Halloween Traditions, Old & New

“This Halloween, give someone a scary book to read.” That’s the message Neil Gaiman is spreading this Halloween in a clip promoting All Hallow’s Read, an attempt to inaugurate a tradition in the UK of gift-giving every Halloween. Gaiman is an English author whose work crosses several generic divides: short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio plays and films. He’s best known for the comic book series, The Sandman, and he’s penned the novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

Image from 'Haunted Air', a collection of photographs of late 19th century/early 20th century American folk Halloween costumes published by Random House

Image from 'Haunted Air', a collection of photographs of late 19th century/early 20th century American folk Halloween costumes published by Random House

Traditionally, Halloween isn’t a tradition Australians have widely embraced. It seems to be a Christianised version of a Celtic harvest festival known as Samhain. While its popularity in Ireland and Scotland has dwindled, Irish and Scottish immigrants exported the holiday to North America, where it turned into an occasion for ritual mayhem.

Halloween costumes have tended to mirror the American cultural zeitgeist. Haunted Air is a new book by Ossian Brown published in Australia by Random House that gathers together photographs of folk Halloween costumes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The costumes reveal a visual culture that was more vivid and disturbing than that of today.

These days, what passes for scary often speaks volumes for our own prejudices - one law firm specialising in morgage foreclosures has gathered unwelcome publicity for staging a company Halloween party in which staff dressed as homeless people.

In fact, a group of students and teachers at Ohio University called STARS (Students Teaching About Racism in Society) have launched a campaign called ‘We’re a Culture, Not a Costume’. The campaign consists of a series of posters discouraging people from wearing Halloween costumes that draw on racial stereotypes. Here’s more.

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