I am one of the world’s leading experts on Halloween.
It sounds strange to say that. In fact, there’s a little voice in the back of my brain screaming, “Do you realize how that sounds?! It’s so conceited!”
Well, except for one thing: It’s true. I’m the author of one of the definitive reference works on the holiday (The Halloween Encyclopedia, released earlier this year in a second edition), I’ve written another award-winning book on the subject (A Hallowe’en Anthology: Literary and Historical Writings Over the Centuries, winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Non-fiction and nominated for the Black Quill Award), and I just finished up my third book on the subject, a narrative history to be released next year by the fine British press Reaktion Books. I’ve been interviewed on the History Channel and the Blu-ray supplements for the movie Trick ‘r’ Treat, and I’ve even been quoted in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.
Beyond mere conceit, though, there’s another reason it feels strange to admit all this: Because as short a time as ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable. Back in, say, 2000, if you’d told me, “Hey, Lisa, I think you’re a world class Halloween expert,” I would have laughed you out of the room. It wasn’t something I’d ever planned to be, and it finally happened almost by accident.
Of course I’ve always loved Halloween. I was lucky enough to grow up in a middle-class American suburb during the golden age of trick-or-treat, and I took it very seriously. I was one of those kids who planned my costumes for months. I was obsessed with authenticity: If I wanted to be a cavewoman, I wore a real animal hide. I spent weeks trying to figure out how to do the creepy eyes of the infected people from The Omega Man (hey, I was like ten – I didn’t know what contact lenses were, okay?). I loved monster movies and candy and jack-o’-lanterns and costumes.
But so did millions of other kids, and they didn’t all grow up to give away years of their lives to the study of the holiday. So what happened to me?
It’s like this: Back in 1991, I started working at a used bookstore here in the L.A. area. The bookstore, called the Iliad Bookshop, was only four years old when I started there, but the owner had already built up a clientele and he bought actively all the time. We had a constant stream of old books coming through.
Some of them were about Halloween.
I don’t remember now what the first one I bought was, but it was one of the vintage entertainment pamphlets that proliferated in the first half of the 20th century. Halloween, in the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s – before the onset of trick-or-treating – was a major holiday for middle- and upper-class American hostesses who liked to throw parties. Most of these parties were for adults, and the popularity of these parties led to not just an entire new industry catering to retail decorations (Dennison’s and Beistle were the major companies), but also created a virtual cottage industry of Halloween-themed party booklets. Most of these little booklets run 100-200 pages, and they have titles like Handy Helps for Hallowe’en, The Tip-Top Hallowe’en Book, and The Jolly Hallowe’en Book. They often have cute early graphics of witches or cats or pumpkins, and they include everything from suggested menus (one book even recommends foods which are essentially “indigestible” to provoke Halloween dreams!) to party games to decorating tips. They paint a picture of parties that’s very different from what we expect now: Back then, hostesses were required to not just prepare a complete multi-course meal, but to provide live musical or theatrical performances, so these little books are even packed with short Halloween plays and songs – there are endless versions of “Jingle Bells” with Halloween lyrics. (These booklets are also frequently less than politically correct, since they come from a time when blackface was still acceptable and racial stereotypes frequently consigned African Americans to the roles of easily-frightened, superstitious buffoons).
I soon had a couple of these booklets (there were dozens of them printed), and I had to have more. In 1995, a new website called ebay came online and it was the world’s greatest garage sale, with Halloween goods aplenty (and in those early days they were still affordable). One of my first ebay acquisitions was an 1898 booklet called Hallowe’en: How to Celebrate It, which I later realized was the first book ever devoted solely to Halloween. At some point I started to buy other books on Halloween, and managed to acquire a nice first edition of the Holy Grail for Halloween book collectors: Ruth Edna Kelley’s The Book of Hallowe’en (1919), the first hardback book, and a surprisingly good book to boot.
By 2000, I had a nice collection of Halloween books, but it was all just for fun. I had absolutely no intention whatsoever of doing anything with that collection beyond enjoying it.
Then I did my first book for McFarland (The Cinema of Tsui Hark), and after it was published they sent me a nice letter asking me if I had any other ideas. I looked at their new catalog, and saw they’d recently published The Christmas Encyclopedia, so I sent them a proposal for The Halloween Encyclopedia, figuring (very naively, might I add) that I already had so much reference material at my fingertips it would be an easy book to write.
Two years later…
There you have it, then. An innocent interest in collecting quaint old party guides led me to become one of a handful of acknowledged experts on the subject of Halloween. Fortunately, I’m not burned out on the holiday yet. I know there are still more of the vintage booklets out there (although nowadays they tend to be prohibitively expensive), and I’m always looking.
I suppose at this point it’s too late to stop.
(You can see my collection online at http://halloween.lisamorton.com/books.html ).