The Asheville region and the ancient mountains that loom over us are a natural for Halloween. Haints and boogermen roam the back hollows of our mist-shrouded forests. We boast the only Transylvania County on this side of the globe. And no one can spin a spookier tale than our native storytellers, whose ancestral Cherokee and Scotch/Irish muses hail from two cultures that share a bone-deep respect for things otherworldly.
I should know. For the last four Halloweens I’ve helped preside at one of the most notorious Halloween phenomena in the South — Asheville’s Public Witch Ritual. Regrettably, this year, circumstances beyond our control have forced us to cancel our annual effort to share with the public the deeper meanings of the day witches know as Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en”).
Fortunately, our region is rich in other celebrations of this season of lengthening shadows and dying leaves that linger on skeleton-fingered trees. To find out where the year’s most memorable parties will take place, turn to our Smart Bets and Club Land sections for a gander at what’s happening in local bars and dance halls. But if you’d like to learn a little more about the odd lore surrounding this weirdest and wildest of holidays, then I invite you to join me for an off-the-beaten-path tour of selected events — encompassing a rich cross-section of beliefs, from Christian to secular to pagan — from this year’s Halloween community calendar.
Organ music in Hendersonville
Our tour begins to the accompaniment of the crypt-rattling organ chords of the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” (better known as the theme from Phantom of the Opera). J.S. Bach’s dark meditation on the chord of the tritone — that suspenseful, ambiguous musical interval, which ancient church musicians shunned as the “devil in music” — set the tone for all later composers of horror-theme music. Martin Jean, an eminent concert organist from Yale, will open his Sunday, Oct. 31 performance at St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville by playing this work on the church’s new Harrison and Harrison organ, beginning at 3:30 p.m. In honor of Reformation Day (also Oct. 31 — the day when many Protestant churches commemorate Martin Luther’s nailing a declaration of independence from the then-dominant religion to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral in 1517), Jean’s concert will continue with three composers’ settings of Luther’s hymn “Ein Feste Burg” (“A Mighty Fortress”), as well as works by Franck, Widor, Vierne and American composer William Bolcom.
Tickets are $15/advance, $18/at the door. Call (828) 693-7458 for directions and more info.
The veil between this world and the world beyond is said to be at its thinnest on Halloween, and many a restless spirit might wake to wander among the living. Whether we’re seeking the wisdom of a dead ancestor or trying to avoid the wrath of ghosts and ghouls, it’s safest to disguise ourselves as one of them when we mingle with the spirit world.
That’s one explanation for why tradition insists we don a mask before setting out on our Halloween journey. To find out more, listen in on local artist Ellen Hobbs’ lecture, “The Magic of Masks,” on Thursday, Oct. 28, at 7 p.m. in the Kaplan Auditorium of the Henderson County Public Library (301 N. Washington St.). Her collection of more than 500 masks includes both her own creations and tusked, feathered and crocodile-eyed ceremonial masks from cultures around the world, which were used in initiations, festivals and as supplication for fertility and rain, as well as for protection from sorcerers and soul-stealers. Call (828) 697-4725 for more info.
And to learn how you can make a child’s animal or bird mask, drop by the WNC Nature Center (75 Gashes Creek Road.) on Saturday, Oct. 30, at 2:30 p.m. Call 250-4260 for more info.
Have you ever wondered why we carve wicked faces into pumpkins and call them jack-o’-lanterns? How bobbing for apples, fortune-telling nuts and cabbages became associated with Halloween? Why witches (to our endless annoyance, I might add) are usually depicted as ugly old women riding a broomstick ?
These Halloween customs and many others will make much more sense to you after attending “Halloween Superstitions: Folklore Facts, Fantasies, and Fun.” Folklore expert Dr. Donald Dossey, author of Holiday Folklore, Phobias and Fun, combines his wide scholarly knowledge with enthralling storytelling skills on Sunday, Oct. 31, at 3 p.m. at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville (on W.T. Weaver Boulevard, next to UNCA’s main entrance).
It isn’t easy to impress a witch, but the good doctor succeeded when I spoke with him recently. I know that Halloween is traditionally the best time of year for divination and fortune-telling — for peeping through the veil between this world and the Otherworld, to catch a glimpse of the yet-to-come — but I didn’t know that some people call it Nutcrack Night. Why? “People [in ancient times] would take two or three nuts — one to represent yourself, and the other one or two to represent your admirers,” Dr. Dossey explains. “Put them together on the hot coals of your hearth fire and if they stay together, so will your lover and you. But if they snap apart … the one whose nut jumps away will prove unfaithful.”
