Halloween is coming up! In honor of our second-scariest holiday—the scariest holiday in Western culture is, of course, Black Friday—I’ve written the most terrifying kind of blog post.
An educational blog post.
Okay, okay. So what Monster of the Week could possibly be educational? Well, let’s start with a history lesson. You may have heard of a strange and violent Halloween custom that involves stabbing a gourd with a long, sharp knife, scooping out its guts, and carving into its flesh—
Oh? You mean you’ve done that?
Have you ever asked why?
No, I don’t mean the breaking the flimsy knife that came with the two dollar carving kit, throwing your orange goop-stained arms into the air kind of why.
I mean… why do we carve faces into pumpkins and set tiny fires inside them? And why do we call those jack-o’-lanterns?
The astute reader is either wondering why I’m going on a tangent about pumpkins during a post that is ostensibly about will-o’-the-wisps, or has deduced that there’s a connection between those two things.
Congratulations! You’re right. It’s that.
Will-o’-the-wisps are legendary spirits with as many names as there are cultures. Will-o’-the-wisp is one of the names used in England. Jack-o’-the-lantern is another.
So, there you have it—your candle-pumpkin hybrid is named after the will-o’-the-wisp. Sort of. By the transitive property. So what are these things?
There’s a natural phenomenon that often occurs in boggy or swampy areas, areas where the earth releases methane. Sometimes the released methane ignites in little bursts of flame. They might flicker around for a moment and then disappear.
A superstitious person, one from a couple hundred years ago who has never heard the word methane and doesn’t know that the ground is spitting out flammable little swamp farts, might call that a spirit.
A creative superstitious person might come up with a story about that spirit. There’s a shadowy figure just out of sight, they might say, holding up a lantern to guide lost travelers.
Then their voice might get hushed, and they might say, Don’t follow it.
Some stories say that will-o’-the-wisps are mischievous or even malevolent. They lure travelers out to dangerous places, or get them lost in the middle of a bog, and then abandon them to fend for themselves. Other stories cast them in a more positive light—they actually help lost travelers find their way home, or, like in Pixar’s Brave, they show you your destiny.
Whether good, bad, or somewhere in between, most agree that the will-o’-the-wisp is a spirit of some kind. Traditional Celtic beliefs say that they’re spirits that have crossed into another world. Christians claim they’re the souls of people trapped in purgatory.
What’s the Halloween connection?
Maybe you know that Halloween comes from All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day—Christian holidays for honoring the souls of departed family members—or from Samhain, a Celtic holiday when it is believed that the barrier between our world and the afterlife is thinnest. This weakened barrier allows will-o’-the-wisps to cross back and visit their still-living loved ones.
So is the jack-o’-lantern a smiling beacon calling these lost souls back home? Or a grisly visage warning evil spirits to stay away?
Well, I guess that depends on how well you got on with your dead relatives.
Will-o’-the-wisps are great mythical creatures partly because of their ambiguity. As guides, they can be good or evil. That’s true of any guide. It’s part of their allure: the delicate balance of hope and risk.
Though I’ve focused on the British Isles because of their connection to Halloween, they also appear in many other cultures. That’s partly because of the natural phenomenon of methane fireballs that occurs all over the world, but the legend is universal, too. Will-o’-the-wisps are about death. They hover in the gap between life and death. They are a fleeting glimpse of light, a flicker of hope that maybe, just maybe, something can bridge that gap.
Just be careful about following it if it does.
Prompt: A guide has taken you somewhere unexpected. Is it a trap? A pleasant surprise? Was it even intentional on the guide’s part, or are they lost, too? Share your stories in the comments!
Have a happy and safe Halloween! If you decide to brave the orange goop and carve your own jack-o’-lantern, share a picture in the comments!