Seven Creepy Holidays Around the World
I spent Halloween in Europe, again this year. It’s a difficult line to walk, managing my obsessive fixation of having the cleverest/most artistic/most original costume, and wearing it on a continent where frankly, few people care about the holiday. What’s more, the holiday is different here. In France it became popularized in the mid 90s, so it’s newer, maybe even more ‘pure’. This means that almost nobody dresses up, but when they do, it’s supposed to be scary as shit, not stupid.
In the States, Halloween has become anything but scary (unless you have a phobia of costumes, in which case, maybe leave San Francisco and move to Idaho or something). In my personal experience Halloween is the night where adults drink to forget that they are now too old to get free candy. In short, All Hallows Eve while fun, can get out of control, but it’s the consequences that are horrifying. Of course – you can freak yourself out by going to haunted houses, getting lost in corn mazes, or maybe doing something characteristically creepy to celebrate – but that’s on you. Beyond what’s shown in movies and what you experienced as a child, the tradition of honouring and frightening away the dead has mostly been lost. I would be willing to bet that nobody over the age of 10 thinks the holiday itself is frightening (except maybe bartenders. Poor souls).
To remind you that there are creepy and macabre holidays around the world that remain uncorrupted by drunken frat boys, or at least, that Halloween isn’t your only chance to be your genuine weirdo, witchy self, I give you the creepiest holidays around the world:
EDIT: Full disclosure, I am scared shitless of zombies, but I am excluding the zombie walk/crawl because I am told most people find it fun. We can talk about fun and how cool Brad Pitt looks running away from the undead when the apocalypse comes and I have commandeered the best WalMart on top of a mountain, suckers!!!
EDIT #2: Dear WalMart, I am not planning on commandeering any of your locations other than in an absolute end-of-the-world-scenario, and even then, your name is only being featured in this article because you are a stereotype. I would rather live a shorter life but live off what is left over in Saigon Sandwich.
1 – Easter in Spain
Right, ok, so Easter is generally not scary, and Spain is a pretty relaxing country (barring the running of the bulls. That shit is stressful). However, I submit that Easter week in Spain is actually a sight to behold, primarily because of the capirote.
The capirote, not to be confused with the freakishly identical robes worn by the Klan, is donned in re-enactments of medieval Holy Week. It is the uniform of some Christian brotherhoods, such as the Nazarenos, and while seeing a hoard of people walking down the street dressed like this while you drunkenly skip from bar to bar is horrifying, the history behind it is creepier still.
Spain was wrought by the Inquisition from 1478 to 1834 (approx.), and the religious devotion, severe punishment and expiation that characterised those dark times lives on in this holiday (which is otherwise a big party, by the way). Semana Santa, or Holy Week, was a time to punish oneself in order to be forgiven for one’s sins. In the past, this was manifested by people whipping themselves raw while parading down the streets of the city. The capirote is a costume that is actually fashioned after the dunce cap (i.e. a pointy cap, worn in Medieval times as a sign of humiliation. Have fun at your next birthday party, by the way, you old fart), combined with a mask to hide your face in shame.
Nowadays, the capirote is worn as a symbolic, religious act, and has come to be a solid part of Spain’s Catholic history; few people actually still self-flagellate. What’s more, there is absolutely no link between the capirote and the Ku Klux Klan robes.
2 – Fasnet/Fasching/Fastnacht
The (sort of) equivalents of Carnival in Germany/Austria/Central Europe
As usual, leave it to Germany to have taken something as fun as Carnival (the old world version of what we in the US only knows as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday) and to have made it terrifying. The spirit of fun is still there, except that the masks are unsettling, in a way that only wooden-forest-spirit-masks-that-will-come-and-eat-your-babies-unless-the wolves-have-already-devoured-them can be. Also called Fasnacht, Fasnet, or Fasent (depending on where you are in Germany), it technically begins on the 11th of November at 11:11 am, but the festivities can begin in early January, in preparation for Lent (in fact, they celebrations on Ash Wednesday). And what Carnival party would be complete without the ritualistic burning of a creepy straw dummy, to symbolize the (again) cleansing of your very un-catholic sins? Certainly not a Germany one! The idea finds its roots, similarly to Halloween, in masks being were worn to scare away evil spirits.
Consider your evil spirits, children, and everyone else ever including the person wearing the mask (because when they got home they probably tried to pry it off, failed, and morphed into a nightmare-inducing wildebeest) frightened off.
Meanwhile, there are also various pagan festivities to celebrate the end of winter and return of spring. A joyous event in many places, in the Alpine region of Germany, in Austria, and in Central Europe, it’s…well….see for yourself:
Which leads us to….
