We are kicking off the Halloween season today with this post, an interview with Lesley Bannatyne, author of a number of great books related to this great holiday. In this interview, Lesley discusses her most recent book, Halloween Nation (Pelican Publishing, 2011). If you want to explore the various ways in which fans are enjoying Halloween, then Lesley’s book is a “must have” addition to your library.
TheoFantastique: Lesley, thank you for making some time during the Halloween season to talk about your book Halloween Nation. It’s a great read, filled with people with passion for the holiday, and covering a lot of topics related to it. You have written several books and articles on Halloween. How did it come to be such a personal area of interest for you, and if you were to be featured in your own book, what section would you find yourself in as you devote yourself to one special aspect of this spooky holiday?
Lesley Pratt Bannatyne: I’ve been a Halloween geek since the very first time I put on a cape and a mask and ran out into the dark of suburban Connecticut. It’s physical for me—the light comes at a certain angle in October, the temperature drops, there are colors that only exist at that time—I can sense it more than understand it. If that were my only connection to Halloween, though, I’d be writing fiction. So here’s the story: A publishing house, Facts on File, was looking for writers to put together proposals for holiday books. I pitched a Halloween history book, which, after many years and 30-odd revisions (and this was in the days of typewriters), turned into Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History. It was like falling down a rabbit hole. Halloween’s not just one story, but many: Irish folklore and Scottish history, popular culture, politics, spirituality, commerce, art, music, festival, American history, Victorian manners, publishing, horror, and a huge amount of satire and humor. I consider myself lucky to have fallen into Halloween rather than, say, footwear, bee farming, or Election Day, which was the other holiday I was offered.
If I were to be featured in Halloween Nation, I’d probably be a zombie burlesque dancer. Kidding. I love the paranormal and creative aspects of Halloween, so you might find me in the “terrortainment” (haunted attractions) or ghost chapters.
TheoFantastique: Your book is different from many books on Halloween in that you aren’t look at its diverse cultural background and history of practices, but you are looking at what makes it what it is in the present. Were you surprised by the depth and breadth of the many people and elements that make up this holiday?
Lesley Pratt Bannatyne: I did know that the people shaping paper mache into cats with pointed party hats were as passionate about their Halloween as the people pouring buckets of blood over severed ears. I was surprised, though, at how often Halloween created new communities of like-minded folks; people who move their friendships from Facebook to the real world and meet year-round to talk Halloween. And I am always surprised at how people with radically different personal beliefs and politics can still be Halloween friends. It’s a wonderful buffer zone. Creativity and tribe come to the forefront and there’s a web of tolerance spun through the actual night.
TheoFantastique: In your Introduction I was struck by the insights you have when you mention the significance of things like the 1960s gay community street parties, second-wave feminism, the “occult” renaissance, American attitudes toward death, and our post-Vietnam and post-9/11 worldview are to our present celebration of Halloween. Can you expand a bit from the brief mention in the book as to why these elements are important and how they play a part?
Lesley Pratt Bannatyne: Although people are interested in the roots and rituals of Halloweens past, the holiday we celebrate now has little in common with those celebrated even 100 years ago. (When’s the last time you burned two nuts on the fireplace grate to predict your future love?) There’s something new going on now, something that has grown from, and is part of, who we are today. Street parties, for instance.
If it weren’t for the impromptu gatherings that came out of some of the largely gay neighborhoods in the late 60s and early 70s, we may not have the outrageously wonderful parades we have today in New York, Los Angeles, Key West, Toms River, NJ, and so on. In Greenwich Village, for example, a small group of people wearing artist Ralph Lee’s masks snaked through the streets each Halloween. The idea captured everyone’s imagination, the parade grew, the media covered it, it grew more, and now we have the truly amazing Village Halloween parade, America’s largest Halloween-night event. You could say the same thing about the Castro District in San Francisco, where an annual Halloween costume party grew into a street celebration so big that it became a tourist destination. The large-scale costume parade had been the province of the small-town Halloween celebrations for decades; now it was a magnet that brought urban adults back to Halloween. It wasn’t just the idea of having a costume party out in the streets, it was also that Halloween was a night when anything could happen, when men could dress as women, women as men, when you could wear a goat’s head, fairy wings, or nothing but body paint, and the world was yours for a night, judgement-free.
