Lisa also posted this list of "Ten Classics of Halloween Fiction" over on Monster Librarian's blog this week."Finally, for nonfiction fans, Lisa Morton’s Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (Reaktion, dist. by Univ. of Chicago. 2012. ISBN 9781780230474. $29) covers the history of Halloween from its ancient Celtic roots to its stunning growth in global popularity in the 21st century. Morton is an accomplished horror short story writer, and her ability to draw readers in quickly and keep them turning the pages shines through in her nonfiction as well. Lavishly illustrated, this solidly researched and concise work is fun to read and a great choice for readers who want to know why we seek out the scary each October. Lisa is joining us today to talk about her love of Halloween."
Before I go though, just a quick note to tell you I will be back tomorrow with a very special bonus 32nd day of 31 Days of Horror. Until then, enjoy the holiday. I will be out with my little Indian Jones and zombie rocker scamming for candy.
Why I Keep Writing Books About Halloween
By Lisa Morton
Back in 2011, when an editor at the fabulous Reaktion Books approached me about doing a Halloween book for them, I was ecstatic. Not only was I fan of Reaktion Books’ beautifully-designed and slightly irreverent pop culture histories – I’d gobbled up everything from Spiders to Ice Cream – but I’d also just finished work on the 2nd edition of my Halloween Encyclopedia. I’d spent hundreds of hours poring over everything from eighteenth-century folklore collections to modern websites, and had crafted the most comprehensive collection of Halloween facts ever published. I thought I surely knew everything it was possible to know about the holiday. It’d be a breeze to write a narrative history, right?
I wasn’t just wrong – I was wrong in a way that meant I was in for a long string of surprises.
Here’s one of the (many) things I love about Halloween: It’s what folklorist Jack Santino calls “polysemic”, meaning it was many meanings. Look, for example, at the decorations that line store aisles every October, and you’ll see Halloween connected with harvest, with candy, with death, with comedy and whimsy, with children, with teenagers, with adults, with animals, and of course with fear. What started thousands of years ago as a Celtic New Years’ celebration called Samhain has transformed from that three-day festival (complete with feasting and spooky stories) to a somber religious observance of the dead to a raucous night for young people to party and tell fortunes to polite Victorian gatherings to an evening of destructive prank-playing to a “masked solicitation ritual” for young children called trick or treat to a night when adults challenge their fears in the relative safety of large-scale haunted attractions.
I knew all of this when I started work on Trick or Treat?: A History of Halloween, and given how Halloween seems to constantly shift and change, I expected to find a few new facts that had appeared in just the brief time since I’d finished work on The Halloween Encyclopedia.
What I didn’t anticipate was a veritable explosion in Halloween’s global popularity.
When my editor at Reaktion suggested broadening the book’s examination of the global celebration, I thought, Well, that’ll be easy, because it’s really an American holiday. Outside of its past in the British Isles and All Saints’ Day observances, I didn’t expect to find much else.
What I did find was that Halloween had become a gigantic U.S. export just since 2006. Here a few of the amazing facts I came across:
* One major British supermarket chain (Waitrose) reported a whopping 676% increase in sales of large pumpkins from 2009 to 2010.
* Another British supermarket chain (Tesco) didn’t even start stocking adult Halloween costumes until 2009.
* In 2007, the popular Belgian amusement park Walibi added Halloween “Fright Nights” (converting amusement parks to Halloween attractions has proven hugely successful throughout Europe over the last few years)
* A sociologist has stated that, as of 2009, Halloween has “become part of the cultural capital (and hence of the identity) of a generation of young Germans.”
* In Ukraine, where a pumpkin traditionally symbolized a woman’s rejection of a suitor (to “hand you a pumpkin” still means turning down a deal), Halloween is celebrated by large dance performances to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
* Despite being condemned by both the Moscow Department of Education and priests from the Russian Orthodox Church, a 2010 Russian newspaper article described Halloween as “growing exponentially” there.
* Halloween is not celebrated in the Middle East, but a 2009 WikiLeaks document detailed a decadent Halloween celebration among wealthy young Saudis, complete with costumes and drinking.
* A 2006 article in China Daily suggested that young Chinese people were starting to prefer Halloween to their own Yue Laan – the “Hungry Ghost Festival” – because Halloween was more “fun” and lacked the genuinely frightening elements of the native festival.
By the way, Halloween hasn’t been universally embraced – major French newspapers declared the holiday there “pretty much dead” in 2006, thanks to anti-American sentiments and a preference for the quieter, traditional observance of All Saints’ Day (which is celebrated with visits to cemeteries). But that rejection of the holiday is definitely the exception, not the rule.
So…why is the world suddenly embracing Halloween? The answer seems to be mainly split between two factors: 1) American retailing, as worldwide chains like McDonald’s and Disney employ Halloween merchandising; and 2) American culture, as movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Halloween episodes of American television series (especially sitcoms – the world seems to love American sitcoms) are viewed around the globe.
I would argue that Halloween speaks to something deeper in us as well, and that those exports just served as the gateway drugs. Halloween inaugurates that time of year when we’ve brought in the harvest but secretly dread the arrival of long winter nights; it tells us that we can survive the darkest months by treating our fears in a playful manner (the fact that Halloween has found very
little support in the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, I think lends credence to this notion).
At this point I’d like to think I’m done with writing about Halloween (in the non-fiction sense, at least), but something tells me that it’ll change again in a few years, and some publisher will make me an offer I can’t refuse, and I’ll be pulled back in. I’ll probably think, Hey, piece of cake – I know everything about this holiday, right?
And I will forget again how often I’ve been wrong about that very thing.
copyright © 2012 Lisa Morton