Out of all of the imagery and the traditions associated with Halloween, it is the humble jack o’lantern that is the most iconic. But very few people are aware of the legends behind these carved fruits, and ignorance can be dangerous. And while people have been carving pumpkins since at least the mid-1800s (if not earlier), it hasn’t always been for fun’s sake. In the olden days, people weren’t so quick to dismiss tales of ghosts, goblins, and monsters, especially on the night of All Hallow’s Eve. To ward off the evil spirits and the demons that wander the Earth on that night, people would hollow out certain kinds of large vegetables or fruits and carve frightening faces into them. Then, a lit candle would be placed inside to enhance the effect. But jack o’lanterns haven’t always had such positive connotations. There is evil behind their ghastly grins, a malevolent ghost known as the Jack O’Lantern. Once a mortal man, Jack’s wickedness and the many sins that he committed during his lifetime led him to being condemned in death to walk in the darkness between Heaven and Hell as a restless ghost, until the time when trumpets sound from the heavens on Judgement Day.
According to legend, Jack O’Lantern (also known as Stingy Jack, Jack of the Lantern, Jack the Smith, Drunk Jack, or simply Jack) is an evil spirit (in the southern U.S., he’s more akin to a monster) that is said to wander the forests, the marshlands, bogs, and the swamps of America and Europe (especially in Ireland and the Southern United States), where he torments any humans that he finds with the bright, mesmerising light of his enchanted lantern. This lantern is sometimes said to be made of silver (Blackman 192), but it is most commonly believed to be a hollowed-out turnip or a rutabaga. Jack O’Lantern is said to be humanlike in appearance, but over the centuries, Jack’s loneliness and his hatred of humanity have twisted him into something truly monstrous. In W. Haden Blackman’s The Field Guide to North American Monsters (Three Rivers Press, 1998) and Lisa Morton’s The Halloween Encyclopedia (McFarland & Company, 2011), the Jack O’Lantern is described as being five feet in height, having putrid green skin, long hair all over his body, large saucerlike eyes, and a wide, horribly misshapen mouth (Blackman 191, Morton 118). His fingers are tipped with rending talons, and his cavernous maw hides a mouthful of sharp, jagged teeth. The above description comes from the southern United States. Some describe Jack as being humanlike in shape, but with an eerie transparency that is typical of a ghost.
In the centuries that he has walked in the darkness, within a purgatory of his own making, the Jack O’Lantern has become incredibly hateful towards humans. He will not hesitate to hunt down anyone who trespasses into his territory, and he will undoubtedly attempt to kill them. Those that Jack particularly despises are the young, those who have a pure heart, and people who are possessed of a strong will (Blackman 192). This could be because the strong-willed are able to resist the compulsion to follow his lantern. However, he utterly loathes drunkards, as they are a very painful reminder of what he most enjoyed during his lifetime (Blackman 192). However, it should be known that the Jack O’Lantern is a very spiteful ghost, and will not hesitate to go after any human that is either brave enough or stupid enough to knowingly intrude upon his domain.
Jack O’Lantern doesn’t hunt humans so much as he toys with and torments them. Jack was a notorious prankster during his lifetime, and remains so in death. Through the use of his enchanted lantern, Jack is able to compel humans into following him wherever he goes. While the people can see the bright orb of light, they might not be able to see Jack O’Lantern himself. This could be due to the possibility that Jack may be able to render himself invisible to human eyes at will, although this isn’t known for sure. Essentially, all that the ghost’s victims see is a ghostly sphere of light. What’s even stranger than seeing a ghostly, moving light in the deep woods or the middle of a swamp at night is that these people feel an unnatural compulsion to follow the ghostly luminescence, overriding the victim’s regard for their own personal safety (a common theme in stories of ghost lights). This inevitably leads them straight into a perilous situation, such as into a pit of quicksand, a sinkhole, a bear’s den, or maybe even right off of a cliff. And all the while, Jack heartily laughs at their stupidity. It is a distinctive possibility that the Jack O’Lantern feeds off of the fear and the pain that humans experience as they’re panicking or dying, perhaps even stealing the victim’s ebbing lifeforce as well. It could be that this stolen lifeforce is what keeps Jack from fading away and his lantern burning bright.