I’ll reveal just one more bit of lore from the doctor’s fascinating bag of secrets. Why is it considered bad luck to walk under a ladder? One reason is that the leaning ladder creates a triangle, representing the perfection of Trinity (an ancient symbol of wholeness — not just “Father/Son/Holy Ghost,” but also “beginning/middle/end,” “the three Fates,” “third time’s the charm,” and so on). Walking through it breaks the power of the triangle. “The ladder also represent[s] Jacob’s ladder, which people believed souls [of the dead] used to climb to heaven,” Dossey explains. “You wouldn’t want to make souls angry with you [by disrupting their ascent to paradise].”
Also appearing that day will be nature writer and sometime Mountain Xpress columnist (“While Rome burns”) Peter Loewer. His lecture (at 1:30 and again at 4 p.m.), entitled “Murder in the Garden,” will feature a slide show of his 80-photograph collection depicting various science-fiction creatures inspired by plants (remember Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and The Thing from Another World?), as well as catalog assorted plant poisons used by Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and other mystery writers over the last 100 years.
For more info on both events, call 252-5190.
An American Indian, a witch and a candlelight vigil
The still-smoldering pyres of religious intolerance were unavoidably fanned when the mayor and City Council acknowledged Asheville’s deep-rooted and swiftly growing pagan spiritual community by proclaiming Oct. 24 through Nov. 1 “Earth Religions Awareness Week.” To help counter ignorance with knowledge, Cherokee poet/novelist MariJo Moore and Wiccan priestess/playwright H. Byron Ballard are pooling their talents for a reading and book signing of their latest works on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 5-7 p.m. at the Mysts of Avalon Bookstore (640 Merrimon Ave.).
Moore is the author of Spirit Voices of Bones, Crow Quotes and Tree Quotes. Ballard has just published Back to the Garden, a handbook for families and friends of Pagans who’ve newly come out of the broom closet, and will shortly publish Earth Prayers for Children. Call 253-6842 for more info on this event.
On Friday, Oct. 29 at the same location, Devina will read her poetry and stories in celebration of Samhain/Halloween at 7:30 p.m. Call 281-2616 for more info.
Wear black when you attend the solemn Candlelight Vigil for the Ancestors to be held on Friday, Oct. 29, at City/County Plaza, running 7-8 p.m. This ceremony will memorialize those who have died in the past year, as well as the beloved long dead. Rites of grieving for the dead are a traditional part of Samhain; in many homes, this is the occasion for holding a “dumb supper,” in which a place at the table is set and the seat left empty for the spirits of those who may wish to join the family feast one last time. Call 253-6842 for more info.
Haints in the gardens and a boogerman on the trail
Now that I’ve revealed a glimmering of the other, deeper side of Halloween, it’s time to leave you in the midst of a good, old-fashioned fright-fest. Again, the backdrop will be the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, which will host the Second Annual “Ghosts and Goblins in the Gardens!” on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 29-30, running 6:30-9:30 p.m. Children under 13 will especially enjoy the tours led by costumed guides through trails featuring entertaining and scary (but non-gory) vignettes enacted by talented, well-known artists and actors from the Montford Park Players, Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater and many other groups. You’ll see a hunchback, a wild man, Ann Boleyn losing her head, a fearsome metal dinosaur (the creation of John Payne) and storytellers, plus witches and fortunetellers. No, not real witches this time, but performers portraying such icons as the cauldron-stirring witches from Macbeth. All proceeds will go to fund High Country Art & Craft Guild’s “Arts in the Schools” program. Admission is $4/adults, $3/kids under 12. Call 254-0072 for more info.
Oh, and if your knees haven’t turned to rubber by the time you’ve traversed the much-haunted trails of the Botanical Gardens, you ought to join the Wenoca Sierra Club’s more-or-less annual hike on the Boogerman Trail, held on Saturday, Oct. 30. You’ll visit the Cataloochie home of the Boogerman and sweep his hearth — imagining the warmth of his fires, now replaced by drifts of red leaves. The Boogerman — whose real name, says trail guide Ted Snyder, was Robert Palmer — was a mountain man living in the early part of this century who steadfastly refused to sell his land to the loggers who were deforesting the area at the time. Past the Boogerman’s decaying pasture fence, you’ll see a rare remnant of virgin old-growth forest. Call (864) 638-3686 for the starting time, directions and more details.
Happy Halloween and a Merry Samhain to you all! Now pardon me while I jump-start this rattletrap broom …