Blast caught some insight on Halloween’s history by local expert, Lesley Bannatyne, who helped us separate some fact from fiction on everything from witches, vampires, and the holiday itself.
Bannatyne, of Somerville, is the author of several books about the October holiday.
Blast: You were voted one of the most interesting women in Boston by Boston’s Women’s Journal. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Lesley Bannatyne: I came to college in Boston and never left. During my twenties I co-founded a touring theater company called Studebaker Theater, which had a good, long (25-year) run — our last production, under the name Invisible Cities Group, was done in 2003; it was a collaboration with local musician Rick Berlin. For my day job, I took every kind of writing job you can imagine from writing text for fashion shows to commercials to writing journalistic pieces for the Christian Science Monitor and the Globe. My first Halloween book came out in 1990.
Blast: We hear you started your career as a writer-how did you become so involved in researching Halloween?
LB: I can honestly say that I’ve always loved Halloween, from the time I was a kid until now, and I’ve always celebrated it.
In fact, people often ask me why adults have started celebrating Halloween, and the truth of it is that many adults never stopped celebrating. It’s just that there are so many more of us now. The market has taken notice, which means more products-decorations, music, events, costumes-and a much more visible adult celebration.
I started looking into the history of Halloween when I couldn’t find a source that had good detail on American celebrations of the last 100 years. That research became “Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History.” After that, it was like falling down a rabbit hole; everything you turn up leads to something else, which leads to something else. In fact one of the hardest points in working on a book is knowing when to draw the line and say, “I’m finished.”
Blast: You became involved in a pagan organization in order to learn more, correct? What are some of the important ideas or concepts you took from this experience?
LB: Yes, I joined the Earthspirit community for a few years and have attended many of their Samhain rituals (which occur around Halloween) which I always find very beautiful. I suppose one of the most striking aspects of paganism as I know it (Bannatyne is not pagan) is how attuned to the natural world it makes you. The Earthspirit Samhain rituals also made the idea of death very personal. You spend time thinking about your dead, your losses, the lives lived by those you love, rather than thinking about death in a more general way, like we might on Memorial Day.
Blast: Do you feel pagan societies are often misrepresented in society or the media? If yes, how so?
LB: I think it’s actually gotten much better. The early pieces on witchcraft in the States, say those that came out in the 1960s, were written in a way that sensationalized some aspects of neopaganism (like nudity). The most out-of-the-box coverage we have now comes from extreme religious groups and tends to be published on the internet or privately. In general, the mainstream news media is factual on paganism, and the articles that appear around Halloween usually give pagans a chance to detail their lives and rituals.
I know what you’re getting at, though…there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet about what witchcraft is (for example, devil-worship, which of course it is not), and even on its history (She points to the fact that 9 million women were said to have been killed by the church during the “Burning Times”; scholars now know it was likely more like 60,000, both women and men, and that secular courts were just as culpable as the church). Things are always more complicated that they seem
Blast: You are a Halloween advisor to the Vampire Empire. What does this entail?
LB: Ah! The Empire is a collection of fans of vampires and I supply them with Halloween information. We don’t meet in person, under a full moon, or anything like that.
Blast: What do you think of the current vampire hype in Hollywood? Do you think our fascination with vampires will ever fade?
LB: I think it’s fascinating how much we’re mesmerized by the undead. You can see this in the current zombie explosion as well. Hollywood can only feed on a live vein, if you pardon my terrible pun. People love the forbidden, the mysterious, the Other; it appeals to our rebellious side. So too, we no longer sit with our dead as we did even 50 years ago. Wakes, open coffins, funeral home visitations are fading in lieu of cremation where there’s no body to witness. I think the deep morbid streak in American culture may have something to do with trying to process death in an age where it’s mostly hidden from us.
Blast: What about witchcraft? Being so close to Salem, witches are very much included in the history of Massachusetts. We often see witches portrayed in a bad light, though this has changed a bit. Do you think the stigma will ever go away?<
LB: I think the stigma attached to modern witchcraft will only go away with the controversy between a pantheistic worldview and a monotheistic worldview. In other words, this religious argument has been part of human history for a very long time. I don’t think we’ll need mittens in hell any time soon.
Blast: And you’ve written various books about Halloween-from history to costumes. Personally, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays due to the costumes! What has been one of the most creative costumes you have ever seen?
LB: I have seen so very many wonderful costumes. Off the top of my head, there was a tornado complete with thunder, lightning and a mist bottle for rain; there were the 30 people who went as Imelda Marcos’s shoes, an oven with a witch inside, a wrapped meal for a spider, a present with a tag reading: “To women, love God” a trio who were dressed as Alaska, Russia, and a “Narrow Maritime Divide” and a foursome dressed as a rapper, two prostitutes and a bottle…
Blast: What is one of the oddest things about how Halloween has developed into a modern holiday, in relation to how it originated?
LB: If you take this from the time Halloween came to be known in America, I’d say the oddest thing is how public it is. At first –‚ mid 19th century — Halloween was more or less a loose collection of superstitions and folk games. If you marked Halloween, it was most likely a private or family event. But now, Halloween’s become a litmus test for our culture. Because it’s not tied to an event, religion, person, or even ethnicity, Halloween can shape shift a bit, reacting to who we are as a culture; what we value, what we fear.
Lesley Bannatyne will appear on the History Channel’s “Haunted History of Halloween”‚ and is the author of books such as Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, Witches’ Night Before Halloween, and supplied the Halloween article found in the “World Book Encyclopedia.”