Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes the spooktacular Lesley Bannatyne.
One of the nation’s foremost authorities on Halloween, Bannatyne has written five books on the subject; the most recent, Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night, was published in 2011. Additionally, she has shared her knowledge on television specials for Nickelodeon and the History Channel and also contributed topical content to Time Magazine, Slate, and National Geographic as well as contributing the Halloween article to World Book Encyclopedia. A freelance journalist, Bannatyne – who has been named one of Boston’s 100 Interesting Women by Boston Women magazine – works as an editor and communications writer at Harvard University and makes her home in Massachusetts.
Halloween Nation was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award this year for superior achievement in non-fiction. Chris Alexander, editor in chief of Fangoria magazine, praised the books as, “A sophisticated yet playful celebration of all things macabre, morbid, and marvelous…It’s an energetic, thorough, and breathless salute to everyone’s favorite horror holiday.” Further, Richard Christy, writer/producer for The Howard Stern Show on SIRIUS XM Satellite Radio, noted, “After reading this book, I’ve added about thirty things to this year’s ‘Halloween to-do list’! Halloween Nation is the perfect source for hundreds of different ways to celebrate our favorite holiday!”
From the publisher:
Halloween is not just for children anymore. On a mission to define the modern Halloween, expert Lesley Pratt Bannatyne delves into the world of enthusiasts, fanatics, and subcultures including Goth, metal, and zombie. In a series of investigative interviews, people from all walks of life reveal their devotion to this fall celebration as Bannatyne crafts a portrait of a wildly popular and surprisingly meaningful twenty-first-century Halloween.
Now, Leslie Bannatyne takes readers behind the scenes of her favorite holiday…
1) Tell us about your fascination with Halloween. When did it begin – and how has it influenced your professional endeavors?
I have always loved Halloween. From the moment I put on a cape and ran out into the night with my friends, I’ve had a fascination with Halloween; with its freedom, its license, its magic. Almost 25 years ago, though, I came to one of those wonderful forks in the road. I was a freelance journalist writing stories about everything from dance to donuts, and a literary agent asked me to propose a holiday book to the New York publishing house, Facts on File. There were two holidays still available: Halloween and Election Day. I jumped, went through the rabbit hole and have now written five books on Halloween. Just like anything else, the subject opens up the more you look at it. Halloween’s not just about candy and costumes: it’s Irish mythology, Scottish literature, Victorian death-obsession, church history, American pop culture, history, finance, and even philosophy.
2) You have written five distinct books about Halloween. Briefly describe the inspiration for each and how they differ from one another…
My first was Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, which told the story of Halloween in this country; how some of its folklore traveled here with early Scottish immigrants and later, the Irish, Germans, Africans, Mexicans, etc., and how different ethnicities contributed to its celebration. The book takes Halloween through all the events of the 20th century, including the wars, the beginnings of trick-or-treating and up through the 1980s (it was originally published in 1990; it’s been through several printings, and is now published by Pelican Publishing Co.).
The next was A Halloween How To: Costumes, Parties, Decorations, and Destinations, and this was the book that introduced me to the Halloween community that exists today. It was published just after the internet had helped create the Halloween do-it-yourself yard-haunting phenomenon, and I corresponded with celebrants all over the country about monster mud and séances, Styrofoam tombstones, home-made costumes, and giant pumpkin boat races.
A few years later I went back to some of the research I’d done for the history book, and starting compiling an anthology of Halloween fiction, poetry, and plays from the past 400 years, which ended up in A Halloween Reader: Poems, Stories, and Plays from Halloweens Past. I dug around in the wonderful, deep archives of Widener Library at Harvard University, and found material that was sometimes beautiful, often funny, and very quirky.
A children’s book came next, Witches Night Before Halloween (Twas the night before Halloween and all through the cottages / the witches were stirring their brews and their potages / The cupboards were bursting with hop-toads and newts / And they’d shined up their pointy-toed, fancy dress boots…you get the picture!)
Last year I published Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night (from Pelican; all my books are from Pelican now), which is my attempt to understand what’s driving the new popularity of Halloween, and why it means so much to so many people.
3) You have said that HALLOWEEN NATION is your favorite of the books you’ve written. Why is that? Also, tell us about the unique research you did for this title…
For Halloween Nation I spent a few years country talking with people for whom Halloween is no ordinary holiday: giant pumpkin growers, zombie marchers, Halloween prop makers, conventioneers, hearse drivers, ghost hunters, horror burlesque dancers, craftspeople, anyone who was seriously invested in Halloween. As often as I could, I participated in the events I was researching, such as marching in the Village Halloween parade, joining the zombie march at the Monroeville Mall, visiting the community of spiritualists in Lily Dale, or ghost hunting with paranormal investigators. In fact, that was part of the joy of that book—meeting Halloween people and walking in their shoes for a while.
4) What would you say to those people who claim that Halloween is merely another over-commercialized holiday? How do you see Halloween as being continually relevant in this day and age?
I do. As the last holiday we have where we open our doors to strangers, Halloween can be an essential event for any neighborhood or community. It’s an incredibly generous holiday, especially on the part of those who really decorate their yards. And it’s expressive. We create Halloween for each other every year, and often it’s handmade and original. Most of all, Halloween is tolerant. No matter what box you’re in, on Halloween night you can break out; no one judges you for it. Just try wearing a Marshmallow Peeps costume to work on November 1st.
5) How do you view folklore and pop culture as having influenced our perception of Halloween? Can you briefly compare/contrast these ideas with Halloween’s actual roots?
Halloween has been tied to folklore and popular culture since its beginnings as a holiday, say 16th-century Scotland. Here it was tied to fortunetelling games meant to predict a husband or wife, and to witches flying through the sky. In early America the folklore attached to Halloween reflected the ethnic mix of different parts of the country: the South had a wonderful amount of black cat and voodoo superstition that derived from Africa and the islands; German Pennsylvania had an especially vivid witchcraft lore; Irish Boston and Chicago, a lot of the fortunetelling games and cautionary tales taken from northwestern Europe.
As popular culture became American culture in the 20th century, Halloween followed the cultural currents. Early costumes were popular characters from the comics and radio; then television personalities; then movies; and now all the above plus products (think M&Ms or GaGa). Halloween’s roots, if there are deep roots in this constantly changing holiday, have to do with the coming of the dark season. I think it’s remained true to that. We still don’t know what’s out there in the dark (or the world beyond this one), and we still fill the night with the supernatural and imaginary.
6) Other than your own works, what is your recommended reading (or viewing) for those wishing to learn more about Halloween?
I love all of Ronald Hutton’s history books, but if you really want to get a sense of the ritual year in Great Britain and Ireland (including All Hallow’s, Samhain, and Halloween), read his Stations of the Sun (if you love Druids, get Blood and Mistletoe, and if you’re interested in witchcraft try Triumph of the Moon). Hutton is a British historian. I think he’s clear, thorough, and fascinating. For Halloween movies and popular culture, David Skal’s Death Makes a Holiday is good. For a more academic take on history (and info on Canadian celebrations), try Nicholas Rogers’ Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. You can also buy the History Channel’s “Haunted History of Halloween.”
With thanks to Lesley Bannatyne for sharing her unique insights into Halloween with us.