Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal

Because so much of my time is spent in the attention-shattering online world, I hope to restore a little balance, when possible, by getting engrossed in a good old-fashioned book.

As a lover of history, mythology, traditions and customs, I figured that Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, by David J. Skall, might fit the bill nicely this time of year. The problem is, however, that every two minutes or so, I find myself leaping up from the couch to Google some Halloween fact or another mentioned in in Mr. Skall’s book.

Here are just some of the items I’ve looked up so far — and I’m only halfway through the 212 pages:

  • Ronald Clark O’Bryan — Nicknamed “The Candyman,” the Deer Park, Texas man is one of the only actual trick-or-treat poisoning cases ever recorded. He was executed for murdering his own 8-year-old son with cyanide-laced candy in 1974.
  • Halloween Postcards — Early 20th century postcards by artists such as Ellen Clapsaddle capture some of the essential imagery of the first Halloween celebrations in America. This Flickr set contains over 1,600 specimens.
  • Dennison’s Bogie Books and Halloween Crepe Aprons — The Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts (now part of the Avery Dennison Corporation famous for adhesive labels) published an annual bible for Halloween decorating which happened to incorporate many items made from their crepe paper. You can still buy their Bogie Books via — or even download them to your Kindle!
  • The ‘Final Houdini Séance’: Halloween, 1936 — On the tenth anniversary of magician Harry Houdini‘s death, Hollywood’s limelight was focused on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel as his wife Bess failed again in her annual attempt to contact him and gave up, declaring, “This is the end. Good night, Harry.” A famous audio documentary of the event is available online for streaming or downloading.
  • Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches”) — This 1486 handbook by Heinrich Kramer instigated the witch-hunting craze in Early Modern Europe and North America.
  • Trick or Treat — This 1952 Disney cartoon starring Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie was the first screen depiction of trick or treating. Through it, “The begging ritual was modeled for millions of youngsters in the early fifties,” according to Skal.

  • Jack T. Chick — Publisher of small Christian comic book religious tracts including several anti-Halloween tracts such as The Trick and Stinky.
  • Bob Burns’ Hollywood Halloween — Bob Burns is the most fantastic example of what the book calls “yard haunters” — people who turn their homes and yards into elaborate Halloween displays. As someone who grew up in Burbank, Bob had a lot of friends in the movie business, and with their props and expertise, he and his wife Kathy put on Halloween extravaganzas year after year beginning in 1967.
  • Halloween Alliance — A free informational website on all things Halloween.
  • Horror Hotel — A Halloween attraction in Chatfield Ohio (45 minutes south of Sandusky) operated by David Lady and Laura Lady

I’m sure I’ll be adding more links as I continue through this book. It’s so cool to be able to see and hear this stuff in addition to reading about it.