Wednesday, November 8, 2017


One of the most effective ways to combat a post-Halloween hangover, I have found, is to have some spooky stuff lined up for at least the first week or two of November. That way you'll ensure an easier transition for yourself from the scariest time of year to the merriest. For my part, I've filled the past week with activities ranging from seeing John Carpenter play live to watching Wicked Lit performed in a cemetery under a full moon to finally finishing the book I've been reading for most of October, Chris Kullstroem's Drawn to the Dark: Explorations in Scare Tourism Around the World. If you need any more evidence that this book is ideal holiday season reading for the creepily-inclined, look no further than the leering Austrian Krampuses on the hell-red cover.

Before I started this book, I expected a somewhat scholarly examination of how various cultures celebrate the macabre in all of its many forms. I thought it would be meticulously researched, painstakingly annotated, and maybe even a little dry, in the way that non-fiction books can sometimes be. Turns out I was all wrong about this book in both tone and content. Instead, Drawn to the Dark reads more like a first-person travelogue, as author Chris Kullstroem sells off her possessions and travels around the world via connections made on the Couchsurfing website, all in the name of seeking what's spooky at home and abroad.

While some of the locations she visits were what I was expecting, such as a jaunt to Mexico for the Day of the Dead or a trip to Transylvania to unravel the myth behind the Dracula legend, many others were totally unexpected, including the Hungarian Busójárás  festival, a mountaintop concert in Germany to honor Walpurgisnacht, and the "Ghostbus Tour" she takes in Ireland. Even the more standard chapters took unexpected turns: Her stay in Oaxaca for Dia de los Muertos ends in a trip to a haunt situated in an old auto junkyard, while the Krampus chapter surprised me simply because I had no idea authentic Austrian Krampus laufs were so brutal (hot tip - if you find yourself in Salzburg during the holiday season, consider investing in shin guards).

Brief descriptions of each event are provided before Kullstroem dives headfirst into celebrating with the locals, but you won't find a definitive history of any particular festival or tradition here. Rather, this book is about one American haunt enthusiast's experience of chasing spookiness all over the globe. Her Couchsurfing hosts, who tend to participate in the haunts, tours, and festivals with her, range from enthusiastic to reluctant, and it's always fun to read their perceptions of their own country's more macabre traditions. For her part, Kullstroem seems to be an incredibly good sport with an unwavering appetite for adventure, and her openness toward new experiences, from performing in haunts to hunting down zombies in a simulated battle to weathering blows from whip-wielding Krampuses, may even inspire you to step out of your own creepy comfort zone.

In her chapter on Transylvania, Kullstroem does a masterful job of balancing the lurid tale of Dracula - and the area's own Drac-centric tourist industry - with the fact that Vlad Tepes, brutal though his methods were, is regarded by many as a folk hero who protected his people from invasion by any means necessary. She visits historical sites and haunts alike, taking them both in stride and enjoying them for what they have to offer, concluding:
There was room for both, I supposed: The reality and the spectacle. One could always lead to appreciating the other - regardless of which we had been originally drawn to.
This lack of distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, between culture and kitsch, is the true crux of the book in my opinion, and what truly sets Drawn to the Dark apart from more academic tomes. Whether you're learning in a museum, paying your respects in a mausoleum, or screaming your head off in a maze, all of these experiences are facets of the same fascination with death, life, and the mysteries of mortality. All have value for those of us who delight in the darkness.

So if you need to recapture that Halloween feeling even as winter is setting in, or you're looking for a great holiday gift for that spooky someone, check out Drawn to the Dark for a unique travel diary that will delight any haunt fan.

Disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book for review.

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