According to legend, the Jack O’Lantern is said to possess some measure of supernatural powers. Jack O’Lantern’s monstrous form gives him unnatural strength, and he is undoubtedly more than capable of strangling or even mutilating a grown man with relative ease (Blackman 192). However, Jack prefers to kill his prey through the use of subtlety, choosing to use supernatural trickery and the power of his lantern over brute force. The lantern is said to derive its power from a piece of coal, plucked from Hell’s burning floor and given to Jack by the Devil himself. The coal itself burns eternally, and its brightness never fades. It can become dimmer or brighter at the Jack O’Lantern’s command. Furthermore, the light itself has a powerful hypnotic effect on humans that compels them to follow the bobbing light wherever it goes, regardless of the potential danger to themselves.
The legend of the Jack O’Lantern is thought to go back to Ireland, where the events described in the legend are said to have occurred a few hundred years ago. There are numerous variations of the story, but certain themes and elements in these tales have remained consistent down through the centuries. According to Irish legend, there was once a man who went by the name of Stingy Jack, for reasons that shall be clear soon enough. A blacksmith by trade, Jack was known throughout Ireland as being a drunkard and a prankster. He was clever, manipulative, and deceitful, a liar that would cheat anyone and say anything to get his way. That is to say, until Lucifer, the Devil himself, came calling one day. Satan had heard many stories of Jack’s dastardly deeds and his deviousness, and some of those tales claimed that the man’s own deeds outshined those of the Devil himself! Furious (and probably more than a little jealous), Old Cloots headed up to Earth to see what all of the fuss was about for himself.
At this point, the legends start to become confusing. Some say that Jack was already at the local pub, where he had gotten himself so drunk that his soul was actually starting to leave his body, and then the Devil appeared to claim the man’s wicked soul (Guiley 252). Another variation of the legend claims that Jack had been stumbling through the Irish countryside in a drunken haze, when he happened upon a lifeless corpse lying upon the cobblestone road. Figuring that dead men have no use for their money (or don’t mind thieves nearly as much as the living do), Jack scrambled up to the body for a closer look. Turning the corpse over, Jack was struck with horror when the "corpse" gave him an evil, toothy grin. He realized that this was the end, and that the Devil had come to claim his eternal soul.
Desperate to save himself from the all-consuming flames of Hell, Jack begged Lucifer to let him have a few final mugs of cold ale before his descent into the fiery abyss. The Prince of Darkness agreed, seeing no harm in a few drinks. Knowing of a place nearby, the Devil led Jack to a pub. Once there, Jack and Satan downed a surprising number of drinks. Once Jack had quenched his thirst, he asked the Devil if he could pick up the tab. And now the Devil knew why he was called “Stingy Jack”. Surprised, the Devil replied that he didn’t carry any money. Jack only had a single sixpence (or so he said), which was nowhere near enough to pay their enormous bill. To make matters worse, the bartender was getting angry. What was poor old Jack to do?
Despite being completely smashed, Jack came up with an idea pretty damn quick. He suggested that the demon could turn himself into a gleaming silver coin (in other versions, it was a gold coin) so that he could pay their tab and the two could be on their way. The Devil, being quite drunk himself, readily agreed to the suggestion and turned himself into a silver coin (the Devil is regarded as being a supreme shapeshifter in Judeo-Christian lore). Seeing his chance, Jack grabbed the coin, stuffed it into his pocket, and then paid the bill. Within Jack’s pocket was a silver cross (or a crucifix), which rendered the Devil incapable of returning to a more human form. Another version of the story says that Jack had a cross-shaped scar on one of his hands that kept Satan in his pocket, while another suggests that Jack put the Devil into a wallet that had a cross-shaped silver catch (Guiley 252, Morton 117). With the King of Hell at his mercy, Jack told the angry demon that he would only release him if the Devil would leave Jack be and not bother him again for ten full years. In yet another variation of the story, it was only a year. Either way, having no other choice, the Devil begrudgingly agreed. Jack removed the Devil from his pocket, and the Prince of Evil disappeared from sight. Jack then proceeded to walk and stumble head over heels the entire way home, guaranteed to have one hell of a hangover the next morning.
