Celebrating Halloween is a recent phenomenon in Australia, but our interest in communicating with the dead dates back a very long time.

Pop quiz — is Halloween:

  • An ancient Celtic tradition
  • Another commercialised American thing
  • Part of a worldwide family of celebrations of the dead
  • All of the above?

The answer, of course, is ‘All of the above.’

Although many Aussies eye Halloween suspiciously as another overhyped American import, the custom of remembering the dead is found across numerous countries and religions. 

Honouring the dead

In many societies, the dead are not really dead.

Different cultures believe that the departed can return in a fantastic range of forms, including as ghosts, zombies and vampires. Halloween is just one example of the living celebrating the dead’s continued existence, with children dressing in spooky costumes and roving in search of candy.

In France, children and adults alike head to amusement parks, which are transformed seasonally into playgrounds of terror. On the Day of the Dead, children in Mexico eat cheerfully-decorated sugar skulls, while the rest of the family don brightly coloured skull makeup.

Skull iconography is a big part of celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture. Photo: Moab Republic/Shutterstock.com

Some traditions treat the deceased like regular people. In Chinese folk tradition, you can burn ‘spirit money’ and paper models of cars and clothing to ensure your ancestors have what they need in the afterlife. 

In parts of Polynesia, such as the islands of Tahiti and Mo’orea, the graves of deceased relatives are sometimes located in family gardens instead of communal cemeteries. That way, people can remain physically and emotionally close to the departed all year. 

Gabbing with ghosts

Communicating with the dead became mainstream in the western world in 1848, with the founding of modern Spiritualism. The religious movement, which began in the United States, believed that inhabitants of the spirit world were contactable and could provide guidance and wisdom.

Professional mediums would perform publicly and hold private séances in patrons’ homes. To speak with the unseen, they would gather around a table to ask questions. Answers often came through coded knocks — usually one knock for ‘yes’ and two for ‘no’. At other times, the table would tip and dance about, while those in the room denied interfering. 

Eventually, Ouija boards were developed and spirit writing – a practice that involves allowing a spirit to manipulate your hand into penning their message – flourished. Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Queen Victoria were both notable believers in Spiritualism. 

Spiritualism down under

Within a few short years, the movement made its way to Australia. As early as 1853, a report of local table-tipping was published in a Geelong newspaper.

Over the next few decades, more Australians became interested in speaking with the dead. By 1877, the movement had become so popular that even future prime minister, Sir Alfred Deakin, was a spirit writing practitioner. He took up the task so enthusiastically that he claimed to have channelled a book by the long-dead Puritan writer John Bunyan. This unexpected sequel to Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was titled, fittingly, A New Pilgrim’s Progress. 

Australian prime minister Sir Alfred Deakin was an avid believer in Spiritualism. Photo: National Library of Australia/Wikimedia Commons

Deakin served as President of the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists (VAPS) for several years. Founded in 1870 by the spirit healer and publisher William Terry and others in Melbourne, the group was integral to the early development of Spiritualism in Australia.

In 1930, members of the VAPS and the Melbourne Progressive Spiritualistic Lyceum merged to form the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union (VSU), which is now the longest continually existing spiritualist congregation in the world. 

Today, spiritualist mediums hold both private readings and bigger public demonstrations to convey messages from the afterlife. The days of ghostly knocks or tipping tables seem to be behind us. 

While trick-or-treating, costume parties and festooning your front yard with sinister pumpkins on Halloween are all relatively new imports to Australia, our interest in Spiritualism and communicating with the dead are part of a much longer tradition. 

Top image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

You may also like

Article Card Image

What’s luck got to do with it?

A belief in the mysterious power of luck can be found in cultures around the world.

Article Card Image

Saints and beheadings: the bloody origins of Valentine’s Day

Forget romance and flowers, the story of Saint Valentine is one of religious persecution and sacrifice.

Article Card Image

The books that shaped Shakespeare

Four centuries after his first collected works were published, the plays of William Shakespeare are still inspiring new creative works – but the story of what inspired him is just as intriguing.

Subscribe to ANU Reporter