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A Very Short (and spooky) Introduction to Halloween

It’s that time of year when pumpkin sales go soaring, horror specials sell out at the cinema, and everyone is seemingly dressed up as a vampire or a zombie. To mark the spookiest time of year, we are sharing some Very Short Introductions to a few of our favourite Halloween themes with free chapters from VSI Online.

Reinventing witches

“In the summer of 1935, a team of German researchers began to scour the nation’s archives, hunting for early modern witches. Overseeing the project was Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, to whom witches were either persecuted religionists of the Germanic race or magical warriors fighting demons – a ‘black order’ like the SS itself. Himmler hoped that the Hexensonderkommando would find millions of witches, but by the time work ceased in 1943, just 33,846 cases had been recorded. And what they revealed was that the witch’s greatest enemies had been not clerical inquisitors but ordinary Germans.

The research, though flawed, has been useful to modern scholars. Himmler succeeded in bringing witches back to life, but because they were not what he expected their propaganda value was nil. The fact that our ancestors surprise us in this way is our fault not theirs. Many people claim to be haunted by the past, even that they see ghosts. But the dead don’t bother us: we bother them – endlessly. Certain trades specialize in this: necromancers, sorcerers, Spiritualist mediums, and historians. Why? Because there is power in what precedes us; the dead are useful for understanding who we are in time.”

— Read the rest of this extract from Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill

Alien invasions

“In the decades following the Second World War, the crude monsters of the pulps became transformed into a whole range of creatures whose actions were presented as invasive and threatening. Alien invasion narratives tend to raise one stark issue: conquer or be conquered. But their subtleties often lay in the strategies used to delay their revelation of the aliens, for they have to be seen and identified before they can be resisted. In evoking such diverse threats to humans, these narratives overlap constantly with the Gothic.

Among British examples, the television series The Quatermass Experiment (1955) dramatized contact with aliens as an infection. A rocket crashes on Wimbledon Common bearing a sole astronaut who is carrying an absorptive virus. Carroon, the astronaut, is traumatized and has great difficulty remembering what happened, which remains a mystery. A sequence of images begins with ‘some sort of jelly’ found in the rocket, through a grey inhuman hand as Carroon begins to mutate, culminating in a whole creature which materializes in Westminster Abbey, where it is finally destroyed. The second Quatermass series and the film Quatermass 2 (1957) describe more of an invasion than the first. Mysterious objects are picked up on radar falling to Earth. When some of the objects are examined, they prove to be hollow vessels, presumably carriers of some sort. Investigating the area where they fell, Quatermass, the central scientist, comes across a mysterious industrial plant, apparently built by the government and barred to visitors as top secret. As author Nigel Kneale later recalled, he was playing here to fears in the mid-1950s of official bureaucracy and secret installations. As in the first series, suspense is built up by reports of a strange illness affecting people living near the plant, whose guards are called ‘zombies’ by the locals because of their masked, insect-like appearance. It is finally revealed that the plant is manufacturing synthetic food for the organisms that have dropped from the sky. Quatermass pursues them back to their home asteroid and destroys them. The US title for the film, significantly, was Enemy from Space.”

— Read the rest of this extract from Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction by David Seed


A true zombie has to be completely indistinguishable from a normal person on the outside. “Zombie” by kpgolfpro. Public domain via Pixabay.

“Imagine someone who looks exactly like you, acts like you, thinks like you, and speaks like you, but who is not conscious at all. This other you has no private, conscious experiences; all its actions are carried out without the light of awareness. This unconscious creature – not some half-dead Haitian corpse – is what philosophers mean by a zombie.

Zombies are certainly easy to imagine, but could they really exist? This apparently simple question leads to a whole world of philosophical difficulties.

On the ‘yes’ side are those who believe that it really is possible to have two functionally equivalent systems, one of which is conscious while the other is unconscious. Chalmers is on the ‘yes’ side. He claims that zombies are not only imaginable but possible – in some other world if not in this one. He imagines his zombie twin who behaves exactly like the real Chalmers but has no conscious experiences, no inner world, and no qualia. All is dark inside the mind of zombie-Dave. Other philosophers have dreamed up thought experiments involving a zombie earth populated by zombie people, or speculated that some real live philosophers might actually be zombies pretending to be conscious.

On the ‘no’ side are those who believe the whole idea of zombies is absurd, including both Churchland and American philosopher Daniel Dennett. The idea is ridiculous, they claim, because any system that could walk, talk, think, play games, choose what to wear, enjoy a good dinner, and do all the other things that we do, would necessarily have to be conscious. The trouble is, they complain, that when people imagine a zombie they cheat: they do not take the definition seriously enough. So if you don’t want to cheat, remember that the zombie has to be completely indistinguishable from a normal person on the outside. That is, it is no good asking the zombie questions about its experiences or testing its philosophy, for by definition it must behave just as a conscious person would. If you really follow the rules, the critics say, the idea disappears into nonsense.”

— Read the rest of this extract from Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction by Susan Blackmore


“Tragedy is full of them. In the first surviving complete tragedy that has come down to us, Aeschylus’ Persians (472 bc), the ghost of the dead King Darius rises from his tomb. He pronounces judgement on his overweening son, Xerxes, who has squandered the wealth of the mightiest empire the world has ever known. King, father, god (for he has been deified in the underworld), Darius speaks from beyond the grave with an authority we rarely find in subsequent tragedies. Even the immortal gods whose authority is beyond question are often hard to understand, speaking as they do through oracles and prophets and seers, like Cassandra and Teiresias.

In the central play of the Oresteian trilogy, Agamemnon’s son and daughter converge on his tomb, along with the chorus, to lament his passing and seek inspiration for the justice his spirit demands. But Agamemnon does not rise from the underworld – unlike some other murdered kings and fathers. The ghost of Hamlet’s father does walk abroad, but where does he come from? The purgatory that good Protestants are no longer supposed to believe in? Does he bring ‘airs from heaven or blasts from hell’ (I. iv. 22)? Why does his son feel ‘Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell’ (II. ii. 586, emphasis added)? We may note that the roots of our English word ‘ghost’ seem linked, in the dark, backward abysm of time, with fury and anger.”

— Read the rest of this extract from Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction by Adrian Poole

Featured image credit: Zombie, by kpgolf pro. Public domain via Pixabay.

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