After encountering the epitome of evil the previous night, Jack was determined to repent of his wicked ways and turn his life around for the better. He started by being less selfish, showing kindness and love to his wife and children. He paid his bills and gave to the poor instead of wasting his money on alcohol and other pleasures of the flesh. And last but not least, Jack started attending church services again. But old habits (especially bad habits) die hard, and after a few months of trying to make amends for his past misdeeds, Jack slipped back into his love of drunkenness and debauchery (Guiley 252). But the Devil was always watching, patiently awaiting his chance to strike and to finally claim Jack’s immortal soul for his own unfathomable and undoubtedly nefarious purposes…
Several years later, Jack was on his way home from the local pub on the night of All Hallow’s Eve when Lucifer suddenly appeared and demanded the man’s soul (Guiley 252). Jack knew that there was no escape this time, and that he would burn in Hell eternally for his sins on Earth. The two set off for the Gates of Hell, with Satan leading the way. After several hours of walking (apparently, it takes a while to get to Hell), the two stopped to rest under the shade of an apple tree. Hungry and utterly exhausted from traveling on foot for so long, Jack pleadingly asked the Devil if he might have an apple before they continued their road trip. The Devil had to agree, as he too enjoyed the crisp juiciness of ripe apples. Satan began climbing the tree and, nearing the top of the tree, picked two large, bright red apples from a branch. He then began slowly making his way back down. Jack smiled, knowing that now was his chance.
Unsheathing a small knife, Jack quickly carved a cross into the tree’s trunk as the Devil watched in utter disbelief. Unable to pass any cross, the demon was now trapped in the tree’s branches. Panicking, Satan offered Jack anything that he wanted in the world, if he would only remove the cross. Jack replied that he would do so, but only if Satan left Jack alone forever and promised not to claim Jack’s soul when he died. The Devil realized that there wasn’t any other way, and the demon reluctantly agreed to the man’s conditions. Jack quickly scraped away the cross, and Lucifer made his way back down and vanished from sight. Jack then began the long journey back home, having cheated the Devil twice in the space of ten years and lived to tell the tale each time.
For a number of years afterwards (some say that it was only a year), Stingy Jack was the most wicked man in the world. He drank, caroused, gambled, and had more women (and more sex) than any man should be capable of having. However, all of the partying, drinking, and debauchery took their toll, and his exhausted body couldn’t take it anymore. After almost two lifetimes of this behavior, Jack finally died of his excesses. Surprisingly, he ascended into Heaven, and he walked right up to the Pearly Gates. But Jack was immediately stopped by none other than Saint Peter, who had been Jesus Christ’s closest friend and disciple during His lifetime. Because of Jack’s many sins and his drunkenness throughout his life, Saint Peter could never allow such an evil man through the gates and into Heaven. Dismayed, Jack knew that he only had one place to go…
Jack thought that it would be best for him to descend into the depths of Hell, where a damned soul like his could hopefully find some manner of acceptance. After days of traveling, Jack finally reached the notorious Lake of Fire. But before he could try to cross, Lucifer appeared and barred his way. The Devil had sensed Jack approaching his domain and, bound by his promise so many years earlier, he could not claim Jack’s soul and allow him into Hell. Jack looked worryingly behind him, pointed to the darkness, and he asked “But where shall I go?” Smiling slyly, the Devil plucked a piece of burning coal from the ground and, tossing the glowing rock to Jack, said “Back from whence you came!” Jack realized that Old Scratch had finally managed to trick the trickster. The coal burned his hands, but Jack now had a light to guide him back to the mortal realm. He nodded solemnly to the Devil, turned around, and walked back into the darkness. When he finally returned to the mortal world, Jack hollowed out a turnip (which had always been one of his favorite foods) and placed the burning coal inside, making a lantern to light his way at night (Blackman 191-192, Camp 2013).
