Newsbook: In Time for Halloween, 3 Books on Monsters, Ghosts and Fear

With Halloween approaching, here are 3 books on the symbols, traditions and lore surrounding the spooky holiday.

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DEATH MAKES A HOLIDAY
A Cultural History of Halloween
By David J. Skal
224 pp. Bloomsbury. (2002)

Skal is the author of a number of books on horror movies; in this one, he broadens his lens to concentrate not only on scary films, but also on the symbols (like cats, cobwebs and witches) and stories associated with Halloween. He offers a history of the holiday, while also debunking urban legends like that of candy tampering, of which he only found two known lethal cases. Skal also interviews a wide range of people with varying degrees of investment and interest in Halloween: businessmen for whom it serves as a ludicrous marketing opportunity, witches who view it as a sacred day, and religious individuals who consider it blasphemous. Our reviewer said this book performs “the heroic service of taking all the stuff in stores seriously, as instruments in the creation of a new unreligious holiday of some significance.”

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GHOSTLAND
An American History in Haunted Places
By Colin Dickey
320 pp. Viking. (2016)

This book analyzes not whether ghosts are real, but rather what our belief in them and in the so-called haunted places they inhabit say about our culture. Dickey visits haunted houses across the United States, from Salem, Mass., to Reno, Nev., to examine what these places reveal about past social anxieties. He argues that these ghost stories are, to varying degrees, a reflection of our relationship to issues like class tensions or slavery, pointing to examples like the unjust executions of “witches” in Salem or the tendency of employees in a Reno brothel to witness ghosts, which he attributes to the extreme stress of their working conditions. Our reviewer called his work “both intellectually intriguing and politically instructive.”

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HAUNTED
On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds
By Leo Braudy
306 pp. Yale University Press. (2016)

In his review, Gregory Macguire wrote that the “dizzying array of approaches he commands — theological, historical, cultural, aesthetic and psychological” makes Braudy the ideal person to write this book. This taxonomy categorizes “monsters of modernity” into four categories: “the monsters from nature (like King Kong), the created monster (like Frankenstein), the monster from within (like Mr. Hyde) and the monster from the past (like Dracula).” Braudy discusses how the Protestant rejection of the concept of purgatory gave rise to a belief that ghosts, with no other place to go, returned to roam the Earth. He analyzes the historical rise of specters to explain how they have evolved and why.

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