Also, there was a new wave of interest in the occult in 1960s America that included an interest in witchcraft (and by witchcraft I’m talking about the contemporary magical, earth-based spirituality practiced by thousands of people, not the Bette Midler Hocus-Pocus type). Halloween was the time of year most media were interested in talking with practicing witches (the witch has been a Halloween icon for hundreds of years), and their interviews helped cast Halloween as a time to honor the dead and ancestors. This appealed to many people looking to explain why we celebrate Halloween, to give it meaning beyond candy and costumes.
As for our current attitudes towards death, we have better ways of hiding death than ever before. (A funeral director once told me that the emphasis on cremation was wrong-headed, in that you never see the person dead, they’re just “out there” somewhere as if it didn’t happen.) The more hidden it is, the more fascinated we become with the dead, death, what could happen after death. Halloween’s the time of year we can explore it, be it, make fun of it, revel in it. People are always referring to Halloween as a black holiday, as in morbid, but I don’t see it that way. I think it’s a time when you can bring a little light and humor into all those dark things that scare us.
The last part of your question—about what does Halloween have to do with a post-Vietnam, post-9/11 world—that’s an interesting one. Halloween is our rogue holiday. Because it doesn’t celebrate a person (Mother’s Day), event (Thanksgiving), ethnicity (St. Patrick’s Day), it’s free to ride along our cultural currents and express who we are and what’s important to us. So, yes, we’ve become a very violent, bloody, sexualized culture, and there’s a lot of fear out there. You’re going to see all of it play out at Halloween; the holiday’s a barometer of our national psyche. The first Village parade after 9/11, for example, was contentious. Many people thought it would make New York a target and they wanted to ban the parade. Others thought it should happen because it always has. It was Mayor Giuliani’s call, and a few days before Halloween he gave the go-ahead. The parade folks had built a baby phoenix puppet, and with the smoke still rising from Ground Zero in the background, the phoenix led the parade up Sixth Avenue. The parade organizers said you could feel New York City start to breathe again. People cheered. I knew at that moment we would get over this. We didn’t keep our kids indoors that Halloween, fearful that something bad might happen to them; we sent them out trick-or-treating dressed as firefighters. At Halloween, you can see who we are and what we value.
TheoFantastique: You spent two years researching this book, and covered a lot of ground in travel. Out of all your experiences what things stand out for you in your research and experiences?
Lesley Pratt Bannatyne: I loved walking through Haunted Overload (a New Hampshire haunted attraction) as it was being constructed, and I loved visiting Gore Galore’s shop in Indiana, where you could turn a corner and see twenty pairs of dress oxfords glued to stands, waiting for their zombie bodies. Getting behind the scenes was always my favorite part of any event, even if it meant sitting in the dark, hot, laundry room of a colonial hotel waiting with an EMF meter for a ghost to show (he didn’t). I’d say that shambling through the Monroeville Mall with 2000 zombies was a definite highlight, but so was talking to Devilicia about how she twirled spider-tassels in her burlesque act.
I know that Halloween is contentious; that people rail against it for various reasons, valid (it’s over-commercialized) or not (it’s a Satanic ritual), but in my years of research I can count on two fingers the number of people who weren’t an absolute joy to talk with.
TheoFantastique: What else have you written on Halloween that readers can track down, and what can we look forward to as your next volume on the topic?
Lesley Pratt Bannatyne: I have five books: a history (Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History), an anthology of Halloween (not horror) literature from the last 400 years (A Halloween Reader), a How-To (A Halloween How-To: Costumes, Parties, Decorations, and Destinations), a children’s book (Witches Night Before Halloween), and Halloween Nation. They are all available from online bookstores, from your local bookstore, or you can find them on my site at www.iskullhalloween.com.
TheoFantastique: Lesley, thank you again for discussing this topic, and for a great book. I hope you have a wonderful and frightful Halloween!
Lesley Pratt Bannatyne: It’s a pleasure to be a part of this! Thanks for thinking of me.