and need for, rituals like Hallowe’en.

The wonderfully named British intellectual Merlin Coverley has just brought out the first mainstream book on hauntology which was called –fittingly – Hauntology.

Coverley notes that we’ve been here before. This obsession with the past and the supernatural seems to come in waves which hit when times get tough and weird, like right now in the 21st century.

The mid to late-19th century was a “particularly haunted period”, he says. As the industrial revolution and huge ideological and scientific changes like Marxism and Darwinism disrupted the world, Victorian culture started to look back to the past – and this looking back expressed itself through the rise of spiritualism, mesmerism and in works by writers like Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol or the ghost stories of MR James.

The 1970s were also a period, like ours and the Victorian era, obsessed with the occult – think of some of the greatest horror movies ever made, like The Wicker Man in 1973, which harked back to our pagan roots, or the runaway success of Stephen King’s novels. And, of course, the 1970s was the age of mass paranoia – Watergate, international terror, Ulster, nuclear threat, the Cold War, and the political upheavals of Reagan and Thatcher.

Hauntology, then, is like a nightmarish form of nostalgia, where “the political and cultural anxieties of the time” – whether they’re scientific, racial, sexual, economic, political, environmental, or technological – are permanently guiding us back to the ghosts of the past. “The Victorian, the early 70s and the noughties,” Coverley told The Herald on Sunday, “are all periods in which an apparent resurgence of supernatural forms can be tied to a major cultural shift.”

This nightmarish nostalgia also explains the rise of modern populism. Coverley says: “It’s a reversion to earlier ideas, the overriding one being that the past was better than the present, and so to improve the present we must return to or rediscover our past.”

We’re clearly being haunted right now by the ghosts of political days gone by.There’s a weird Freudian note to all this as well.

Coverley says that Freud saw the phenomena of haunting “as simply the consequence of a failed mourning, an inability to complete the natural process of grieving – if we fail to lay our ghosts to rest they will return repeatedly to disrupt the present. This is an idea that has since been applied both culturally and politically to suggest that ideas that return recurrently may continue to demand a reckoning until they have been understood or worked through”.

In a way, our obsession with ghosts is an obsession with the unresolved problems of the past – that’s why the supernatural and rituals like Hallowe’en loom so large in our society, our culture and our collective subconscious: we’re still wrestling with dilemmas that began long before we were born.

The dark truth about the theory of hauntology is that if you break it all down then it says one thing: we live in a dead and stagnant world – we’re in hock to the past, the present is going nowhere, and the future is a mirage. We’re in cultural End Times, like ghosts constantly playing out the same scene. Maybe that explains why so many of us feel that nothing ever changes.

“A sense of being ‘stuck’,” says Coverley, “has certainly pervaded popular culture since the millennium, a sense that through the latter decades of the 20th century we were following a powerful onward trajectory – modernist, optimistic, futuristic – that was slowed or curtailed and finally went into reverse as we turned our back on the future and began to consume our past.”

Hallowe’en, then – with its fixation on the past and the supernatural – could rightly be regarded as the most culturally significant festival of our very troubled, modern age.