Sunday, July 25, 2010

October 31, 2009: 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Halloween

1. Halloween evolved from two ancient pagan celebrations: the Celtic new year holiday of Samhain (pron: Sow-win) when the border between the natural world and the realm of supernatural creatures and magic blurs, and Pomona, a Roman festival in honor of the goddess of fruit trees (hence the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples).


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2. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “Jack-o-lantern” derives from “Jack-with-the-lantern”, a nickname for a night watchman.


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3. Washington Irving took the name of the cowardly star of his classic Halloween ghost story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from Colonel Ichabod Crane, a military man from Staten Island, New York, who was Commanding Officer to the Confederate Lieutenant Stonewall Jackson.

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4. Of the many adaptations of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” the most faithful to Irving’s original tale may very well be Disney’s animated version in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). A good deal of Bing Crosby’s narration is taken directly from Irving’s text.


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5. Bats and Owls became associated with Halloween because these nocturnal predators were attracted to the mosquitoes that would convene around Halloween night bonfires built to scare off spirits.

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6. Trick-or-Treating has its roots in a medieval All Saint’s Day practice called “souling” in which the poor would ask for food door-to-door in exchange for offering prayers for the dead the following day (All Soul’s Day).


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7. Beistle, the company responsible for those simple but memorable cardboard window decorations that greeted many a trick-or-treater throughout the years, has been in business since 1900. While the company’s signature images of pumpkins, witches, and black cats rendered in basic shades of orange, black, white, and green now fetch big money on ebay, Beistle is still very much a functioning company and quite reasonably priced repros of these pieces are available at Retroween.com.

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8. Although master escape artist Harry Houdini reveled in debunking the supernatural, the New York Times reported that he planned to communicate from beyond the grave following his death on Halloween night, 1926. Widow Bess Houdini held séances on the first three Halloweens following her husband’s death in the hope of receiving a private, coded message only she knew. After the third attempt failed, she gave up. That’s when a medium from New York named Arthur Ford delivered a message to Bess: “Rosabelle answer tell pray answer look tell answer answer tell.” She confirmed that the message was, indeed, the one her late husband told her he would impart.


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9. The holiday of witches and goblins made its film debut in 1914’s The Three of Us. The film featured a brief dance number set on Halloween. The first film titled Halloween was an animated short released in 1931, the same year that saw the debuts of Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein.


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10. While many of us associate Universal’s classic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.) with Halloween, the studio did not begin marketing its monsters’ relationship with the holiday until the early ‘60s when the famous creatures first figured prominently on Halloween costumes and decorations. In 1999, the studio started promoting the DVD releases of its classic films with the subtle tagline “Universal IS Halloween.”

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11. The image of witches as broomstick-riding, green-faced creatures in black dresses and pointy hats was basically birthed in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, although depictions of witches in similar garb can be found in W.W. Denslow’s illustrations of the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as Halloween cards that pre-date the film.

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12. According to Cinema Suicide.com , the Brach’s candy company claims that if all the candy corn that is eaten each year was laid “end-to-end it would circle the Earth 4.5 times.”
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13. Ben Cooper costumes— those cheap-o-la ensembles consisting of a vinyl bodysuit and plastic mask with a rubber band strap that dominated the youth costume market from the 60’s through the 80’s— can still be found relatively cheaply in their original packaging by collectors on ebay. That is, except for the Spiderman costume produced in the late ‘60s. Because this version of the costume was redesigned in the ‘70s, original versions (which make the wearer look as though he/she is wearing a pair of blue wrestling tights) fetch up to $200.
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14. Ray Bradury’s classic young adult novel The Halloween Tree (1972), which follows a group of eight trick-or-treaters searching for a friend who has gone mysteriously missing, began life as a screenplay for an unproduced animated film the writer intended to make with Loony Tunes legend Chuck Jones. The book was eventually adapted into an award-winning cartoon in 1993 without Jones’s involvement.


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15. The urban legends regarding killer Halloween candy that caused a minor panic during the ‘70s and ‘80s were nothing more than that. Despite a New York Times piece that warned of razorblades concealed in apples and “bubblegum… sprinkled with lye,” there has never been a reported death or life-threatening injury caused by Halloween candy obtained by trick-or-treating and there have only been a few cases of minor injuries. The only children who ever died from eating poisoned Halloween candy were poisoned by their own parents.

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16. According to Wikipedia, New York City’s famed Village Halloween Parade (founded 1973) partially gained popularity due to an asinine law aimed at the city’s substantial gay community that prohibited people from wearing clothing traditionally associated with the opposite sex. The parade allowed New Yorkers the opportunity to don whatever outrageous garb they damn-well wanted to wear. The law has since been repealed.

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17. As closely as Halloween is associated with horror movies, few classic (pre-‘80s) horror films are set on the holiday. Appropriately enough, the most significant classic fright flick set on Halloween is Halloween (1979).

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18. Before Donald Pleasance took the iconic role of Sam Loomis in Halloween, director John Carpenter offered the part to Hammer Horror legends Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Both actors turned down the role, a decision that Lee later admitted was the worst of his career.


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19. Don Post is best known for developing a best-selling line of latex Halloween masks (including the William Shatner mask worn by Michael Myers in the Halloween movies), but he also made a mark in feature films. Post created special props for the 1956 sci-fi/horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Following Post’s death in 1979, his costume company designed the “stillsuit” used in David Lynch’s 1984 film Dune.


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20. The appearances of Kang and Kodos—the tentacled, one-eyed aliens that have been staples of “The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episodes since 1990—were modeled directly on a pair of aliens on the cover of an E.C. comic book.

*I consulted several sources while putting this list together, but by far the most essential was David Skal’s Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. All Halloween aficionados should have it in their libraries.
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