He did this from 1946 until his death in 2004; that's one impression radio run! As this is the Countdown to Halloween, I thought it would be fun to listen to Alistair Cooke's talk about Halloween itself as originally broadcast in 1996. You can hear it all the month of October by going over to that box on the right and clicking on the audio track - then you can click the "play" button and listen away! And here below is a transcript:
"Well then. What do these three things suggest in common? A knock on the door. A flash of lightning. And pumpkin pie? Put it a more teasing way. Every Sunday morning there's a ritual in our house, as in millions of others, which is to open the 350 page package of the Sunday paper, search through it, find the weekly television supplement, and then, starting at A, going through 10 pages to Zee, to get a general idea of the films available to us during the coming week on the 75 channels that we can presently choose from. This week there were from Abba, a Swedish film, to Zorba the Greek, 449 movies. That's normal.
The children knocking on the door, the flash of lightning, the more inviting thought of pumpkin pie are all symbols of Halloween. Not until I first came to this country did I realise what an all-embracing, all-terrifying festival it could be. I don't remember its being a big deal in England. But the other day I called a Scottish friend, because Scotland, where its rituals and superstitions held on longest and perhaps still do, and he told me that as for England, when he lived in London a few years ago, next door to an American family, and when, on the evening of October 31st, he heard a knock on the door, opened it, saw two little children saying, "Trick or treat?" he hadn't the slightest idea what they were about.
I take it then that the whole of Britain on the last day of October does not give itself over to dressing up in grotesque or comical masks. A knock at one door this week revealed a momentarily frightening image. A miniature, ashen-faced Bob Dole. It was not, of course. It was a little rascal from apartment 10b.
We usually on Halloween night, or All Hallows' Eve, leave outside the front door a little bowl of candy, knowing by now, that if you go and say brutally that you have no treat, no tot is going to perform a trick. They seemed to have learned down the years that they're going to get the candy anyway. I wonder when the decline set in, with the very elaborate celebrations on the last night of October.
It was not only the eve of All Saints' Day, throughout Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times it marked also the end of the summer and the eve of the New Year. It was the big time of the year for returning herds from pasture and the day on which laws, especially of land tenure, property rights and so on, were renewed. And because November had become to be thought of, in what are facetiously called, "temperate countries" as a bleak season, no sun, no birds, no warmth. November, the last night of October, took on all sorts of sinister meanings. It was a time when witches, hobgoblins, ghosts and demons roamed abroad.
I think we shouldn't assume that the attendant rituals and superstitions, exorcising demons and so on, were the custom only among low, ignorant types. Throughout the 17th century, educated people held a strong belief in witches, throughout the early 19th century, in ghosts. In fact, only 60 years ago, the BBC set up an experiment in a country house to prove or disprove the existence of a ghost which one of its own staff swore to. For centuries in the so-called civilised world, disease was attributed to your having offended the gods in one way or another and it occurs to me that the witches' weird brew in Macbeth, boiled toad, eye of newt, toe of frog, and so on, was not at all weird in Elizabethan times. It was very much like the prescriptions any learned pharmacist would write out for you.
Well sorry. Hadn't meant to go into our long-lasting stupidity about demons, ghosts and vampires. How about vampires? They weren't, I discover, the invention of sensible Scots who otherwise prescribed root of hemlock and gall of goat, not to mention haggis, for a bad case of the flu. The vampire legend seems to have grown up in Eastern Europe as a belief in the restless souls of dead men, who leave their graves at night, suck the blood of the living and beat it back to the coffin or the dust at daybreak.
The later twist, given to it in Mexico, was to transfer the legend to the blood-eating bat. Which does exist. Desmodus rotundus, it's called, which, however, is nothing like as large and fearsome as Bela Lugosi with his gown on. It is, in fact, only three inches long, has reddish-brown fur and sharp incisor teeth which pierce the skin of a sleeper and lap up his blood with the tongue, without waking the man up. Not to worry though, they're rare. The bite is not fatal. What you have to fear from many more species of bats, on Long Island for instance, is the fact that they carry rabies.
In Western Europe and the United States, the vampire legend didn't really take hold until the very end of the century, when Bram Stoker, Sir Henry Irving's business manager, wrote, Dracula. And, throughout this Halloween horror week, Dracula has reigned almost supreme. Rather his supremacy is shared with the other great horror original created 80 years before Bram Stoker by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Who most famously played Frankenstein in the movies? Boris Karloff. Wrong! Colin Clive. Karloff was the Frankenstein monster. These two have ridden the airwaves along with, as I said, dozens of variations, not to mention documentary profiles and biographies of Edgar Allan Poe, Conan Doyle, Stoker, Vincent Price, Wilkie Collins...Help!
I don't honestly know how many of the religious, legal and medical rituals and superstitions ever got to this country. But from the late 19th century on, it was Irish immigrants who gave a great fillip to the celebrations and shenanigans of Halloween as a secular festival. Not least, as yet another permissible occasion, for hitting the bottle. Mark Twain noticed the Irish gift for inventing whisky festivals and expressed his admiration for their ability to take it, in a memorable passage: "Give an Irishman lager for a month and he's a dead man. An Irishman is lined with copper and the beer corrodes it. But whisky polishes the copper and is the saving of him".
Several cities in several states used to have huge, all-day parades of clowns, cowboys, demons, Indians, and allow small fry to paint their fancies on the windows of public buildings. These festivals have gone, I believe, with the wind, and the telly. But what remains everywhere is the dedication of the evening to small children, to their dressing up in grotesque costumes, to going from house to house, or apartment to apartment, to claim a trick or treat and to go home to a supper which ought to end with pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin is a more recent form of pumpion. Known and grown and cooked since the earliest colonial days, pumpkin farmers do a roaring business in the weeks before Halloween. The fields adjoining our village were packed lately with roaming families picking their own pumpkins and staggering off to the car with them. Apart from the pie, their special function on Halloween night is a hollowed out pumpkin set up outside houses, in windows, halls, shops, with eyes carved out, a leering mouth, a candle stuck inside, the whole representing a Jack-o'-lantern, the figure, that is, of a night watchman."