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By Horror Haunted

Christopher Benfey
Halloween has always seemed to me the most poetical of holidays.

Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos

New Hampshire, 1954

My wife and I moved to a new house a few years back. The street address is 666. I warned her that Halloween might be lively at our house and suggested that we get the number changed. I think she was a little embarrassed for me, suspecting that I was superstitious. So far—knock wood—the tricksters have stayed away. But an attempt to remove the diabolical digits from the garage door, where they had been nailed in place by a previous owner, has gone awry. The outlines of the ghostly numbers now shine forth from the stained wood, more visible than ever.

Halloween has always seemed to me the most poetical of holidays. I know why. When I was in second grade, our teacher, Mrs. Holland, read “The Raven” aloud, scaring the dickens out of us. The lone African-American teacher for miles around, Mrs. Holland was also the only good teacher in the school, and encouraged us to try our hand at poetry. It was, in retrospect, a terrible school. I can still recite the ninety-two counties of Indiana. But I also learned a few verses of “The Raven.”

A couple of years later, I got my first poem published, in an advertising rag called The Graphic. Here is the poem, which Mr. Waltz, the principal, read aloud over the public-address system:

On Halloween night children trick or treat
For candy, cookies, and sweet things to eat.
They like to dress up like witches and ghosts
And have jack-o’-lanterns for their hosts.
A witch got some candy, a goblin some gum,
And after they finished they started to hum.
They ate all their candy and even their gum,
But finally it was bedtime and ready to stop,
So into their cozy beds they did hop.

Poe thought that in “The Raven” he had succeeded in “approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible.” I would like to believe that I achieved a similar effect.

“The death… of a beautiful woman,” Poe claimed, “is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” We don’t learn anything specific about the lost Lenore in “The Raven” except that she’s presumably beautiful and presumably (though the poem is equivocal on this point) dead. Not even that she loved Mozart, Bach, the Beatles, and me, like the beautiful dead woman in Love Story.

But how about a beautiful dead man? Isn’t that equally poetical? Let’s see: Patroclus in the Iliad, Socrates, Jesus, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, and, come to think of it, Poe himself, immortalized in Mallarmé’s sonnet about his grave. Boston has, at long last, condescended to honor Poe, its native prodigal son, with a statue of the poet, in bronze, accompanied by a huge raven in flight.

Poe statue.jpg

Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston

Stephanie Rocknak’s “Poe Returning to Boston,” installed near the Boston Common
in early October

Up the coast, in Hawthorne’s Salem, every day is Halloween. In “Witch City,” as the ghoulish signs proclaim, the death of innocent women (along with a few men) has become a marketing tool. The Penguin Book of Witches, edited by Katherine Howe, a “direct descendant of three accused Salem witches,” and issued just in time for Halloween, documents what really happened in Salem and environs circa 1692, a late excrescence of the witch-craze that, in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s vivid account, bedeviled Europe for two centuries beginning in the 1480s.

From Howe’s compilation, we learn of a poor, quarrelsome, and childless widow named Eunice Cole who in 1672 —when suspected witches were already being harassed—tried to entice, with ripe plums, a nine-year-old foster-child named Ann Smith to come and live with her. When the child resisted, Cole allegedly struck her on the head with a stone. Then, according to Smith’s deposition, Cole “turned into a little dog and ran upon the tree, then she flew away like an eagle.” You might think that someone capable of changing herself into a dog would have a better strategy than plums and rocks for waylaying a homeless child. Remanded to the Boston jail, Cole was one of the lucky ones—nineteen accused witches were hung during the Salem crisis—though at her death in 1680 from natural causes a stake was supposedly driven through her sorceress’s heart .

For Howe, the accused Salem witches “served as both literal and figurative scapegoats for frontier communities under profound economic, religious, and political pressure.” Prosecutors linked accused witches, numbering more than a hundred in Salem alone, to American Indians, to various religious heresies, to female sexuality. In Europe and America, the monstrous mythology of witchcraft—with its pacts with the devil, its night-riding on broomsticks to Sabbath rallies, its cauldrons of human limbs—offered, as Trevor-Roper notes, “a new means of interpreting hitherto disregarded deviations, an explanatory background for apparently innocent nonconformity.”


If I were asked to review The Penguin Book of Witches, I’m sure I’d be tempted to use currently fashionable words like “unnerving,” “unsettling,” and “uncanny,” now that the language of Halloween has invaded our literary criticism. You’d think, reading book reviews today, that the primary business of literature was to scare the living daylights out of readers. Emily Dickinson certainly thought so. She told her friend Higginson,

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?

Allen Tate on Dickinson: “Cotton Mather would have burned her for a witch.”

I myself remember Halloween as primarily a time of humiliation. My two brothers and I were made to trick or treat for UNICEF. You asked for candy and then, with that little box that resembled animal crackers with a slot, you begged for money. A variant: my wife and I were living in New York during one of those panics (razor blades in apples, tampering with Tylenol). On Halloween a forlorn mother, dragging a masked child, came tap tap tapping at our chamber door. Yuppies that we were—we’d forgotten to stock up on candy—we offered an apple instead. “Only money, please!” barked the mother. Merely this, and nothing more.

As a kid, I wanted to dress up as a soldier for Halloween. GI Joe. But no. Our Quaker parents refused to let us play with guns. And then a reprieve! A manufacturer was producing toy guns marked, in blue letters, “UN Peacekeeping Force,” with detachable bayonets, and helmets, too.

Republicans, no friends of the UN, have adopted a Halloween strategy for the coming elections: scare the hell out of voters. In The New York Times Jeremy W. Peters writes:

Hear it on cable television and talk radio, where pundits and politicians play scientists speculating on whether Ebola will mutate into an airborne virus that kills millions. See it in the black-hooded, machine-gun-brandishing Islamic extremists appearing in campaign ads. Read about it in the unnerving accounts of the Secret Service leaving Mr. Obama and his family exposed.

Could such fearmongering engender panics of the witch-craze variety, with the demonization of poor Africans, Islamic youths, and the mentally ill? Both Trevor-Roper and Katherine Howe consider witch-hunts a perennial danger, noting that they have flourished in what are considered to be relatively enlightened times—the Renaissance and the literate Puritan villages of Massachusetts Bay, not to mention 1950s America. “Who shall answer for the ebbings and flowings of opinion, or be able to say what will be the fashionable frenzy of the next generation?” So wrote a pamphleteer in 1787, amid debate on the liberty of conscience clause of the Bill of Rights during the Constitutional Convention. Just the previous year, the writer noted, a helpless old woman suspected of witchcraft had been beaten, stabbed, and stoned to death in the streets of Philadelphia.

Election day is November 4. That means lucky office-seekers get to wear their Halloween masks for four extra days of trick-or-treating.

The Penguin Book of Witches, edited by Katherine Howe, has just been published.

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