An invisible heritage

It is Halloween. The veils between our world and the world of the supernatural are thin. Our streets will be filled with strange, other-worldly apparitions demanding bribes to leave nearby humans in peace for another year. Normal religious belief systems are overtaken by anti-religion, the otherworldly forces devoted to disruption, ahierarchy, and the subversion of Christian morality.

This is not, of course, scientifically true. But you understand my meaning, which is to say it describes cultural knowledge – which exists within social situations, if not on a physical plane. The work done by these forms of constructed, shared knowledge is powerful. Just as Christmas creates opportunities for traditions of celebration and community even among non-Christians, so Halloween encodes and reproduces certain knowledges and behaviours, particularly with relation to the supernatural.

A photo of a line of child-size halloween costumes hanging in a shop
“Halloween” by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

The witches, ghosts, vampires, devils, and horror characters who appear around Halloween allow us to appropriate and even celebrate what usually frightens or repels us. The importance of festivals which subvert the normal social order has been widely recognised, but what of the importance of celebrating a belief of the supernatural? In a post-Enlightenment, rational world, how have a collection of irrational, imaginary, fundamentally frightening creatures become part of a major annual celebration?

This is a hard question to pose to a heritage specialist. Much heritage work in Western contexts is concerned with the discovery, identification, and maintenance of things. Buildings, artefacts, and archaeological sites require curation and study by experts. Intangible heritage like stories or superstitions were left to folklorists or historians. But increasingly, it has become clear that this leaves out half the story. Sada Mire has shown how traditionally nomadic Somali people cherish knowledge and skills more than the objects they are used to create, because of their transient lifestyle, while Denis Byrne has shown that Aboriginal people in Australia have connections to the landscape which are important, but leave no physical trace that would qualify them as an ‘archaeological site’ by Western methods.

Yet in Britain, an area rich with tangible evidence of the past, the intangible has been frequently overlooked. With all the glories of ever more exciting scientific development before us, why would we study elements of culture that are constantly changing, historically unverifiable, messy and irrational?

A ring of tall standing stones on a hilltop in the sunshine, circled by several pine trees.
The stone circle in Scotland known to Outlander fans as Craig-na-Dun, from

Because, of course, there is an extraordinarily rich vein to be explored. My study of ghost stories demonstrated that the supernatural can form a link between people, places and the past. This is a deeply ingrained tradition in the British psyche – just look at fairy rings, standing stone circles (whether or not you believe they can be a portal to the past, Outlander-style), or crop circles. Other superstitions involve marking boundaries between ‘safe’ spaces, such as a house, and the unknown forces outside, such as hanging a horseshoe over the doorway or a rowan tree by the door, which are meant to ward away evil forces. The landscape has never been an inert or controllable backdrop; it has been peopled and physical locations made active and meaningful by this shared cultural knowledge. By learning about the ways people accord their environments agency in the present, through superstitions and stories, we can better understand the way the natural and the supernatural were fundamentally connected for people in the past.

The belief in external forces which can explain good or bad luck, and the use of superstition to control them, is a long-established and perhaps fundamentally necessary part of human behaviour. What is now ‘superstition’ may frequently have been a part of an established or coherent belief system (the post-Reformation Protestant Churches in Britain came down heavily on what they saw as heretical behaviour), or may reflect traditions honed over centuries. Either way, there is a powerful attraction in stories of magical, mysterious creatures which live alongside humans as habitually as the fox in your garden.

The celebration of the shadowy and powerful unknown this Halloween can serve as a reminder that cultural heritage is more than sites and artefacts. It is part of our lives, mutable and evolving, connecting us to our ancestors in the past but also to our society in the present.

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