Thursday, May 26, 2011
Book Review - HALLOWEEN NATION by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne
One of the most intriguing things about Halloween - at least in the grand scope of holidays - is the fact that there is no one way to going about celebrating it. Whereas everyone who celebrates Christmas has more or less the same plan for December 25th - big meal, gift exchange, tree with ornaments, etc. - October 31st can mean anything to any number of different people. You could go trick-or-treating, host a party, stay in and watch scary movies, attend a rite or ceremony, try to communicate with the dead, visit a haunted house, see a play, go to a concert, hit up a bar...the possibilities are limitless. Even the tone of the holiday is optional; whether your Halloween is sexy, gruesome, whimsical, terrifying or beautiful is entirely up to you. How you celebrate Halloween depends on the age in which you were born, the region in which you live, the kind of movies you watch, the genre of music you prefer to listen to, your childhood experiences with the holiday and, often, the nature of your most profound hopes and fears.
Another curious facet of Halloween is precisely how American the holiday really is; despite its reputation as a night for mainstream-taunting iconoclasm, the truth is that loving Halloween is practically patriotic. While Halloween (or some variation thereof) is celebrated in several other countries, it seems unlikely that any other place on earth has quite so many people who love the holiday quite so much. If you've ever wondered how the collective American psyche has shaped our modern celebration of Halloween, then Lesley Pratt Bannatyne's book Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America's Fright Night is for you.
A 200-page examination of why we love Halloween peppered liberally with color photographs and illustrations, Halloween Nation attempts to answer that question without resorting to dense prose or subscribing to any one theory. Similar in tone to the works of Mary Roach (whose books Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife are cited as resources), Bannatyne makes the kind of sociological examination demanded by the subject matter fun and cheeky rather than heavy-handed and academic.
She begins by probing the origins of the modern Halloween celebration, albeit briefly, since this book is about Halloween now, not Halloween hundreds (or even thousands) of years ago. Then she dives right into the slimy guts of the subject matter, speculating about the enduring appeal of the holiday's most iconic symbols (ghosts, witches, pumpkins, zombies) and taking an entire chapter to deconstruct the etymology of the jack o' lantern. Ghost hunters, witches, zombie walk organizers and farmers that specialize in growing gargantuan pumpkins are all consulted for their Halloween expertise.
Next, Bannatyne looks at large-scale Halloween celebrations from inception to execution, including the Village Halloween Parade in NYC and HAuNTcon (the haunted attraction industry trade show), and finishes up by examining Halloween-year-round subcultures like goth and metal, as well as a look at how "trick-or-treat" (particularly the "trick" aspect) has grown and changed in recent years.
In the course of the book, Bannatyne visits people from all over the country with many different connections to Halloween, from professed mediums and Spiritualists in the town of Lily Dale, NY to horror burlesque performers to sophisticated pranksters at MIT. While the book never gets particularly in-depth about any one subject - personally, I could read an entire book about haunted houses, theme parks and yard haunts - it provides a fascinating overview and may introduce you to Halloween traditions you didn't even know existed. (I am now extremely sad to have missed out on the Los Angeles Cacophony Society's haunted houses...sigh.) A glimpse of how our favorite day as we know it could only have happened here (in America) and now (in the twenty-first century), Bannatyne's Halloween Nation is a worthy addition to any Halloween fan's library.
For more information, visit the author's website.
Disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book for review.