History Stories

Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity, life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition, but what is The Real Story of Halloween? Its origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts as the dark months of winter began. By the first century, the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory and two Roman festivals were combined with Samhain. The first was Feralia, which commemorated the passing of the dead, and the second honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees whose symbol was the apple—which is believed to have inspired the tradition of “bobbing” for apples. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween.

The infamous Salem Witch Trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. The widespread belief in the supernatural in colonial New England, combined with the harsh realities of Puritan life and the growing fear of outsiders created the perfect breeding ground for hysteria. A special court convened to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months. By September 1692, the frenzy had begun to abate and public opinion turned against the trials. Though the guilty verdicts were annulled, bitterness lingered in the community, and the painful legacy would endure for centuries.

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British actor Boris Karloff (1887 - 1969) as The Monster in a promotional portrait for 'Frankenstein', directed by James Whale, 1931. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

British actor Boris Karloff (1887 – 1969) as The Monster in a promotional portrait for ‘Frankenstein’, directed by James Whale, 1931. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Published by 21-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein—or The Modern Prometheus—is frequently called the world’s first science fiction novel. On a rainy afternoon in 1816 in Geneva, Lord Byron challenged his two guests (Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Shelley) to write a gothic ghost story, but only Shelley completed the task and her story would become later Frankenstein. The book explores philosophical themes and challenges Romantic ideals about the beauty and goodness of nature, but is it true? In Search of the Real Frankenstein take a look back at the mad scientists of Mary Shelley’s time. First there was Luigi Galvani, who was studying the effects of electricity on animals by using electrodes to poke frogs and make their legs twitch. His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, used this same technique to galvanize human limbs and make corpses sit upright. There was also the alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel who lived, and conducted his experiments, at Castle Frankenstein and was accused of being a grave robber. Was his grave robbing and experiments the real inspiration behind Frankenstein?

Dare to look at these true tales of witches, werewolves and history’s eeriest locations. In addition to The Real Story of Halloween, Salem Witch Trials and In Search of the Real Frankenstein, here is a peek at some more episodes from this week’s featured collection:

  • As Chicago held the 1893 World’s Fair, H.H. Holmes’ planned his serial murders. Discover the shocking truth behind the three-story, block-long Murder Castle designed with trap doors, gas chambers and vats of acid.
  • In a country torn by bloody civil war, discover how a Romanian prince seized power and became known across Europe for both breathtaking courage and terrifying cruelty in The Real Dracula.
  • Hundreds of witnesses have encountered the paranormal in Gettysburg, PA, making it one of America’s most haunted towns. In Ghosts of Gettysburg find out what these spirits want us to know about the bloodiest battle ever fought on North American soil.

Watch Haunted History on your HISTORY Vault app available on Roku players, iOS devices and Apple TV (4th Generation). For related collections, check out Myths and Legends, Temples, Tombs and Mummies and Secrets of the Dark Ages.

Access hundreds of hours of historical video, commercial free, with HISTORY Vault. Start your free trial today.

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