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The Halloweenist
Lesley Bannatyne has become an expert on the creepiest day of the year

IF YOUíRE LIKE me, your participation in the traditions of Halloween probably included the requisite panic over the organization of a costume; the enlisting of your parents for the construction of said costume; a horrific stomachache following the consumption of massive quantities of sugar and corn syrup; and the morning-after walk to school through windswept piles of discarded candy wrappers.

If youíre like Lesley Bannatyne, though, your involvement in the October 31 holiday goes a whole lot further. Bannatyne, a Somerville resident and communications coordinator at Harvard University, is something of a Halloween expert. Sheís written books, namely Halloween: American Holiday, An American History (Facts on File, 1990) and A Halloween How-To: Costumes, Parties, Decorations & Destinations (Pelican Publishing, 2001). Sheís given talks (at the 2000 Halloween Convergence in New Orleans and the St. Louis Art Museum, among other venues). Sheís appeared on television (on specials for Nickelodeon and the History Channel). She even contributed the "Halloween" article to the World Book Encyclopedia.

The question is, why?

Q: When did your interest in Halloween start?

A: I got kissed for the first time on Halloween. I was 10; I was dressed as a black cat. He was 10; he was dressed as a skeleton. It was stunning. I kept circling back to Halloween. I graduated from college in the í70s, and I think it was kind of a requirement that you had to bump into witchcraft at some point or other if you were into any kind of feminism or consciousness-raising. And everybody I knew was starting covens or studying them, so I kind of backed into it then. But it didnít really become serious until about the mid í80s, when a literary-agent friend of mine said, "You know, I think [publisher] Facts on File would take a holiday book if you pitched them Halloween." And I did, and they did, and I started writing about it then, so itís been almost 20 years.

Q: Tell me about the experience of living Halloween for months at a time while writing Halloween How-To.

A: That was, frankly, a blast. Every day in October I did something different [for] Halloween, so I was out going to pumpkin festivals and trying to figure out where you buy fangs and going to places like Spooky World and the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular and any kind of Halloween events I could get to within a dayís drive. My freezer had pumpkin in it for like nine months. I had a large recipe section in that book, and I did test them and make them all, so I had this store of frozen pumpkin, because I had no time in October or November to do anything but just collect information. So by the time I got around to cooking, it was March, April, May, and so I needed this pumpkin.

Q: For people who donít know it, can you give a brief history of Halloween?

A: Most people start it back in Ireland, or Celtic countries, around 2000 years ago. There was a holiday called Samhain. It means "summerís end." Essentially thatís what it was in the very, very beginning; it was the end of summer, in Ireland mostly. Ireland, Scotland. And itís where people would bring their herds in from pasture. The end of the harvest had to be in by then. And it was the beginning of the dark season. The ancient Irish sagas that were written down between the ninth and 12th centuries make mention of this place. It was a time of supernatural activity. So thereís the essence of it there.

But then a thousand different things happened to it over the years. The Roman Catholic Church put two holidays around that date eventually, called All Saintsí and All Soulsí. And the All Soulsí Day, which is really November 2, took on a lot of the characteristics that we think of as Halloween, such as putting on masks and going door to door begging for sweets or money. Originally it was charitable, and people did this on a lot of holidays; it was how first the feudal lords passed on largesse, and then second how the church took over that function when thousands of years went by. It was a dole; Halloween, All Hallows, beggars ó they were that, they were all beggars, as were Christmas beggars, et cetera.

Around the 1850s, when everybody got really interested in folklore and old superstition, they picked up these customs and started to publish them in periodicals, which is where most people here heard about it. That made them very public, and before you knew it, Victorians were having these Halloween parties that involved all these older kind of superstitious rituals. And then it went through all the phases that holidays did here, which was [to] become large and civic, huge parades, and then eventually to be subsumed by things that happen with private homes.

Q: Thereíve been child-safety issues around Halloween, and then September 11, and now these sniper attacks. Historically, how has Halloween been affected by world events? And how do you think itíll be affected this year?

A: These things seem to happen in September, October. Back in 1972, there was a child who overdosed from heroin on Halloween, and his family first said that it was in his trick-or-treat candy, but it wasnít, it was a mistake, it was someone elseís heroin. It was a tragic mistake. So in the early í70s, there was a sense that [Halloween] could be dangerous. And in the í70s, there was enough of it out in the media that trick-or-treating actually shrunk. Thatís when mall trick-or-treating started, which was the í70s reaction to "thereís danger in the streets." Then in 1982, I think it was either in late September or early October that there were those Tylenol [murders] ó that was right before Halloween, and the same sort of thing happened; there was kind of a, "Well, letís make an alternative to trick-or-treating; you can come to the Boysí & Girlsí Club, weíre going to have parties ..."

Q: Because of all the aspirin they were giving out in Halloween bags.

A: Yeah, right! So thereís always been kind of a local community-based ó and varying from community to community quite a bit ó response to the danger. With 9/11 last year, everybody said itís going to devastate trick-or-treating, we donít know what weíre going to do, itís going to have a huge effect on Halloween. And I donít think it had as big an effect as people thought it might. I think trick-or-treating went down a little bit, but I remember it wasnít as big as what people thought; people thought no one would go out, and they did go out, and there were private parties. And maybe if anything, thatís what people did more: they did private parties, or parents brought their children to homes of folks they knew more than to strangersí homes. But it wasnít a huge, like, "letís bring them to the mall" response. I think Halloween serves the community really well. Especially if you have kids, and you want to know your neighbors, this is one of the few holidays you can go out and introduce yourself, or kind of parade your children around. Itís a nice thing. I think in those kinds of communities, people did that anyway. They used it to pull a community together, rather than, "Okay, Iím not taking my kids anywhere."

