The Pandemic killed Halloween Then and Now
Nearly a century ago, no one had “Pandemic Shuts Down Halloween “ on their bingo card. The Great Influenza Pandemic griped the nation back in 1918, so most Halloween celebrations were cancelled due to quarantines. At least 195,000 people had died of this novel disease in America by October, 1918. The CDC estimates about 500 million people—or a third of the world’s population—had come down with this killer virus. By the1920’s, at the end of the Pandemic, at least 50 million people died, with 675,000 victims in the United States alone.
At the time, we had no vaccines to protect against influenza and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. Many doctors and nurses were serving in World War I, so the civilian medical professionals around the world tried to control infections with nonpharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, masks, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings. An interesting side note is all the flu pandemics which have happened since — 1957, 1968, 2009 — are derivatives of the 1918 flu, according to scientists at the National Institutes of Health.
The world back then was falling apart on two fronts from the first world war and disease. People at home were dropping like flies. Bodies were stacking up like cordwood and were placed in mass graves. Then, as now, we rabbits, like people, can only take so much stress before we need to release it. Many of us are pots with tight fitting lids: as soon as we reach the boiling point, our lid begins to rattle and clatter. If the cook doesn’t remove the lid and stir down the goo inside, we’ll be an over flowing volcanic mess, much like my morning oatmeal I’ve neglected when I’ve had too little coffee. Then Halloween, with its ghouls, goblins, witches, and other demons of the dark, arrives like Washington Irving’s ghost of the Headless Horseman, which we meet in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written in 1820.
Flu Pandemic Inspired Fiction
H. P. Lovecraft was one of the great horror writers, famous for his zombies, which may have been inspired by the grisly experiences of the influenza pandemic. Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft’s hometown, wasn’t spared the pandemic’s ghastly atmosphere.
As one local witness remembered, “all around me people were dying… [and] funeral directors worked with fear… . Many graves were fashioned by long trenches, bodies were placed side by side.” The pandemic, the witness laments, was “leaving in its wake countless dead, and the living stunned at their loss” (letter by Russell Booth; Collier Archives, Imperial War Museum, London).
Lovecraft channeled this existential horror into his stories of the period, producing corpse-filled tales with infectious atmospheres from which sprang lurching, flesh-eating invaders who left bloody corpses in their wake.
In his 1922 story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” Lovecraft created a ghoulish doctor intent on reanimating newly dead corpses. A pandemic arrives that offers him fresh specimens. This echoes the flu scenes of mass graves, overworked doctors and piles of bodies. When the head doctor of the hospital dies in the outbreak, Dr. West reanimates him, producing a proto-zombie figure that escapes to wreak havoc on the town. The living dead doctor lurches from house to house, ravaging bodies and spreading destruction, a monstrous, visible version of what the flu virus had done worldwide. Lovecraft wrote about a zombie super-spreader even before we knew such a thing existed. Who says “life sometimes doesn’t imitate art?”
Infection, Prejudice and the Viral Zombies
In other episodes and stories, Lovecraft’s proto-zombies suggest an additional thread of prejudice that runs through the zombie tradition, one fueled by widespread fears of contagion during the pandemic. Even before the outbreak, Lovecraft believed that foreign hordes were infecting the Aryan race generally, weakening the bloodlines. These xenophobic anxieties weave their way into his stories, as contagion and pandemic-soaked atmospheres blend into racist fears of immigrants and nonwhite invaders. We hear these same themes repeated today in our pandemic times by white supremacists and far right groups who want a sovereign nation within the land of the free.
Indeed, many of Lovecraft’s stories are unwitting templates for how prejudicial fears may be problematically amplified at moments of crisis. Such fears are evoked and often critiqued in later depictions of viral zombie hordes, such as the infectious monsters of Romero’s 1968 movie, “Night of the Living Dead” and the film’s subtle commentary on race, as when the white police force mistakes the main African American character for a viral zombie. Amazing how systemic racism persists in making “walking while black equate to viral zombie” even today.
Small Rabbits Fear Large Monsters
Lovecraft’s proto-zombies also provided a strange compensation for some of the pandemic’s worst memories. Like the covid-19 virus of today and the flu of the last century, these monsters consumed the flesh of the living, spread blood and violence, and acted without cause or explanation. Lovecraft assures his readers that these monsters are far worse than anything they saw in World War I or in the pandemic, the twin defining tragedies of his era. Unlike the virus, though, these literary monsters could be seen, stopped, killed, and reburied. Every decade seems to need its own monster or zombie, and Lovecraft offered his readers a version that spoke deeply to the anxieties of his moment.
Modern Fears Birth Modern Monsters
Our modern monsters are more in tune with the unimaginable horrors of our present world. In the 1950’s we had nuclear terrors, so our monsters were Godzilla and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. In the 1990’s, cloning was a scientific advance we knew could go amiss, so we had dinosaurs run amuck in Jurassic Park. Aliens have always been the most foreign of foreigners, so whether it’s the Thing from Outer Space or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we can scream into our popcorn all afternoon long. If we don’t scream, everyone will know we’re one of the “pod people.” Even before cinema took over entertainment, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds caused mass panic among listeners who believed Earth really had been invaded by Martians on October 30, 1938.
Dangers of Dualistic Thinking
Maybe this is why we rabbits need structured experiences which bring us up to the edge of fear, but in a safe environment. We need to learn to deal with our feelings and emotions as they threaten to overwhelm us. We need reassurance we can handle the frightening experience. We don’t need to be thrown off a cliff, but tested appropriately. If we don’t deal with our inner fears, we’ll see a ghoul in every dark shadow. This is why movies today have ratings for age groups.
