The Origins of Halloween and Robert the Doll

The tradition of Halloween originated from an ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (saa-win). The ancient Celts lived 2000 years ago and were located mainly what is now Ireland, northern France, and the United Kingdom. They would celebrate their new year on November 1. This marked the end of the summer and the harvest season and the start of the cold, dark winter, which was a time of year that was associated with death. Celts believed that the night before the new year, the boundary between the world of the living and dead were the closest. That’s why they celebrated Samhain on October 31 when they believed ghosts of the deceased returned to earth.

Celts thought that otherworldly spirits could cause trouble and damage their crops, but they also thought it made it easier for the Druids, the Celtic Priests, to make predictions about the future. Since they were fully dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort during the winter.

To celebrate this, the Druids would build huge sacred bonfires, where people would gather to burn crops and animal sacrifices to the Celtic deities. As the celebrated, the Celts wore costumes, typically made up of animal skins and heads, and they would tell one another’s fortunes. At the end of the celebration, they would relight their hearth fires, which they had put out earlier in the evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them for the rest of the winter.

Our Jack-o-lanterns came from the Samhain tradition of carving turnips that were attached to strings and sticks and filled with coal.

By 43 CE, the Roman Empire had taken control of most of the Celtic territory. In the span of 400 years, where they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with Samhain. The first tradition was Feralia, which was a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was the day they honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol was the apple and was incorporated into the Samhain celebration. This is likely why we bob for apples and enjoy caramel apples around Halloween.

On May 13, 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, and that’s when the Western church established All Martyrs Day. Pope Gregory III later expanded the festival to include all saints and martyrs and moved the day of observance from May 13 to November 1. This was only one of several Pagan holidays that the Christian church tried to transform and make it their own. The same can be seen with Yule or Christmas, and Ostara or Easter.

By the 9th century, Christian influence had spread into Celtic lands, where it would blend and supplant older rituals. In 1000 CE, the church designated November 2 as All Souls’ Day to honor the dead. It is widely believed today that the church was trying to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday.

The celebration for All Souls’ Day was similar to Samhain. They had parades, bonfires, and they dressed in costumes of devils, saints, and angels. All Saints’ Day was often called All-hallows or All-hallowmas. Since Samhain was the day before, it became known as All-Hallows Eve, and would eventually become Halloween.

Halloween had a hard time making its way to the colonies since colonial New England had a rigid Protestant belief system. Halloween was more commonly celebrated in Maryland and in the southern colonies. As the customs and beliefs of different European ethnic groups and the First Nations people of America meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to appear. Some of the first celebrations included “play parties,” which were public events that were held to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors would share stories of the dead, sing, dance, and tell each other’s fortunes. Colonial festivities also included telling ghost stories and mischief-making. By the mid-19th century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated throughout the country.

In the second half of the century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants included the Irish fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, and it helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween on a national scale. Taking from the European traditions, Americans started to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, and practice we now call trick-or-treating. Young women thought that on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, mirrors, or apple parings.

At the end of the 1800s, American’s decided that they wanted to move Halloween away from pranks, ghosts, and witchcraft and turn into a community and neighborly gatherings. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for adults and children became the most common way to celebrate. Parents were encouraged by community leaders and newspapers to take anything “grotesque” or “frightening” out of Halloween celebrations. Because of these efforts, Halloween lost a lot of its superstitious and religious overtones by the start of the 20th century.

During the 1920s and 30s, Halloween had become a secular but community-centered holiday with town-wide parties and parades.  Despite their bests efforts, vandalism began to plague some of the celebrations. By the 50s, town leaders had successfully controlled the vandalism, and Halloween had transformed into a holiday direct towards the young. Due to the high numbers of children during the 50s baby boom, parties moved from town centers to classrooms or the home where they could be easily accommodated.

During this time, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was revived. This was a relatively inexpensive way an entire community could share the Halloween spirit. In theory, families could prevent trick by providing children with treats. Thus, a new American tradition was born, and it has only grown since. Today, Americans spend around $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the second-largest commercial holiday after Christmas.

