According to popular lore, it's the night when the veil between the spirit world and ours is thinnest, when the dead are closest to the living, when we are called to remember those who passed before us. Wiccans and Pagans call it the Eve of Samhain; Christians call it the Eve of All Saint's or All Hallow's Eve.
The rest of us call it Halloween.
Known primarily as the day when costume-clad children procure cavity-inducing treats from their neighbors, Halloween emerged from a fusion of pagan and Christian traditions. And while most of today's candy-seeking little ones don't think much about commemorating the dead, those who celebrate Samhain customarily leave out a feast for the souls who might visit their homes, while Christians prepare to commemorate the deceased saints who've gone before them.
Today, celebrants of Samhain and All Saint's Day continue with their respective rituals, just as children continue to garner costumes and hoard their sugary cache.
But to reach the real center of October 31 intensity, a visit to Salem, Mass., is in order. Salem now cashes in on its historic association with burning witches at the stake to host its annual Festival of the Dead, a month-long celebration complete with psychics, séances, ghosting hunting, a mourning tea and a witches' ball. The streets fill with witches and wanna-be witches, with entrepreneurs selling crystal balls and tarot card readers offering their services.
Intrigued by the quirk factor, by the mystical quality of the place, I decided to go with a friend to a séance that was part of the festival, and before I go any further, I probably should say this: I didn't go with high hopes. I didn't really think a medium could communicate with the spirit world.
And now that I've been honest about that, this is what happened.
The séance itself was attended by about 30 observers, all seated in a circle in the backroom of a Salem psychic parlor located next to a haunted house attraction. Leaders lit candles in the center of the room and then asked everyone to stand up, stomp their feet, and rub their hands together to the beat of tunes like "Don't Stop Believing." We waved our hands in the air so the energy generated by our stomping and clapping would reach the spirit world, and then the mediums turned down the pop music and turned off the lights, because, according to them, the spirits had arrived and were congregating above our heads.
For the next hour and a half, the two mediums would pick participants and ask them questions about the spirit hovering above them while screams and cranking sounds interrupted from the Haunted House. Interactions went something like this:
MEDIUM: I see.. .I see a man. A large man. Perhaps with weight problems? Due to a... a problem with his leg. Maybe a blood clot? Is there a man in your life who passed due to a blood clot in his leg?
PERSON X: I don't think so.
HAUNTED HOUSE NOISE: CRRRRRANK!!!!!!!
MEDIUM: Well, this man definitely had a blood clot in his leg. He lived -- I think I'm hearing this right -- he lived somewhere cold. Yes, yes, definitely somewhere cold. Albany, I think.
PERSON X: I don't know anyone in Albany.
MEDIUM: Ah, yes, of course, he didn't live there....
HAUNTED HOUSE PARTICIPANT: AAAAAAAAH!
MEDIUM: The man took an important trip there, a trip that changed his life. Yes, that's it; he was at a crossroads in Albany and then something happened to this man... who is very close to you... yes, very close. Has your father passed?
PERSON X: No.
MEDIUM: What about your grandfather?
PERSON X: My grandfather died 20 years ago.
MEDIUM: That's probably who this is, then, your grandfather. I'm hearing...your grandfather has a message... he says... he says that your mother will be okay. Can you deliver that message to your mother?
PERSON X: My mother passed away last year.
MEDIUM: Ah, then this message is for your comfort. Your mother will be okay on the other side. That's the message.
HAUNTED HOUSE NOISE: CRRRRRRANNNNNNK!
It's probably no surprise to readers that many who attended the séance thought that the mediums had, shall we say, an off night. And while the mediums didn't convince me that that any spirits hovered above our skulls, I will end with this:
As I was leaving, a woman went up to Person X and said, "I know you think that wasn't your father. That's because it was mine. He just got a little lost."