When I was young, I was certain monsters lived under my bed and in my closet. I couldn’t sleep unless my closet door was shut. I was in art school before I could leave that door open. Something clicked in my mind, or I realized I was now at the age of responsibility. If this were so, I needed to give up this childish fear of invisible monsters. It was time for me to be the monster slayer in real life.
My daddy had a fear of monsters all his life—he called them communists. As a member of the now discredited John Birch Society, he claimed there was a “commie in every breadbox.” We’re no different today, for we rabbits seem to need our own monsters in the world beyond us. If we can’t deal with the brokenness or fears within us, we’ll project it outward onto an outside “other” group. Just as we too often put certain rabbits on a pedestal and are shocked when they fall, we also put some rabbits in a pit and wonder why they can’t get out of it. We tell ourselves “they don’t try hard enough” or “they aren’t worthy enough,” but neither of these statements are true. People are individuals, so we can’t make conclusions about them as a group.
Mischief Abounds All Night
By the 1920s, Halloween in America had become synonymous with mischief, which young people used as an excuse to break windows or damage property. Mischief comes from the Middle English word meschief, or “misfortune,” which itself derives from the Old French meschever, “to end up badly.” In the U.S., mischief has a legal definition: “Criminal mischief” includes true vandalism, such as the defacement or destruction of property, but also includes fully reversible pranks, like toilet-papering a house. In some states, it covers even vanishingly minor annoyances, like ding-dong-ditch, or ringing the doorbell and running off before the homeowner can answer the door. In 1923, the police chief commissioner in Omaha, Nebraska, went so far as to designate the “city’s worst boys” as junior police officers on October 31 and relied on them to report criminal behavior in an attempt to curb vandalism.
Modern Mischief Makers
I met two of my young students dressed in black garbage bags as my daughter and I returned from trick or treating one Halloween night. Their too guilty grins as they said hello and hid their hands underneath their costumes was a dead giveaway they were the likely culprits for the artistically draped toilet paper on my giant live oak tree. I let them pass on by and got my car keys to go visit their home, which was just up the street. After a drink and a chat with the parents, we agreed the boys would clean up my tree. My parents also were visited with this “sign of endearment” more than they liked when I was young. I imagine it’s still going on today.
Reflections on a Non Traditional Halloween
While we grownup rabbits think our little bunnies are going to miss Halloween traditions, the smallest ones don’t know what is tradition yet and the older ones can understand why this year will be different. Trick or treating began in the USA after WWII, as a way to discourage mischief, for if the kids get candy, they’ll be less likely to wreck havoc. As far as long term memories go, I’ve stretched mine, and can remember only one neighborhood walk about. I was slowed by my Carmine Miranda costume, while my brothers ran two houses ahead. I was delayed by holding my fruited headdress on my head.
Another Halloween we had a party at home with apple bobbing, snack making, and games. This was probably due to a fear of poison or pins in candy bars. This fear comes around every year, but it seems to be an urban legend. I also remember attending a school haunted house and walking through the dark and spooky cloakroom. There I touched all sorts of icky, gooey substances purporting to be “brains, eyeballs, and assorted body parts.” I do remember I did everything I could to not be banished to that same cloakroom for bad behavior the rest of year. No sense tempting fate, for sure, my eight year old mind reasoned.
If this holiday is for four year olds to twelve year olds, I can only remember one third of the years. In the short run it seems important, but in the long life of a person, only a few extraordinary moments will rise to peak memory. If this isn’t a year for house to house galavanting, or trunk to trunk acquisitions of treasure, then we’ll use our creativity to make it special, for that’s what we do.
This Is Not the Apocalypse
We rabbits live in a world of apocalyptic scenarios, yet we have safer, healthier, and longer lives than people in any other point in history. Still we constantly imagine our whole world could all fall apart in a heartbeat. We take our worries and translate a lot of our anxiety into fears about our children. If we listen to the new or hang out on social media, we might get caught up in “doom scrolling.” This is the internet version of rubbernecking at a gory traffic accident. Halloween began as the dark and terrifying compliment to the following bright and glorious All Saints Day celebration of November 1st, when the faithful remembered the saints, martyrs, and ordinary believers who have touched the lives of all the living.
The World of the Living and the Dead Meet
In both these festivals, the world of the living and the dead is permeable and fluid. These two days help us meet our fears about death, the uncertainty of our world, and our inability to control the seeming chaos of a world spinning out of control. We look to fallible individuals today for the change we seek, forgetting that we ourselves need to become the change we want to happen. Moreover, we forget the power of faith and the purpose of our combined faith communities called to work for a just and better world, which reflects the heavenly world to come.
The prophet Isaiah (65:17-18) speaks of God’s glorious new creation:
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
The promises for the Hebrew people in exile belong also to us today, for we find ourselves living in “exile from the life we once knew.” If we live in the past, we’ll always live in exile from the present. Perhaps we should choose to live in hope for a better future and spend our time in this now making that promise come true.
Herbert West: Reanimator
Vintage Halloween – What Halloween Was Like the Year You Were Born
The Sinister History of Halloween Pranks
American College of Emergency Physicians// 1918 Influenza Pandemic: A United States Timeline
The Myth of Poisoned Halloween Candy
‘The 1918 flu is still with us’: The deadliest pandemic ever is still causing problems today
The pandemic ended in the early 1920s, but the virus left its mark for the next 100 years.
By Teddy Amenabar
Your Halloween zombie costume may have its roots in the 1918 flu that killed 20,000 Philadelphians
The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918: A Digital Encyclopedia – Browse newspaper clippings
Open Air Police Court, San Francisco, California, 1918 Flu Pandemic