Trick-or-treating also has ancient origins. First, the Celts would leave food and wine around for roaming spirits. Then, when the Christian church created All Souls Day, during their festivities, poor citizens would beg for food, and families would give the soul cakes in return for their promise to pray for the family’s deceased relatives. Eventually, children would start to visit the houses of their neighbors where they would receive money, food, and ale.

There is also Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, that is celebrated in Mexico between October 31 and November 2. Their rituals date back to pre-Columbian cultures. It was an Aztec tradition. Like the tradition of Samhain, Dia de Los Muertos has been combined indigenous Aztec rituals and Catholicism, which had been brought to the area by Spanish conquistadors. Most of the traditions align a lot with the traditions of the ancient Celts. They would celebrate the lives of the deceased loved ones with parties, drinks, food, and activities that their loved ones enjoyed. It is likely through these celebrations that skulls and skeletons became a big part of Halloween.

One last thing about Samhain and Halloween before we move on. One way that Halloween has been celebrated is through a dumb supper. A dumb supper is a way to honor the spirits of the deceased. There are different explanations of how this is done, but the most common goes like this. You get the table ready for dinner. You would most likely use a black tablecloth, candles, gourds, pumpkins, and other fall décor. Set the table for all of your guests, but add extra space. This is the space for the deceased. The dining area would be a silent area. Guests would enter and leave a note at the spirits space for their deceased loved ones before taking their seats. While you ate your meal, nobody would talk. Traditionally, you would fix a plate for the spirit’s seat as well. Upon finishing, you would pass by the empty chair once more. With this pass through, you could light a candle, say goodbye, say a silent prayer, or whatever felt right. Often times the window or door would be left open to allow the dead to come in and eat.

Robert The Doll

Robert the Doll is no ordinary doll, but I suppose the best way to understand this doll is to learn where it came from. This will take us back to the early 1900s when a young boy, Eugene Robert Otto, was given a one-of-a-kind handmade doll by his grandfather who had purchased it in Germany in 1904. There are also some versions of the story that say that Robert the Doll was given to Eugene by a Bahamian servant of the family. I’m not sure which is the correct origin. Either way,  Robert the Doll was ostensibly a little boy in a sailor suit. At one time, he bored painted features, not unlike those of a jester, but now his face is only vaguely human. His body is now covered in brown nicks, like scars. His eyes are black and beady. On his face, he wears a malevolent smirk. Clasped in his lap, he holds onto his own toy, a dog with garish, popping eyes, and a large tongue lolling out of its mouth. Robert was 40 inches tall, and due to his size, it is likely he was made in the image of Gene. Also, the sailor suit that Robert wore was not supplied by the company who made the doll and was likely one of Gene’s old outfits.

Eugene, who was known by everybody as Gene, named the doll Robert, and the doll soon became his best friend. Eugene’s childhood home, which is now known as the Artist’s House, can be found at 534 Eaton Street and was constructed between 1890 and 1989. This was the house where Eugene was given Robert and where a friendship that lasted his entire life, and beyond, was forged.

While he may seem like an ordinary cloth doll, it wasn’t loved before Robert became the center of some strange and somewhat terrifying events. The relationship Gene had with Robert could be described as unhealthy. He took the doll everywhere. He would talk about Robert in the first person, as if he was a living, breathing entity. The first hint that something was amiss happened one night when Gene, who was ten at the time, awoke to find Robert sitting at the end of his bed, looking at him. Moments later, his mother would be awakened by her sons’ screams for help, and the sounds of furniture being knocked over in Gene’s room. Gene screamed out for help, begging his mother to help him. When she was finally able to open the locked door, she saw Gene curled up in fear on his bed, his room destroyed, and Robert the Doll sitting at the foot of the bed.

The only thing that Gene could say was, “Robert did it.” These are the same words he would say many times throughout his childhood whenever something destructive, mysterious, or strange would occur.

Nobody could understand how or why this child’s plaything could wreak havoc on a child’s bedroom or do anything, really? I mean, after all, it is only a toy, right? But the unexplainable and weird didn’t stop with that one occurrence. On numerous occasions, Gene’s parents would hear him upstairs talking to the doll and getting a response back in a completely different voice. They even said they saw the doll speak and could see his expression change. Giggling and sightings of Robert running up the stairs or looking out the upstairs window were also noticed. Some of Gene’s other toys would get mutilated, and other mysterious things would happen in the home. Again, all Gene could say was, “Robert did it.”

