Eyes on the Rocks: Halloween in Appalachia

Superstitions, stories of haints and boogers are very rampant this time of year, especially in Appalachia. Just as I say in Backwoods Witchcraft, Appalachians have a special relationship with the dead: we don’t mind them unless they mind us, then it’s our business of how they mind us. They were sharing ghost stories from callers on the radio the other morning, some scary and others just normal “living with the dead” type of deals.

Death itself has always been a taboo in these hills, superstitions abound around the whole process. Never sweep under the bed of the dying, if the bed candle makes a winding sheet death is coming; a white dog visiting the home is waiting for its Owner, and a bird pecking on the window of a home in which the sick lie portends death to occur beneath the roof.

The dying folks and their eternal resting places aren’t things to take lightly. Never go into a graveyard alone at night, always have company. If you hear someone call your name but no one spoke, so not answer it. We’re very paranoid so to speak around this time of year, just beneath the surface. It’s not something anyone speaks of, just a gut feeling that doesn’t need verbal acknowledgement from each other. Do things as you’ve always, but with just a little more awareness about it.

This was the time when everything needed to be ready for the winter: the smallest thing that goes wrong could endanger the family for the whole season! Precautions were taken to make sure the dead, one’s Ancestors and those that simple roam, are placated with foods and window candles, prayers and drink.

Halloween was also the perfect time to be rid of troublesome haints in the home: none of that sage and exorcism stuff though… you wine and dine them with southern hospitality! Mama always taught me to have manners, even with the dead.

You fix a big ol’ meal and set a plate for the spirit at the table with their own chair. Make sure to have dessert as well, whether it’s blackberry or pumpkin pie, snow ice cream or whatever. Everyone eats and enjoys the night sitting only in candle light. Then every empty chair in the home is filled with something, doesn’t matter what just make it so no one can sit in them. Take the spirits chair and prop it forward against the table, standing on its front legs. Open every window and door to get it really cold and set a lit candle in each opening. Then at the strike of midnight you tell the spirit: “You’ve had your full, you’ve made your stay, winter’s acoming, best be on your way.”

Some folks sweep their homes to get rid of bad luck, however in Appalachia, it’s like we say, “if it weren’t for bad luck, we’d have none at all.” The house is never swept on Halloween for fear of sweeping out the good fortune as well, and we never give away or loan anything either.

One Halloween tradition in Appalachia that lingered for a bit was the turnip lanterns. These were turnips that had been hollowed out and carved like pumpkins. This practice comes from the British highlands but soon changed to pumpkins in the New World because they were more abundant. I’ve written about the lore behind them before, you can check that out here. Pictured on this blog are turnip candles I made for the season.

The superstitions and lore of Halloween are similar to the rest of the country: ghosts walk about, evil spirits are more rampant, and it draws the crazy folk out. However, we do have our own regional variations. Teenagers can often be found heading to the Sensabaugh Tunnel in Kingsport, Tennessee. Many people do not venture into graveyards this night unless it is to drink without being caught. Our day of honoring the dead occurs in May, called Decoration Day, so not much ancestral importance is tied to this day culturally. However, October is the time when old recipes are drug out to be made, those handed down generation after generation. This goes on until Christmas and then arises again for Easter.

Winter time in Appalachia was harsh to say the least and when work was done, it was boring. Storytelling was a great way to pass the time and many elaborate variations of famous tales came out of that: take for example the many stories of Jack or Jonny Appleseed. Miscellaneous ghost stories and tales of murders were also given around this time of year.

Growing up, I was once told that the rocks of Devil’s Looking Glass in Erwin grows eyes at midnight on Halloween, proposed to be the spirits that were entertained by Ol’ Miz Wilson as folks called her. Now that she’s gone, they’re “looking” for another to entertain them in their tombs.

Halloween was also a night of divination and these practices are many in Appalachia, largely still in use today. On Halloween night, carve an apple’s skin off and toss it over your left shoulder. It will create the first initial of your true love’s name. Another was to look into a mirror at the strike of midnight by candle light to see your future spouse. Another for the same was to mix 3 table spoons of corn meal with 3 tablespoons of water and fry it on the head of a shovel. Eat the fried mixture without drink, walk backwards to bed, and you’ll dream of your future love.

So, if your drinking in the graveyard or going to bed backwards this Halloween, be safe. Be mindful. Most importantly, be respectful. The dead deserve at least that.

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Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher and blood charmer; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witches for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost on Mitchell Mountain in NC. Jake is currently working on his first book, tentatively called Backwoods Witchcraft: the Hoodoos of Appalachia with Red Wheel/Weiser Books, set to be on the shelves Spring 2019. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below: Littlechicagoconjure@yahoo.com

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