3 – Perchtenlaufen
Happy Perchtenlaufen, everyone! This pre-Christian holiday is celebrated in Central Europe, most notably Germany and Austria, at the end of December/beginning of January. While the spirits are not meant to be malignant, these devil-like creatures running down the streets with bells to frighten off evil winter spirits (and children cause, hell, why not) are sight to see. Literally, the word relates to the Perchten, the plurality of spirits, both good and evil, or linguistically, the “beautiful” and the “ugly.” Recently, though the Krampus (the evil antithesis to Santa Claus) and Perchten parade down the street in the same festival, so who knows.
Basically, due to the apparent terror-inducing appearance of German winter spirits and just to avoid happening to come across one of these deranged (but normal, if you live there) parades of ghouls…go there in the summer.
4 – Hungry Ghost Festival
Aesthetically, the Chinese Hungry Ghost festival is certainly not as pee-your-bed-fear inducing as the others listed. It’s celebrated in various Asian countries, and it’s based on a very deep Taoist and Buddhist respect for the dead, and it made it on this list because of the fact that people who celebrate still base their actions on this day around the fact that there are actually spirits of the deceased released onto earth. Traditionally, it takes place on the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, meaning it falls somewhere between late August and early September. It’s not the only Chinese festival that honours the dead, but this one is unique because it is the only day in which the dead are believed to visit the living. Some of the ghosts are believed to be pretty pissed, which also gives the celebration an admonitory aspect: if you did not pay sufficient tribute to your ancestors, tonight is the night you will have to face up to them. Generally, not paying sufficient homage to deceased ancestors takes the form of essentially starving them, so the slighted ghosts will have long, thin necks, and are unable to swallow.
Of course, as the name suggests, elaborate food offerings are prepared for the spirits; especially for one’s own family, but also including other wandering ghosts that may have been forgotten or that maybe nobody likes (think overtly racist great Aunt Pearl who never liked what you cooked for her, anyway). What strikes an uninitiated Westerner like me is that it’s so ubiquitous to believe in presence of these visiting, wandering, and irascible spirits that there is even a Facebook page dedicated to things you should not do during the festival. The list includes warnings not to “Whistle alone at night” because “you may find someone singing along with you (sic)” and “lay at the playground in the middle of the night; especially the swings”.
5 – Famadihana
The Magalasy turning of the bones
Celebrated in Madagascar, Famadihana is a funerary tradition, rather than a festival. I hesitated in adding this one, because in and of itself it is not scary or sad. It’s a joyous occasion in which family members and the community exhume the remains of the deceased and dance with them (they’re wrapped in a shroud, don’t worry). It’s actually quite beautiful, and it is an occasion to thank the dead (for they believe that they give life to future generations) and to strengthen community ties. It is to be noted, however, that through the lens of out (relatively squeamish) Occidental culture, dancing with the skeletal remains of the dead remains fairly macabre.
6 – Clown Festivals all over the world
This one pains me a bit, because I have several good friends who are clowns. Remember that generally and to the non-neurotic, non-western children of the world, clowns still bring joy. And for that, I applaud you (or honk your cute little nose horn, or whatever one does to appreciate clowns). While I don’t generally sit in rapt attention of a clown falling on his/her face (anymore – that shit hasn’t been my jam since I was in jammies), I’m not afraid of them. It would be naïve, however, to not acknowledge the fact that a high percentage of people suffer from Coulrophobia, i.e. phobia of clowns (also, can we please talk about how the ‘official’ website for clown phobia features a colourful bunch of clownish balloons?). Anyways, without freaking you out too much, I bring you a comprehensive list of clown festivals around the world.
7 – The Republican National Convention
Some of you may be wondering why I haven’t included Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, in this list. Day of the Dead, while honouring the dead (uh doy) is not meant to be frightening – it is meant to be peaceful, more than scary. In the same vein, here are some other worldwide festivals dedicated to honouring the dead around the world which are less creepy, such as:
- Dia de los muertos (Mexico)
- Obon (Japan)
- All Saints Day (the Philippines)
- Chuseok (Korea)
- Pchum Ben (Cambodia)
- Gai Jatra (Nepal)
- Fet/e Ghede/Guédé – Haiti.
It’s also to be noted that the festivals deemed as ‘creepy’ in this article are normal, of course, if you grew up celebrating them. What’s more, it’s a time of year to do what seems to a be a worldwide, human instinct: to connect with the otherworldly, the macabre, the spiritual, and the dead. It’s an acknowledgement that we will all die (soz guys), and a nod to the malignant spiritual forces that, whether you believe in them or not, are much nicer to acknowledge than the malignant human ones. To wax poetic, it’s the everlasting clash between chaos and order. You’ll be reading this post-Halloween madness, but I hope you took full advantage of our anglo version of the day of the spirits. I hope you went out and made some mischief that didn’t only involve throwing up in your neighbour’s yard or inappropriately dressing up like a fetishised version of your favorite oppressed culture. After all, we should all focus on what matters: chaos is freaking fun, and, of course, that candy corn sucks.