If you really think about it, the modern idea of Halloween is downright weird.
Some small children dress themselves in gruesome outfits, while others sport clever, whimsical disguises. They go door-to-door, demanding candy bars from strangers in return for not committing minor acts of vandalism.
Adults watch ultra-violent movies, consume barely edible corn candy by the handful and go to alcohol-fueled parties dressed as sexy witches.
Unholy demons and monstrous visions of untimely, bloody death permeate Halloween’s entire store-bought iconography.
Of course, along with being undoubtedly strange, Halloween is also a lot of fun, too.
At left: A mystery woman, dressed as a witch stands on a porch sometime in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. The photo was probably taken on Deer Isle or Isle Au Haute by John Turner; at right: Not much is known about this Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company photograph titled “Woman in Costume.” Credit: Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum
But compared to other mass-celebrated, commercially co-opted, holidays rooted in Pagan and Christian traditions Mainers celebrate every year, Halloween is a relative latecomer.
That’s perhaps why, out of more than 200,000 historic Maine photographs in the Penobscot Marine Museum‘s archive, only a handful depict Halloween scenes. But there’s plenty of other creepy and inexplicable costume photos to look at in the collection.
Here are a few, with as much information as we know about them.
Carried by Irish and Scottish immigrants, Halloween customs and traditions didn’t arrive here until the later part of the 19th century.
Now, along with several other holidays including Christmas and Easter, Halloween is a mix of age-old beliefs, amped up with considerable commercial marketing.
Halloween is based on the Pagan harvest holiday of Samhain (pronounced more like “saw-win”) and the Christian All Saints Day. It falls about halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.
In the Pagan tradition, the celebration starts at sunset with cleansing bonfires. It’s a time when the barrier between the living and spirit worlds becomes permeable. In olden times, it was believed that phantoms from the other side were soothed with food and drink, sometimes collected door-to-door.
Spirits were also confused and tricked by humans in outlandish costumes.
At left: This photograph of a menacing clown was made by the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company around 1958. The caption reads, “Yorkie the Clown of Peyton Place, Yorkies Diner and Gift Shop, Camden, Maine.”; at right: A man, possibly costumed for a play, looks at the camera in a photo probably taken on Deer Isle or Isle Au Haute by John Turner. Credit: Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum
In the Christian tradition, All Saints Day begins the morning after, on Nov. 1. It mourns all holy martyrs who died for their beliefs. The very next day, All Souls Day, commemorates the faithful departed, as well as poor souls trapped in purgatory.
Both traditions are a bit spooky.
Along with their Chrisian-Pagan costumes and ghost parties, the Irish and Scots also brought other traditions we associate with Halloween, like carving pumpkins and bobbing for apples, too.
By the mid-20th century, the various pre-historic Halloween traditions began to be codified into a tableau of mass-consumed culture for sale.
Now, bright costumes and bags of bite-sized candy are found in drug stores. Animated Charlie Brown specials for the kiddies spread the word about the Great Pumpkin on TV. Slasher films slither across the silver screen every fall for grown ups who still want to get scared.
But, for now, there’s not yet much evidence of those kinds of things in the museum’s archive. Maybe, someday, photos of our latest jack-o-lanterns, ill-advised, “sexy” costume choices and lawn decorations will find their way into the collection.
Wouldn’t that be scary?