Death Makes A Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween (2002)

[This is a reprint of a review by Rik Tod Johnson originally posted on his site, The Cinema 4 Pylon, on October 1, 2010.]

death_makes_a_holiday_front_600highDeath Makes A Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween (2002)
by David J. Skal
Bloomsbury | 2002
Hardcover | 227 pg.
1st U.S. edition

I remember being frightened to death as a child in the mid-1970s during Halloween, not by monsters and ghosts and ghouls (they frightened/befriended me the rest of the year), but by the rumors going around our neighborhood and school (even in semi-rural Alaska) regarding tainted Halloween candy, apples and popcorn balls. My brothers, friends and I didn’t care if the rumors didn’t pan out to be the truth — we would never find out anyway in those days before the internet and cable news, where most of the available information was controlled by the local papers, the evening news shows and whatever crap your parents fed you. Apart from that, you had rumor, gossip and innuendo, prevalent in any time period.

I specifically remember Halloween in my twelfth year, where our trick-or-treating activities were actually curtailed to visiting only the houses of our close friends and relatives. There was a razor-blade apple scare going about the town of Eagle River (which likely stemmed from similar rumors in larger, nearby Anchorage), and I solidly remember our spoils that year consisted of nothing but familiar and beloved candies from the local supermarket shelves. Apart from one lady in our neighborhood who actually did give out apples (without razor blades or pins, but was still practically branded a witch amongst the local kids and parents for doing so), no one wanted to be held in suspicion of threatening the kids.

The kids, after all, are held to be more important than the rest of humanity. After all, they are the ones who will grow up to fail like the rest of us… uh, no… they will grow up to… uh… grow up to be people who will hold the next generation of kids to be more important than the rest of humanity. Yeah, the notion that it is “all about the kids” is a concept that perhaps once served a great purpose in extending and expanding both civilization and families, but has switched into a truly idiotic one which for the last several decades really doesn’t mean jack in our too-crowded world of over-extending resources. And so it goes… we continue to venerate things for obscure reasons that none of us truly believe but only pay lip service to because it is accepted to do so.

Which, truth be told, is exactly why the vast majority of people celebrate holidays in the first place: because we are told to do it. We grow up with it and we don’t know any differently. Most of us, even rabid horror fans, really don’t examine why we celebrate Halloween. I just do it because I have since I was born, the same way that I have always celebrated Christmas or Easter. It’s how I was raised, and even after the Santa sham is revealed deep into childhood and I grew into my current state of atheism, I still look forward to Christmastime. Easter does not exist for me any longer in California, and yet, if I were back home, I would not hesitate to join my friends in their largely religion-inspired celebration (or to wait eagerly for the actual mysterious appearance of twin Easter bunnies…) I personally see holidays as the most solid reasons there are get together with friends and family, regardless of religious or social background. Just another reason to get out of the house and party with your loved ones.

And yet, Halloween has changed most with me in my move from state to state. Halloween has always been tied up more with friends than family for me, and I just do not have the same network here that I did back home in Alaska, not by a long-shot. The friends I have made here have been mostly work-based, and since we don’t celebrate the holiday at the office, it doesn’t carry out of there either. I have yet to visit anything Halloween-related since I moved here, apart from annual visits to the series of skeleton attractions (The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Indiana Jones, the train trip through Primeval World — anything with a skull, ghost or skeleton) at Disneyland. (Which will include Space Mountain this year, as it did last year.) Jen is not a massive Halloween fan, so there is no paired impetus to visit the haunted houses, the annual bash on the Queen Mary, or other theme parks featuring Halloween celebrations here. The most I do at home is carve anywhere from two to four pumpkins and place them strategically on our balcony. Costuming? I haven’t dressed up since I left the 49th state.

Which finally brings me to trick-or-treating… Even more so than back home, that tradition has now shifted to the province of the relatively safe school gymnasium, and in our complex has dwindled to the status of zero-to-none in visitations each year. Jen and I are always sure to purchase at least a couple of bags of candy before Halloween. Post-holiday, we are then forced to eat those couple of bags of candy, but you have no choice but to buy them so you are not caught off-guard as the assholes who don’t have a stash of Halloween goodies. Don’t want to set off those precious, darling kids…

And thus, Halloween has largely become an internal holiday for me. It involves some slight decorating of the apartment, but sometimes not, and from there it is chiefly a reason for me to indulge in scads of horror and science-fiction films, books, music, comics and toys. Which means it is basically a reason for me to do what I do the rest of the year.

You see, Halloween never really ends for me. In most of the past twenty years, I have officially counted the Halloween season as starting just after my birthday in September and carrying through until Thanksgiving. But event that is a fairly ridiculous notion to me, because I never really stop how I feel about the holiday, just as I never stop how I feel about Christmas.  I seem to have gotten beyond feeling the spirit of certain times of the year only in those certain times of the year. The other day at work, even while wrestling with what I was certain was one of my frequent migraines, I was able to cavort and joke about in service of cheering someone up nearby. They laughed and said, “Are you always happy like this?” and I said “No, I’m just always me.” I hadn’t really examined why I act as goofy as I sometimes do in social situations — like some crazed, impish otter — just to earn a surprised laugh from my target. It has just always been that way. The same way that I have not really examined why I celebrate Halloween. It just is…

Whatever my lack of reason to do so, Halloween is perhaps the only holiday to have gone through even more convolutions from its original form than even Christmas. Beginning in the recently completed century, it engendered convolutions on top of convolutions, chiefly due to how the rise of the mass media and the advent of pop culture have drastically  transformed not just Halloween itself, but also the people who celebrate it.

Which is where one of my favorite non-fiction titles of the past decade, David J. Skal’s Death Makes A Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween comes into the picture for me. I opened this post with my remembrance of mid-’70s trick-or-treating precisely because of the way that Skal opens his book: with a stunning chapter detailing the Halloween culture scares of my most scarring and formative decade. It’s a surefire way to suck me into the rest of a tome by opening with something so deeply resonant to my spirit and my attitudes towards the effects of the news media run amok.

From there, the rest of the book is gravy: an incisive look into how the holiday has transformed us and been transformed in turn, each metamorphosis wrapped neatly around the prevailing tone of each period’s cultural wars. While there are certainly other more detailed accounts around concerning Halloween’s ancient past, the volume solidly hits each of the major movements in its history (Samhain, Guy Fawkes, the Day of the Dead, and the revolutions that Hollywood and modern merchandising both created), and gives some very well-researched insight in other areas less traveled, such as the gradual adoption of Halloween as the de facto official holiday of the gay community in San Francisco (and now far beyond that area). There is also a nice section on L.A.’s haunted house king Bob Burns, showcasing his influence on Halloween in Southern California. And, of course, Skal touches most deftly upon the controversies and urban legends sparked by a holiday so mired in the mythic activities of witches, demons and the undead. His eye for detail is always spot on when dealing with the social aspects and the consequences of the actions of his subjects.

I have read this book twice since I bought it upon its initial release, and now has come the time, with my direct interest in Halloween perhaps waning a tad bit, for another go at it. In fact, I have probably read at least one book by Mr. Skal in each Halloween season over the past two decades, since I first encountered him in 1990 in his excellent history called Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen (which I have read three times since then). I was entranced with his writing then, and I am still entranced now.

Unlike Halloween, Christmas, trick-or-treating and everything else mentioned, where I can give you the full details but still remain purposefully obscured by the true reasons behind my devotions, I know exactly why I return to Skal every single year.



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