In the folklore of the American South, Jack-O’-Lantern was a mischievous, often malicious, spirit that carried a glowing lantern as he roamed the wilds, leading the unwary into swamps or rivers. According to some, you could avoid this fate by turning your pockets the wrong side out.
Black Americans in Missouri called Jack-O’-Lantern a “Waller-Wup” and in England Jack-O’-Lantern was known as a “Will-O’-The-Wisp.”
Whatever name this entity went by, one thing was always the same: The light of the lantern was mesmerizing. “You are filled with an irresistible impulse to follow this light,” one old-timer from the South told me back in 1991. “This impulse can only be overcome by flinging yourself on the ground, shutting your eyes, holding your breath, and plugging your ears.”
In the seaboard states of the South, Jack-O’-Lantern was a hideous creature, five feet tall and his body covered in long hair. He would leap and bound along like a giant grasshopper. Scarier still, he was stronger than any man and faster than a horse. Jack compelled his victims to follow him into the swamp, where he left them to die.
It is said, however, that you can drive off Jack-O’-Lantern with a new knife that has never cut wood.
Origins of Jack-O’-Lantern
An old root doctor called Rev. Gary Fox told me how Jack-O’-Lantern came to be. This was the tale he told:
“Jack sold himself to the Devil at the crossroads one night at twelve o’clock. For seven years all power was given to him to do as he pleased, but at the end of that period his soul belonged to the Devil.
Old Satan called for him. But Jack was ready. He tacked a piece of old shoe sole up above the door, and asked the Devil to get it for him. The Devil stood on a chair and reached for it. Jack then took a hammer and nailed the Devil’s hand fast, slipping the chair out from under him.
The Devil shrieked and howled. But Jack would not let him go until he promised to release him from the diabolic bargain. The Devil said, “Alright, you win,” and Jack helped him down.
Finally, after many years of freedom, Jack died. He went up to heaven, but them in charge up there would not let him in. So Jack went down to Hell. But the Devil threw a chunk of fire at him and told him he was way too smart for Hell.
Jack didn’t have nowhere to go. So he was forced to pick up the chunk of fire and to spend all his time wandering about the Earth, luring people into swamps and mud-holes at night. That’s the way it was.”