A Sign of Halloween: The Jack-O-Lantern

In a trilogy of posts, the School of English blog (with the help of the School’s own Gothic Reading Group) considers the literary significance and implications of the year’s most mysterious seasonal occasion.

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On behalf of the Gothic Reading Group PhD researcher Kathleen Hudson asks: Why does the Jack-o-Lantern legend persist? And to what extent does it take its inspiration from the anxieties shared by a plethora of classical literary texts?  

A burning pumpkin.

A burning pumpkin.

Jack-o-lanterns.  It does seem like a ridiculous way to celebrate a holiday – to carve faces into pumpkins and then basically light them on fire.  Ridiculous, and a safety hazard, yet a popular Halloween tradition; just like egging someone’s house [not an action endorsed by the SofE Blog – eds] or accidentally eating all the candy before the trick-or-treaters arrive and then having to scrounge for raisins and packets of Cup ‘o Soup to give them instead.

I am American and grew up calling carved pumpkins ‘jack-o-lanterns,’ but many of my British friends aren’t familiar with jack-o-lantern as a name for carved pumpkins or as a reference to a Faustian bit of folklore (or that pumpkins are delicious in pie).  This is sad, and I will not allow it, especially because there are themes to be explored!  Literary themes! Excelsior!

The jack-o-lantern legend is more or less understood to have originated from Ireland, and the story of ‘Stingy Jack,’ for whom the jack-o-lantern is named, is set there.  Legend has it that ‘Stingy Jack,’ an unpleasant degenerate who consistently refused to pay for his rounds at the pub (a capital crime if ever there was one), managed to trap the Devil in a tree by carving a cross into the tree-trunk.  After much back and forth between them, Jack agreed to release the Devil from the tree if the Devil promised that Jack would never go to Hell.  Jack then released the Devil and went on his way.

When the time came for Jack to die and enter the afterlife, however, Jack realized that he had not lived a good enough life on earth to merit admission into Heaven, and that he was barred from entering there by St. Peter.  At a loss for what to do and where to go, he meandered down to the gates of Hell, but the Devil, keeping his promise, refused him entrance there and instead cast him back to earth to wander alone.

A cheerful Pumpkin, inspired by Jack.

A cheerful Pumpkin, inspired by Jack.

As a token of friendship (for how often is the Devil really outwitted?) the Devil threw a fiery coal up from Hell to Jack so that Jack could light his way as he wandered.  Jack put the ember in a half eaten turnip and used it as a lamp, and began his trek through the world as a spirit.

Once the tale was imported to countries like America the turnip was replaced with the pumpkin, and to this day jack-o-lanterns are used to light the way for the souls that wander the earth on Halloween.

An interesting story, especially for Halloween, because it echoes the recurring theme of most Devil/human interactions in folklore – the Faustian mistake.  On a night when the spirits of the other side are allegedly closest to us, and when we are selves choose to abandon our normal clothes in favor of costumes which emulate the ‘other,’ it is interesting that one of the defining symbols of the holiday is that of the figure punished for making deals with the devil.

Harsh, I know (after all, if you’ve somehow managed to get Satan stuck in a tree…?), but perhaps the tradition has lasted as much because it is a warning to the living as it is a way of potentially interacting with the dead.

The recurrence of Faustian characters, whether they be Faust himself, or Wagner the werewolf, or The Monk’s Ambrosio, or Stingy Jack, or that guy from Hellraiser, suggests a literary value attached to the humble pumpkin and reflects popular fears and conceptions about the supernatural and natural worlds that persist even today.

Halloween’s focus on otherworldly concerns makes it a holiday for worrying that our choices, especially ones in which we overreach ourselves, may have long-term consequences that we can’t even conceive, and that the material and spiritual are perhaps not as separate as they first appear.

The carved pumpkin is connected to Hell.

The carved pumpkin is connected to Hell.

On a side note you should also probably look in to toasted pumpkin seeds…delicious!

 

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