The family hired a plumber at one point to do some work on the house. The plumber claimed to have heard children’s laughter, but no child was in the house. That’s when he looked around the room and notice that Robert had moved from one side of the window to the other. What’s more, he swore that there had been objects in Robert’s lap that were now on the other side of the room, as if he had thrown them.

Robert stayed with Gene throughout his life, and once Gene’s parents passed away, he moved back into his childhood home with his wife, Anne. At this point, Gene had become a well-renowned artist, albeit eccentric. Gene then decided that Robert should get a room of his own and put him in the upstairs room that had a window that looked out over the street.

Anna didn’t feel safe with Robert in the house, and while she couldn’t quite figure out why, she wanted Gene to lock up the doll in the attic where he couldn’t hurt anybody. Gene agreed, and as you could guess, Robert was not very happy about his new home. Soon, visitors would state that they could hear footsteps in the attic, sounding like somebody pacing back and forth, along with devilish giggling.

The children of the neighborhood reported seeing Robert peering at them from the window in the upstairs bedroom and shared stories about how the doll would mock them as they walked to school. After Gene heard these stories, he immediately went to investigate, knowing that Robert had been locked in the attic, and it was impossible for him to be sitting in the window of the upstairs bedroom. To his amazement, when he opened the door to the bedroom, there Robert was sitting in the rocking chair and looking out the window. Gene took Robert back to the attic on numerous occasions, each time finding him sitting at the window in the same bedroom.

After Gene Otto died in 1974, a new owner moved into the house, Myrtle Reuter. She owned the house for 20 years, and since Robert was in the attic, she also owned Robert. Visitors swore that they could hear footsteps in the attic, along with giggling. Some also said that Robert’s expression would change if anybody said anything bad about Gene in his presence. Reuter said Robert would often move around the house on his own, and she finally donated him to the East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida, in 1994. I’m amazed she survived 20 years with that doll. The Artist’s House was sold and is now a bed and breakfast where people can stay in the old turret bedroom that used to be Gene’s and Robert’s old room.

This donation marked a turning point for the doll. Ever since Robert’s arrival, visitors have flocked to the museum to take a look at the mischievous toy. He has been on TV, has had his aura photographed, he is a part of a ghost tour, and he has been the inspiration of a horror movie. You can also write to him.

So, is the doll really possessed? Well, if a servant gave Gene the doll, it could be because of her. It is believed that Gene’s parents mistreated her, and to punish them, she cursed the doll. This could explain all of the frightening and mysterious experiences people have had with Robert. But if this is the case, wouldn’t the haunting come to an end once the owner died? No one really knows. The one thing that remains the same is that Robert continues to taunt and scare the people who come to see him, especially those who try to take a picture. Many people had said that their cameras stop working whenever they try to take a photo of Robert, only to start working once more once they leave the museum. If you really do want to take a picture of Robert, try asking his permission, nicely, and you may be granted the opportunity.

Staff members of the museum have stated that they have seen Robert’s facial expressions have changed, and they have heard demonic giggling. Some have also claimed to see Robert put his hand up to the glass.

Oh, and if you do decide to visit Robert, make sure you are polite and courteous, and maybe even bring him a candy. Those who are rude, terse, or purposefully disrespectful towards Robert have said to have experienced a string of bad luck after leaving the museum. On one occasion, a couple’s flight got delayed, and their baggage lost after they were less than polite towards Robert. They promptly sent him an email, and the following morning the baggage was found still in Key West with a different airline. It is believed that Robert is not afraid to haunt those who disrespect him, and some have blamed Robert for hexing them and causing car accidents, broken bones, illnesses, job loss, and divorce.

Whether or not Robert will curse you if you are rude to him is a matter of opinion, but why take the risk. Life doesn’t give us a lot of certainties, but it takes very little energy to just be nice, even if it is to a doll.

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