In the American version of the story, it is said that Jack summoned the Devil at the stroke of midnight at a crossroads. In exchange for his soul, Lucifer granted Jack “seven years of power”, during which he could do whatever he desired. At the end of the seven-year period, Satan appeared to claim Jack’s soul. But before he went to Hell, Jack asked the Devil if he could kindly retrieve an old shoe that Jack had left hanging above his front door. Not questioning why somebody would leave a shoe in such an odd place, Satan complied and reached for the shoe. Seeing his opportunity, Jack reached up and quickly nailed the demon’s hand to the wall, leaving the Devil hanging there and screaming in pain. The Devil desperately begged Jack to let him down. Jack agreed to release him, but only if he never bothered Jack again. With no other choice, Satan reluctantly agreed. When Jack died, he couldn’t enter Heaven because of his sins. When he tried to cross over into Hell, the Devil wouldn’t let him. To light Jack’s way back to the mortal plane, Satan threw a large piece of burning coal at him, saying that Jack was just too smart for him. Faced with wandering the Earth for eternity, Jack now keeps himself entertained by leading unwary travelers to their deaths at night (Morton 119, Guiley 253).
For his sins, his drunkenness, and his love of debauchery in life, Stingy Jack is cursed to walk in the darkness between Heaven and Hell for eternity, a wandering ghost whose only joy is to torment living humans. And thus the legend of the Jack O’Lantern was born. He is doomed to be forever lonely, unable to know love or the warmth of human companionship ever again. He can never experience good food or the taste of fine ale again for as long as his curse continues to endure. In the end, he has no choice but to keep wandering, looking for someone (or something) that can undo his curse.
For all of his devilish trickery, the Jack O’Lantern does have some weaknesses that can be exploited and utilized against him. According to the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend (Harper & Row, 1984), the Jack O’Lantern can be chased away by hurling a knife or a key at him, as some people believe in parts of Germany. In the Southern United States, carrying a brand-new knife that has never been used to cut wood has the same effect. In Scotland, interestingly enough, Jack can be lured closer by sticking a knife into the ground (Leach and Fried 585). Author W. Haden Blackman agrees with the southern U.S. belief, but with one exception: the knife cannot have been used to cut anything at all. The Jack O’Lantern is said to have an adverse fear of such blades, and will run away the instant he sees one, even though it might not actually hurt him (Blackman 192). Salt, being a spirit repellent, may keep him at bay as well. It also tastes quite good on boiled pumpkin.
Like most spirits, Jack O’Lantern is said to hate iron. Scottish lore states that stabbing an iron blade into the ground (not just a plain old knife, as stated previously) will repulse the ghost, as will carrying any sort of iron object (i.e. horseshoes, nails, a piece of old chain, a chunk of iron meteorite, a pair of scissors, et cetera) on one’s person. According to legend, the Jack O’Lantern is rather easy to confuse. Irish folklore states that children who go out at night (which is a terrible idea, to be sure) are given a warning to wear their coats inside out, a tactic that is most often used against faeries. In her book The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (Checkmark Books, 2007), Rosemary Ellen Guiley says the reason for this is that “By doing so, the wearer is disguised, and shows the evil spirits that he or she has nothing for them.” She also recommends “the procedure of flinging oneself to the ground, shutting the eyes, holding the breath and plugging the ears” until Jack O’Lantern walks by (Guiley 253).
The Jack O’Lantern is said to be very fond of alcohol, having not had a single drink in centuries. Any sort of alcohol or liquor such as rum, vodka, beer, whiskey, ale, or even wine may work to lure Jack out of hiding. However, enchanted liquor like voodoo rum (which is used in Vodoun ceremonies) can be used to goad the Jack O’Lantern out of hiding with the promise of inebriation so that he can be dealt with properly (Blackman 192). One last thing that is historically proven to keep Jack away are carved pumpkins or turnips with lit candles placed inside, which serve to highlight the frightening grins carved into the outer shells of the fruits. These lanterns are made to frighten away evil spirits, and they’re actually named after this particular ghost: jack o’lanterns.
