The only consensus surrounding the origin of April Fools’ Day is that the holiday’s roots run very deep and most likely have something to do with the Northern Hemisphere’s vernal equinox. One theory holds that the origins of the holiday lie with Roman worship of the Phrygian patron goddess Cybele through a celebration called Hilaria Matris Deûm that paid tribute to the resurrection of Cybele’s son, Attis, from the dead. The Hilaria culminated on the “Day of Joy,” which involved games, public sacrifices, and a masquerade, during which it was common for revelers to imitate magistrates or other authority figures (a form of satirical imitation and the inversion of authority figures shared in common with the Feast of Fools celebrated in France during the Middle Ages, although the Feast was usually held on or around January 1).
A little over a millennia later, the first version of what we would recognize as a modern April Fools’ Day developed as France made the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendars in 1582; as part of this transition, the new year was celebrated on January 1 rather than April 1. Those who refused to adopt the new calendar were mocked for their stubborn, conservative ways – often (and quite inexplicably) by having paper fishes surreptitiously affixed to their backs like “kick me” signs. Those so marked were then referred to as “April Fish,” based on the belief that such young fish are more naïve and easily caught – a belief, I suppose, as logical as any other component of the tradition. Over the next few centuries this April celebration spread throughout the United Kingdom and proved particularly popular in Scotland, where it was broken into two days; one day devoted to “gowk hunting” (a practice that survives to this very day and would be extremely familiar to any rube who has ever been talked into hunting the elusive snipe) and “Tailie Day,” a day devoted to pinning signs and other hilarious accessories to other peoples’ rear ends. Clearly, the Scots appreciate the finer, subtler forms of humor.
Modern pranks have run the gamut from the low-key, low-impact and goofy (for example, this classic 1957 prank in which the BBC reported on “the spaghetti harvest” in Sweden, complete with ridiculous footage of farmers harvesting noodles from trees) to the annual tradition of pranks that end with someone dead – while springtime human sacrifice many no longer be de rigeur, a certain amount of blood in the name of comedy seems to be a perpetual requirement for the smooth functioning of human society. How else to explain the ocean of news reports on hijinks that end in mayhem, mutilation, or the morgue?
Whether we’re sticking paper fish to people’s backs or accidentally setting massive fires, a prank’s essential appeal lies in a few factors. First, let’s get it right out in the open: pranks rely on our human capacity to comprehend and enjoy the suffering of others. After all, a prank in which we don’t understand what we are doing to the prankee is just an accident, and one in which the victim enjoys the prank is more of a pleasant surprise, yes? And there’s nothing in this that we should necessarily feel entirely ashamed of – after all, a little suffering never hurt anyone and adds spice to a life that might otherwise seem bland or boring.
Secondly, a prank shares one absolutely vital trait with its cousins irony and horror – that of the “double audience.” As with irony and horror fiction, a prank has one audience for whom the surface is intended, and a second audience for whom a hidden, deeper meaning is intended. The surface meaning – the set-up – is directed at one audience, while the second audience – with a much more complete understanding – is privy to the prank. The sweetness of the prank lies in the distance between these two knowledge-sets.
In exactly the same way, great horror fiction provides us – the second audience – with a glimpse of the danger that lies in wait behind the cellar door, the fate that our hapless victim is about to encounter. Our advantage over the on-page or on-screen traveler in darkness can consist of a large quantity of information or a small one, a total set of facts as to what is going on or simply cues, suspicions, and a feeling of dread, but it is in this distance, this gap in knowledge, that we also find one of the many pleasures of horror. We can only tense up – can only yell “don’t go in there, you fool!” at the screen – because, just as with a prank, we know something they don’t know.
And while that may be a cruel pleasure, spring is a time of cruel pleasures – and always has been.