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Skulls and Spectres: get accustomed to Halloween!

Take a look at some of our creepier items in the Birthplace shop

Ellie Stevenson

‘There was a sense that this was the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest and magical things could happen.’

— Steve Roud

We don’t focus on Halloween in our SBT shops; or so we thought. Looking more closely and exploring the stories, it’s surprising to see how much is there. But what exactly is Halloween?

Halloween, once All Hallows Eve, or the day before All Hallows Day is a day of many traditional customs. Many of the things we associate with the day originate in traditional folklore.

The jack-o-lantern, for example, has been said to represent souls of the dead.

The story goes that Jack, out drinking, encounters the Devil and tricks him into climbing a tree. By etching a cross in the bark of the tree Jack ensures the Devil is trapped and can’t claim his soul. So far so good. But when Jack dies, because of his years of fast living, Jack’s refused access to the Kingdom of Heaven and the Devil refuses him access to Hell. He throws a hot coal from Hell at Jack and Jack puts the coal in a hollowed-out turnip, to help keep him warm as he wanders the earth, desperately seeking somewhere to rest.

Skulls are another classic example. The skull reminds us that life is transient, and of course, is featured in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Our very own shops hold a number of skulls, from the distinctively shaped and scary skull mug – to drink your witches brew with style - to the Silver Skull Keyring, and the Hamlet Skull Pencil.

Halloween shop products

A good introduction to Hamlet for children is the Orchard Classics series’ Hamlet, an action-packed retelling of Shakespeare's tale of revenge and murder.

Games are traditional around Halloween and some games are forms of divination. Unmarried women used to be told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed at a mirror at Halloween, the face of their future husband would appear, but if they were destined to die before marriage, instead of a face they’d see a skull.

Fear of the dead was particularly strong around this time, with people appeasing potential ‘visitors’ with food and drink. Candles might be lit and prayers offered and bonfires would be built as fire was seen to have protective properties, mimicking the sun and holding back the dark of winter. People might also don masks or costumes to disguise themselves from wandering spirits, or maybe to try being a spirit themselves. You too can hide from the ghosts, with one of our colourful, sparkly masks in the Shakespeare Birthplace shop on Henley Street.

If you’re a parent, there are plenty of action-packed fun activities from 25 October to 2 November, to help your children get into that lively Halloween mood. Pick up your very own Rat Hand Puppet, perfect for scaring friends and family (although he’s quite cuddly really!).

Halloween books

There are lots of books for the kids to enjoy including the Horrible Histories series – history with all the nasty (and fun!) bits. Included in the series are Terrifying Tudors: splats, hats and lots of rats (to go with your hand puppet!) and Witches, a pocket-sized book of cures, curses and stories.

From 1605, the growing popularity of Guy Fawkes Night meant many Halloween traditions were appropriated and Halloween’s popularity waned. But not for long...

To browse all of these gifts and more, pop into the Shakespeare gift shop on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon or visit our online shop.