Terror as fun has a long history. In fact we cannot possibly know how long human emotions, especially that of fear, have been deliberately targeted in a spirit of jest and trickery.
The facial expressions above are perfectly captured in that brain-freezing moment of ‘this could be the real thing’ but at the same time knowing it’s probably not. This late Victorian illustration by H.G.Banks was not of a ghost, but the dreaded bogeyman used as a parental weapon to threaten children about what would happen if they misbehaved. “The bogeyman* will come and get you,” was the promise. The leg disappearing to the right of the picture is just perfect, we know from that simple cue that the child it belongs to is full of panic as reckless flight takes hold.
* [also spelt as boogeyman, bogie man, or boogieman and possibly many more ways]
All social classes engaged in such rituals of contrived terror.
Is the creepy father in the following image being told by his wife he’s now gone too far in what was supposed to be fun-time in the family drawing room?
The bogeyman concept was very useful in as much as he (and occasionally she) had no specific appearance or rituals to obey. It merely needed the promise of a cruel and frightening abduction to some terrible place designed to imprison or maybe cook and eat naughty children and it could be at anytime time of the year. Most cultures have their own versions of the same threat whether it’s the Hombre del saco; El Coco; or even Cuca – a female humanoid alligator. The etymological derivations are in the hundreds.
However, the ‘fun and fear’ aspect of childhood and indeed, adult life, had some very different contexts that we cannot possibly experience and empathize with nowadays. What I am trying to reach (and will never have the cultural experience to do so) is the extent to which the proclaimed entertainment spectacle of public hangings, decapitations, floggings and other legally proscribed punishment rituals in England’s past history, fitted into this childhood genre of ‘fun and fear’ that you would take into adulthood.
Terror as fun was possibly a family outing amongst crowded masses enjoying the theatre of death and torture whilst pointing out to the children the decapitated head of a traitor being held aloft by the executioner’s assistant as a lesson in morality, whilst the passing pie man shouts his wares of hot food in case you require other forms of nourishment besides that of bloody spectacle, retribution and revenge.
So when I look at the family drawing-room image above – I can almost work out what being there was probably like – some kind of approximation at least – but when I Iook at the image below – I have no ability to do the same (and I am certainly not seeking it!).
Could you be the woman below turning away or the young child in the middle being encouraged to look, perhaps it’s you climbing the post to get a better view? How can we possibly envision and experience the sights, sounds and smells of that occasion outside the County gaol in Horsemonger Lane, Southwark, London on March 23rd 1812, as traitor John Smith’s head is held aloft to the proclamation, “Behold the head of the Traitor Smith.”
You have just witnessed the death struggle of the two hanging seamen, William Cundle (alias Connel) and John Smith. You have then waited the statutory twenty minutes of watching the bodies hang – just in case there is still any life left. You are now watching them cut down and their heads taken off for public display. Will you wait for the second head to be declared as the traitorous body part of Cundle or – apologies – head-off elsewhere, satisfied you’ve had enough entertainment for that morning.
Meanwhile, on the same day, those in more northern climes, were similarly able to enjoy the double execution of Edith Murray and John Dallas at York, with the added spice that it involved a sordid love triangle of Lady Chatterley dimensions over one hundred years before D. H. Lawrence put pen to paper.
Summer and Autumn of that same year provided the theatre of death for Chester, Maidstone, and London’s Old Bailey of course.
Indeed five years later, the public were encouraged to marvel at York’s re-designed scaffold for their summer entertainment – what was termed ‘the new drop’ ie: So for our twenty-first century versions of seeking personal exposures for adults and children alike to ghoulish spectacles of death without the experiences of public witness to the hangman’s noose, the executioner’s mask and bloody axe, the swish of the guillotine, the crash of the drop, and the smell of the crowded spectators waiting by coffins full of sawdust to help mop up the flow of blood – the present-day lure of Halloween seems somehow logical and almost a necessary part of socialization given the century upon century of indoctrination in what is now referred to as mob psychology to witness horror for horror’s sake.
If by some imaginative quirk of science fiction, we could envision a cell phone in each of those spectator’s hands – all arms would moving aloft in a morbid mobile Mexican wave. If you type Halloween exec….into Google it will immediately suggest Halloween executioner; Halloween executioner’s costume; Halloween executioner’s mask; and so on.
But no matter that such inventions were still centuries away because, for a penny or less, you were able to capture all the gruesome details, relish specially composed poems, read the perpetrators’ confessions and enjoy all the sketches witnessed above by purchasing a broadside to read (or have read to you).
This in turn claimed to demonstrate the importance of moral redemption and provide salutary lessons to us all (especially the young) should we stray the deviant way of the headless body on display in its coffin. (See: Ruth Richardson’s British Library piece on ‘Street Literature‘ for more details of broadsheets and broadsides.