So historical events have an impact on Halloween; they just kind of shift the activities either from more public to more private, or from more community-based to more "safe" places like a mall. I donít know about the sniper, but I would imagine Halloween will be very different in DC.

Q: What about the razor blades in the apples ó I heard that was an urban legend.

A: It is. Thereíve been by now several sociological studies. The first one was by Joel Best, whoís a professor of criminology, and he studied them up until 1983, I think. Every incident was either a hoax, or in many cases ó well, he didnít find razor blades in apples, but he was looking for treats that were tampered with by an adult that was a stranger and given to a child, so itís the myth of, he called it the Halloween sadist. You know, "Thereís a stranger out there lying in wait for your kids." That never happened.

Q: What are some other common Halloween misperceptions or urban legends?

A: Well, thereís the big one which is that itís satanic, and that comes up each year right about this time, that Satanists practice rituals on Halloween. As far as I can tell, real Satanists, which are people that just have a certain mindset ó and probably not the one that most people think of when they think of Satanists; the Church of Satan or the Temple of Satan, which are loosely organized satanic organizations, never, even in their heyday, had more than 400 or 500 members. And at this point, satanic sects usually are two or three people for two or three months at a time, and what we think of as satanic are usually teenagers playing at something. But you get a lot of that attached to Halloween, [the idea] that theyíre doing it on Halloween. Itís just not happening. The fundamentalist church didnít start to talk about Halloween as evil or satanic until Hollywood discovered that kind of imagery and put it in movies associated with Halloween. It wasnít until then. In the í40s and í50s, you didnít have the churches saying, "This is a bad holiday." You had the churches running Halloween parties. Itís Hollywood that did that.

Q: I used to have this recurring bad dream that it was Halloween and I didnít have a costume. Do you ever think that Halloween causes more stress than itís worth?

A: Not unless youíre just working too hard. If itís all about the perfect costume, who I must be, who I want to be, and you canít get it right, I can see how that could be very stressful. As a child, I remember it was very stressful, because this was the one chance a year I had to look absolutely glamorous. I understand completely what you say about the dream, because I thought about it for weeks, and that day it all had to happen perfectly, and sometimes it didnít, and I remember just being dissolved in tears. And I have had a child that age who was dissolved in tears. In her harem costume, actually, she ran out of the house, she wouldnít trick or treat, and she stood under a drainpipe ó it was about 40 degrees ó and let the water drip on her so she would freeze to death. That was her plan. It takes a bit to get over that hump, but I think once youíre 10 or 11, youíre over that, and it becomes fun again.

Q: Would the kids in your neighborhood say that yours is the best house to go trick-or-treating at?

A: I hope they do! Iím in Somerville, and I donít have a lot of room, but I try to put as much light and sound as I can in the front yard. I have a chandelier hanging from my one solitary crabapple tree. All the windows have silhouettes of skeletons and bats and stuff. I carve as many pumpkins as I can stand, 10 or 20, and put them in the yard. And I also got for my birthday last year a fog machine. Itís an indoor fog machine, so when the kids knock at the door, I can send off a shot of fog, so as I open the door, all they can see is fog.

Q: Do you dress up?

A: I do. Last year, I got a lovely witchís gown, so thatís up for this year. Something black and spooky. But no mask, because there are a lot of little kids on my street. Theyíre already backing up by the time the fog clears.

Q: Whatís the best Halloween costume youíve ever worn?

A: Once I [went as] the floor of a movie theater, which was easy to do ó itís pink silly string, you spray it all over yourself and stick little popcorn here and there, and wear a popcorn container on your head ...

Q: And black Jujyfruits?

A: Yes! Pin a lot of junk to yourself. I did like that.

Q: Bobbing for apples ó whose idea was that?

A: Thatís an old, old thing. In Ireland, the image of the apple and the image of crossing water to an afterlife ó Apple Land, or Avalon, was the afterlife, and crossing water to get there was part of the Irish mythology. As early as the 1700s, and probably before, they were doing the same sort of thing that we do with a tub of water and trying to get an apple.

Q: It doesnít seem like a very sanitary party game.

A: I read one account in a Victorian periodical that they did it with forks between their teeth. Thatís very genteel.

Q: Why do you think stores always run out of candy at Halloween? Like, if you go to CVS on Halloween morning, all thatís left are those little Dum Dum lollipops and some malt balls.

A: Because they donít want to send it back; they order just enough. If they run out, I think theyíre happier. If they have stuff left over, they have to put it on deep discount, throw it away, or send it back somewhere. I think itís just planned that way. Theyíre going to make you buy the Dum Dums.

Lesley Bannatyne presents "Shivers at Dusk" at McIntyre & Moore Booksellers, 255 Elm Street, in Somerville, on Sunday, October 27 from 5 to 7 p.m. Tamara Wieder can be reached at

A complete archive of our weekly Q&As
Issue Date: October 24 - October 31, 2002
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