30/10/2012 12:03 GMT | Updated 30/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Halloween - What's It All About? And What's With the Sexy Nurse Costumes?

Consider this for a moment - there's a fair chance that you, or someone in your family, spent the weekend dressing up like a rotting corpse, and standing in a room with various other ghouls and demonic creatures, munching on eyeball cupcakes and drinking witches' piss punch. Odd, isn't it?

That's the curious thing about history; even when it loses all its meaning, some traditions just cling on regardless, making us look a bit weird in the process.

Anthropologists sometimes call this teleological superfluity, when the original purpose of something is lost but it continues being used anyway, like wooden handles on steak knives. Modern product designers with exciting hairstyles, and tedious nerds with Scrabble dictionaries, instead refer to this as skeuomorphism - your digital camera making a reassuring shutter 'click' despite there being no mechanical mirror snapping; it's just a nice aesthetic vestige from an outdated technology. If you don't know what I mean, ask yourself this... last time you were on holiday, did you mime your signature to the waiter when you wanted the bill? If so, that's a skeuomorph. We're chippers and pinners, these days. Still don't believe me? Have a look at the Microsoft Word icon for 'Save As'... when was the last time you used a 3.5" floppy disk?

Halloween is a cultural skeuomorph (not to be confused with the xenomorph monsters from the Alien movies). Its complex history, probably originating from an ancient Celtic harvest festival known as Saimhain, has seen it go through various transitions over the centuries, beginning life as a celebration of the end of autumn, before taking on canonical connotations under the medieval Catholic church. Now, however, it is a wilfully camp celebration of macabre Gothicism and tacky horror that perpetuates much of the medium, but none of the message. And has it dwindled in popularity? Not a bit.

Many centuries ago, people's lives were dictated by the seasons in a much more profound way. The original festival, Samhain, fell just before the beginning of winter on 1 November, which probably also marked the boundary of the New Year. Samhain saw ritualised harvesting of the fields, the gathering of apples from the trees, and the sheltering of livestock against the incoming cruel frosts. These days in Britain, food is shipped to us from all over the world and dying of starvation is an almost impressive logistical achievement. Yet the Celts did not enjoy the merits of a 24-hour Tesco. Theirs was a world where food supply was a matter of life or death; a failed crop could be lethally catastrophic, so it is understandable that such significance was attributed to this last agricultural hurrah of the year.

However, the arrival of the Romans in 43AD, who were fond of their funerary festival of Feralia, may have influenced Samhain's other preoccupation - as far as we can tell, these Celtic peoples believed that for this brief window of no more than 48 hours, the dead could walk the Earth. Anxious about the consequences, they would wear animal masks to disguise themselves against vengeful spirits, presumably hoping that dead, angry Nigel wasn't all that smart. To stop their homes becoming haunted, hearths were extinguished, and large communal bonfires were built instead to ward off the unwelcome ancestors. While people nervously waited to see if rotting grandma lurched out of the ground, they distracted themselves by nibbling on nuts and apples, possibly in commemoration of the Roman goddess of orchards, Pomona, but more likely because there was nothing else to eat at this time of year.

In the very beginnings of the 7th Century, the Catholic Church decided to have a concerted crack at converting all these pagan types, many of whom were now of Germanic descent following the Anglo-Saxon invasions. Surprisingly, instead of tearing around the countryside, burning stuff down and outlawing things, Pope Gregory the Great instructed his missionaries to incorporate pagan shrines into Christian teaching, so sacred trees remained unfelled, and important days in the calendar went unchallenged. Consequently, Samhain survived, although it was rebranded as All Saints Day by a succession of medieval pontiffs, beginning with Gregory III in the 730s AD.

However, a change of name had little impact on the pagan pursuits, and, unable to vanquish the superstition, the Church was forced to accept the continuing belief in the zombie revenants roaming around every autumn, though it did manage to imply that those who came back were evil ne'er-do-wells from Purgatory and Hell who took the form of spirits, witches, ghouls and demons. It was no longer just the dead who came back - it was THE EVIL DEAD! Understandably, the burning of monstrous effigies became common at this time, presumably as ordinary people started to brick themselves in abject terror, and looked for more powerful ways to ward off the vengeful sinners.

So, for more than a thousand years, the Church and ordinary people continued a mutually muddled celebration of All Hallows Eve, with the popular and official celebrations looking decidedly dissimilar. That said, they did usually intersect at the front porch. In order to pray for those in purgatory - so they might ascend to Heaven and not flaunt their decaying flesh near the living - it became customary to see door-to-door collections of alms for the monks who performed this service, or for poor peasants to demand so-called 'soul cakes' in return for praying for their feudal lord's ancestors. Meanwhile, the more pagan-inflected festivities would also require donations of wood and food, and so villagers could expect a knock at their door from children wearing grotesque masks, and carrying a horse's skull, who were collecting for the bonfire.

However, by Shakespeare's time, Guy Fawkes and his Catholic buddies seem to have ruined the popularity of the recently-named 'Hallowe'en' festival in England. After having successfully not exploded - arguably one of his finest moments in governance - King James I made it legally obligated that his escape from the Gunpowder Plot be celebrated on 5 November, and so these bonfires began to take precedence over the ancient ones. Indeed, the post-Reformation suspicion of all things Pope-related (ie, Catholics, foreigners... and Catholic foreigners) saw the ancient festival's popularity dwindle considerably, surviving mostly in Ireland, America and Scotland (where Queen Victoria witnessed a traditional burning of a witch effigy while staying at Balmoral).

Intriguingly, by the late 18th Century, an unrelated festivity named Mischief Night was being celebrated on 4 November, and crucially this involved children deliberately misbehaving unless rewarded with small bribes. Some historians suspect this might be the possible origins of modern trick or treating, combining the costumed revelry of All Hallows Eve with the cheeky blackmail we now know and love so well. Sorry, did I say know and love? My mistake, I mean know and barely tolerate through gritted teeth...

Of course, you may live in an area where traditional All Hallows Eve bonfires, parades and apple-bobbing still happen. These are great fun, but reveal only a sort of mimetic appreciation for heritage - the potent, original meaning of Halloween has long since evaporated. Indeed, by the late 20th Century it had become an enormously lucrative commercial opportunity, taking its cultural cues less from ancient superstition and more from Hollywood projections of popular horror - namely, zombies, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, witches, mummies... and sexy nurses, for reasons that seem mostly to do with male fantasies, and not much to do with the undead.

Undoubtedly these are things that still scare us in profoundly instinctual ways (sexy nurses, in particular), but our rational society tends to dismiss talk of ghosts and ghouls as paranormal fluff. One could perhaps try to argue that such macabre celebration actually reveals our deep-rooted fear of death, but, while that may be true on a subconscious level, to those whom I quizzed at a recent Halloween party, it is just a joyfully anarchic knees up with a Tim Burton aesthetic, bearing almost no relation to Catholic saints or the climax of the agricultural year. Indeed, where once the 31st October was held in sombre reverence, now a Halloween party tends to be held on the nearest Saturday night, to allow time for inevitable hangovers to dissipate; it's a dishonour we wouldn't dare pin upon Christmas or New Year's Eve.

So, despite the fact that our desiccated ancestors are woefully rubbish at haunting us on 31 October, and that almost no-one expects the food to run out during winter, we all seem very eager to carry on with the meaningless charade. Much like the faux-leather grain on my plastic-coated sofa, Halloween really doesn't need to be there anymore... but we're glad to have it, all the same.