The journey to Halloween’s collection of the gory detritus of capital punishment is not at all clear except that it stems in great part from the Gaelic festival of Samhain which marked the beginning of the loss of light to the dark part of the year. This was a significant point for gathering in the harvest ready for the harsher times ahead. However, the really interesting inheritance from Samhain Lore for our purposes is the theory that on this eve of October 31st, as the light becomes the dark, the very gateway between our world and the next is at its closest. The partition or veil between us is at its thinnest or finest whereby shades, spooks, spirits and ghosts can flit between the two worlds.
The positive part of what became All Souls Eve before it transformed into Halloween, was that this was the best moment to communicate with the spirit world. Maybe an ancestor or two could be contacted, or perhaps in your ghostly costume, you could slip through the veil and see the other world for yourself on this special evening. There was even the thought that dressing up scared off such real spirit visitors, so was a form of protection to dress that way yourself. Well the subsequent global commercialization of folklore, costumes, food, appearance, accessories, candlelight, dark and spooky atmospheres is – as they say, history, particularly in the United States where the so-called “Halloween Economy” is worth over seven billion dollars ie: well over $80 per American citizen.
So terror as fun and the lure of Halloween (both commercially and socially) provides that one special night of the year when those seeking the thrill of fright, shock & horror – either by providing or receiving it – span all ages. In particular it is children who will plead to take on the scariest costumes and macabre characters with accompanying make-up. No make-up needed below, just a great Halloween costume idea from 1820’s London.
We can also expose the myth that ‘trick or treat’ is really just a recent part of the intense commercialization of Halloween that has now crossed the waters from the USA to the UK. A popular nineteenth century Cheshire custom was for young men to gather together on October 31st – All-Souls Eve – and travel around the farm houses, described as, “Being dressed in all kinds of queer costumes and they would sing before the doors“
The trick seems to be they will not stop ‘souling’  until given a treat. Unfortunately, not all were tolerant of these so-called “soul-cakers” who would have originally been offered special ‘All Souls Eve’ scone-style biscuits as well as the fruit.
On October 31st, 1873, A certain Mr. Corbot, Master of the Cheshire Hounds, made his objection to their ‘souling’ crystal clear, denying them any such treats and he made sure that he was the one who played the trick.
In case you’re interest in what happened to Mr. Corbot – he in fact attracted the sympathy of the court and got away with a fine rather than gaol given his suffering at the ‘howling’ of the ‘soulers’
Nothing is new, it seems, just more commercial, more global.
Here is a true, illustrated story, to end this Halloween blog that combines the context of capital punishment, a Halloween haunting and grim public spectacle with a moral for all to see.
Edward Wood was the only son of John and Elizabeth Wood – they lived near the city of Chester England – father and son working as corn chandlers to the shipping trade on the river Dee in the old port.
Unfortunately, Edward being an only child due to his mothers ill-health to conceive any more children, became a spoilt, arrogant, heavy drinking young man. He took to gambling, losing what little money the family had.
In 1820, his father disowned him and threw him out. Edward fell into the company of thieves and was soon in Chester Court on charges of housebreaking which in those days could result in a sentence of death. Edward’s parents felt somewhat responsible and spent their savings on a defence lawyer who found a flaw in the indictment which set Edward free.
For reasons known only to Edward, he felt bitterly angry towards his mother for his life of misfortune and not to his father who had thrown him out. Shortly after he was released he returned to live at home. One day, however, he waited to ambush his mother returning from the local market by hiding in a ditch on a lonely stretch of track. As his mother passed by, he leapt out and threatened her with a knife. His mother pleaded with him to calm down and not to harm her – her dear son she had given life to and loved.
His fury towards his mother was such, he ignored her cries for mercy and cut her throat from ear to ear.
He hid her body and returned home, his father besides himself with worry at Elizabeth’s disappearance. Edwards pretended to be concerned as they went out day after day to look for her but to no avail.
It was on one of his drunken nights, that all this was to change. All Souls Night, on October 31st 1821, he was going home when the ghost of his mother appeared before him and started to follow him home. She said she would never leave his side until he confessed his murderous deed.
He was haunted from that night and throughout November until the madness of this torture drove him to confess to the fact that he had murdered his mother. He was tried and executed – his body left to hang in chains at the spot where he had committed the crime until his skeleton just remained for all to see how such a dreadful deed would be punished. Here he is, the very picture of a happy Halloween postcard!
 Sting’s Album: ‘If On A Winter’s Night,’ features the traditional folk-song from the period called Soul Cake, however, he’s incorrectly linked it to Christmas rather than Halloween.
 Here’s a traditional recipe link in case the soul-cakers call: