We have been lucky enough to chat with author and historian Lesley Bannatyne (Halloween. An American Holiday, An American History, Halloween Nation. Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night, A Halloween Reader. Poems, Stories and Plays from Halloween Past) the past few weeks through email. For those who don’t know, Lesley writes extensively on Halloween, especially its history, literature, and contemporary celebration and is one of the country’s foremost authorities on Halloween. We see her every year on the HISTORY channel and their specials The Haunted History of Halloween and The Real Story of Halloween. It’s been a pleasure speaking with her and she was happy to hear that our society exists. You can learn more about her at her website: http://iskullhalloween.com/
We sent her a few questions to answer and here are her responses.
1. What fascinates you so much about Halloween and when did your fascination begin?
I have always loved Halloween. As a kid in southern Connecticut (I grew up outside Bridgeport), I loved the freedom of being out after dark with my friends running door-to-door for candy. I loved dressing up. I loved the days leading up to Halloween, when the weather would get windy and cool and (many times), it would be dark at 5 o’clock. It seemed magical to me. I think many of us harbor memories of Halloween like this. As an adult, I became interested in the ways Halloween could be transgressive, expressive, and how it highlighted whatever was bubbling up in the culture that year.
2. As someone quoted as the “foremost authority on Halloween”, how excited do you still get about the holiday?
I still do love Halloween, and come October 1st I start hauling the decorations from the cellar and fill the house.
3. In your 2011 article “Why Halloween Matters” you described Halloween as a combination of community, imagination, and generosity. Do you think those attributes are still relevant today?
Yes. There are many other ways you can describe Halloween, of course. But these three things are still a part of the celebration as far as I can see.
4. Do you have any more information on the National Halloween Committee? I’ve hit huge walls with research on this.
The National Halloween Committee captured some newspaper mentions with its purported goal of 11 million indoor Halloween parties. You are right that it’s near impossible to find a follow-up, which makes me suspect it was more a public relations effort than anything else. That would have made sense at that time.
5. Do you have any familial Halloween traditions that you continue?
I host a pumpkin carving party each year. I did learn to carve from my father, so I suppose it’s a carryover from his generation to mine.
6. What’s your greatest memory of Halloween?
I have many wonderful Halloween memories. I’ve been lucky in that I was invited to walk at the front of the Village parade, which was a highlight, and also helped launch the release of The Deathly Hallows at a huge public event in Cambridge at Halloween. I’ve been in a witch fashion show, rode the Zombie bus touring haunted entertainments, been ghost hunting, and celebrated Samhain with Earthspirit. But I also treasure some less public Halloween memories, such as the year it snowed on Halloween and I drove up to Lee, NH on November 1 to walk through Eric Lowther’s Haunted Overload, a walk-though-the-woods haunted entertainment. It was closed and empty and absolutely beautiful.
7. What is your all-time favorite costume that you dressed up in for Halloween?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Two years ago.
8. Is Halloween really that different (i.e. better) where you live in Massachusetts than it is for the rest of us across the US? Why are we – (ok, really just me)- so jealous of the stereotypical thoughts of Halloween in MA?
I’m afraid I couldn’t say! I imagine that the city of Salem has something to do with that, but there are many wonderful Halloween towns across the country.
9. One of the greatest things I’ve read from you is “Perhaps in our culture today, Halloween is the one night a year when the barriers between people can be lifted: between classes, races, and generations.” I can’t thank you enough for putting this into words. This is exactly what I think of Halloween. Throw away the arguments over origins, the question of its religious or non-religious slant, whether or not it should event be celebrated, and you have this simple premise. Halloween is a time for the community. Thanks for fielding these questions. If I think of anything else, I will be sure to write to you. I’ve been buying a lot of older texts related to Halloween and they are bringing up a lot of questions. The latest one I bought is on Highland Superstitions from 1922 that has a great section on Halloween.
The Macgregor book? Have fun. My favorite festivals book ever is Stations of the Sun. So clear, so detailed, and Hutton never does that time-slip thing that many others do (e.g. talk about something in the 16th century, then morph it with something in the 19th, for example).