It might not actually be possible to kill the Jack O’Lantern, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Jack seems to have a corporeal form, so he could be more closely related to a revenant than a ghost. This suggests that the standard tactics of decapitation and burning the corpse to cinders afterwards might work on the Jack O’Lantern. If he proves to be more akin to a ghost, however, it may become necessary to seek out Jack’s mortal remains and destroy them. This can be accomplished by burning whatever remains of his physical body (if indeed his grave can be found) until nothing is left but ashes and cinders. This will hopefully sever his connection to the material plane and cause him to move on to the next plane of existence.
On the other hand, it may be possible to break the Jack O’Lantern’s curse. For this, a devout priest is needed. Since Jack was very likely a Catholic during his lifetime, it is best if the priest shares this denomination. The trick is to get Jack to confess his sins: those that he committed while he was still alive, and those that he has committed post-mortem as the Jack O’Lantern. If Jack is willing to confess and to ask for forgiveness from God (and this is a very big if), then his burden may be lifted and his soul can ascend to its final reward. However, there is every possibility that this tactic will fail, and that the Jack O’Lantern will be greatly insulted by the attempt and angry enough to kill. Be on guard at all times when dealing with this volatile spirit!
The term “jack o’lantern” is an old one, first appearing in printed form in 1750 as “Jack of the Lantern”, and was used to describe a night watchman or a man who carried a lantern. However, the term is much older than that and was used by the Irish to describe ghostly lights that would float over the swamps at night. This eerie phenomenon is often referred to as a will o’the wisp or ignis fatuus, a Latin term meaning “foolish fire”. Anyone who attempted to approach or to touch one of these ghost lights found that it would move away of its own accord, as if there was an intelligence behind it, and it would always stay just out of reach (ReelyBored Horror 2010). Most people would take that as their cue to turn around and run away screaming.
But one question remains: how did jack o’lanterns as people know them today come to be? Originally, the Celtic peoples of Ireland and Scotland believed that on the night of Samhain (October 31st to November 1st), the veil between the world of the living and the realm of the dead was the thinnest, and that all kinds of ghosts, goblins, demons, and the undead could penetrate that barrier rather easily and wreak all sorts of havoc in the living world. Since such shenanigans could be dangerous or even deadly to living humans, people began leaving food and other goodies by their doors and windows to placate these spirits of the dead and any other malicious entities that might be out and about. But in case that didn’t work, people began to carve grotesque and terrifying faces into turnips, beets, rutabagas, mangelwurzels, and potatoes after first hollowing them out. Then, a lit candle, an ember from the fireplace, or a red-hot piece of coal was placed inside the hollowed-out portion, which illuminated the carved faces from within and made them truly frightening. These lanterns were used to ward off the evil spirits that haunted the night on All Hallow’s Eve, which included the notorious Jack O’Lantern. When Ireland and Western Scotland were hit by the Irish Potato Famine (lasting from 1845 to 1852), the Irish and the Scottish began to immigrate to America in search of a better life, bringing their traditions and their folklore with them. Here they discovered the humble pumpkin, and to their delight, the fruit was much easier to hollow out and to carve than the vegetables they had been using previously. They named these carved pumpkins jack o’lanterns, after Stingy Jack himself. If anything, he should feel honored, as they have been an essential part of Halloween festivities ever since (Hertz 2014).
Behind every tradition, there is a story. And behind every story, there is a legend that just might be true. The tale of Stingy Jack and the Jack O’Lantern is one of those legends that could quite possibly be true, or at the very least based on a real person. If so, then there’s a moral to the story to be had here, and it is that drinking and debauchery are extremely bad for one’s physical and spiritual health. The same goes for dealing with the Devil. Stingy Jack, the wandering ghost, is a prime example of the consequences that all of these things can lead to. Then again, it might just be a folktale. But there are some people who say that Jack O’Lantern still wanders the night, his lantern eternally burning bright, waiting to play another trick on those who might be passing by…or for someone who can save his soul from a purgatory of his own making.
Blackman, W. Haden. The Field Guide to North American Monsters: Everything You Need to Know About Encountering Over 100 Terrifying Creatures in the Wild. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998. Pages 191-192.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. Third Edition. New York: Checkmark Books, 2007.
Leach, Maria and Jerome Fried, eds. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1984. Pages 584-585.
Morton, Lisa. The Halloween Encyclopedia. Second Edition. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011. Pages 115-120.
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