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A Cultural History of Halloween

by David J. Skal

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 1-58234-230-X
Publisher: Bloomsbury

There were no razor blades in the Halloween apples. That trick-or-treat caper is an urban legend, says Skal, who knows about creepy movies and other scary stuff (Screams of Reason, 1998, etc.).

In his current chronicle of the spooky and the outré, Skal traces the Celtic origins of our unsanctioned, goofy holiday, noting the accretion of vegetable and skeletal aspects like cabbage night, jack-o’-lanterns and macabre masquerades. The story expands to a study of some of the dotty aspects of our civilization, including the difficulty of adopting a black kitten in October. Naturally, with ties to beer and Charley Brown’s Great Pumpkin, Halloween has been co-opted by commerce. Consider all the theme parks, elaborate or cheesy, artfully designed to get the clientele to wet themselves (a topic discussed in a footnote). Peruse Happy Halloween magazine, Haunted Attraction quarterly, or the journal Selling Halloween. The town of Salem, Massachusetts, may exploit its history as the site of witchcraft trials, but the love of money isn’t always the root of Halloween foolery. Skal visits “yard haunters” who elaborately decorate their lawns and homes each fall. He profiles Goths and buffs and collectors of arcana and modern Wiccans, whom he seems to understand better than the antiabortionist and evangelical interlopers. The last night of October has a special meaning, too, for the gay community, which holds annual, fanciful parades that must be the mainstay of the rhinestone and sequin trade. Film clearly is an important contributor to the aesthetics of bloody amusement and there is a full exegesis of the Halloween series, its progenitors, and progeny. Plainly, the holiday isn’t what it used to be. A coda offers the image of the phoenix as properly life-affirming after September 11.

Not exactly haunting, but there’s some frightfully nice reportage on the history of a lively festival. Boo! (16-page color insert, not seen)