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A Halloween Primer for Horror Writers

By Lisa Morton
As a Halloween expert, I’ve been asked to do a lot of interesting things. I’ve been interviewed by
The Wall Street Journal abot the proliferation of sexy Halloween !ostmes, I’ve "abbered away
on the spplements for the Bl#ray release of the movie Trick ‘r Treat, and I’ve been asked by
writer and editor friends to fa!t#!he!k works of Halloween fi!tion.
$ost horror writers love Halloween %of !orse&', and I’m betting most of them know more abot
the holiday than the average "oe. (hey’ve seen the yearly do!mentaries, they’ve read enogh
Halloween#themed fi!tion to fill a hanted hose, and maybe they’ve even s!offed p a non#
fi!tion history or two.
Bt do they really know enogh abot Halloween to write an a!!rate pie!e of fi!tion abot their
most beloved of holidays)
I’m going to address here a few of the most oversed mistakes of the Halloween fi!tion sb#
genre, the ones that make anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the festival’s history
grit their teeth and win!e, the ones that make me want to !lose the book or hit the *+top, btton
no matter how far into the story I am.
-et’s start with *+amhain,, possibly the single most misnderstood part of Halloween’s history,
and the one thing I see done to death in fi!tion %and film'. Part of the dilemma regarding poor
+amhain dates ba!k to the eighteenth !entry, when a British engineer named .harles /allan!ey
was sent to Ireland on a srveying mission. /allan!ey, who fan!ied himself a historian, fell in
love with .elti! lore and Irish !ltre, and wrote hndreds of thosands of words !olle!ting
everything he stdied. Here’s the thing0 /allan!ey was wrong1willflly, disastrosly, wrong.
+!holars had already de!iphered the word *+amhain, as meaning *smmer’s end,, and had
linked it to the an!ient Irish .elts’ 2ew 3ears’ festival, held on 4!tober 56
st
7 bt /allan!ey
arbitrarily dismissed this standard definition and de!ided that +amhain was the name of a .elti!
*-ord of 8eath,, who was feted on 4!tober 56
st
.
9ven thogh /allan!ey was dismissed by his own peers %one !riti! famosly said that /allan!ey
had written *more nonsense than any man of his time,', his books had already fond their way
onto library shelves arond the world, and soon formed a strange alternate history for Halloween,
one in whi!h savage, bloodthirsty primitives offered p hman sa!rifi!es to their diaboli!al -ord
of 8eath on Halloween1as !ompared to the trth, whi!h was that the .elts likely !elebrated
their end of smmer with a great feast, governmental gatherings, and sporting events like horse
ra!es %and yes, it’s likely that the .elts really did pra!ti!e hman sa!rifi!e on +amhain, bt
ar!haeologi!al eviden!e sggests that it was an honor to be !hosen for sa!rifi!e, and that it was
performed only in years when the harvest was sbstandard'.
2ow, !ompond /allan!ey’s awfl error with a mispronn!iation : *+am#Hayne, instead of the
!orre!t *+ow#in, : and yo get the single most !ommon trope in Halloween fi!tion. How many
books;films !an yo think of that have in!lded a !hara!ter !alled *+am Hain,) Believe me,
there are a lot. 2ow, I’m not saying these works are bad7 far from it. 4ne of the most re!ent ses
: in the afore#mentioned Trick ‘r Treat : prod!ed one of the very best Halloween#themed
horror films ever. Bt I am sggesting that before yo read abot +amhain somewhere and rn
off to write yor epi! novel abot a Halloween mania! named *+am Hain,, yo shold probably
be aware that it’s both been done before and was wrong to begin with.
Halloween fi!tion in the past : and we’re talking late#nineteenth and early#twentieth !entry here
: often fo!sed on how the holiday was !elebrated at the time, and stories !entered on <aint
des!riptions of polite middle#!lass parties, sally revolving arond a fortne#telling game whi!h
!omes tre. By the middle of the 6=>>s, writers like ?obert Blo!h and ?ay Bradbry moderni@ed
the Halloween tale, with Bradbry providing what many %in!lding me' !onsider to be the single
finest work of Halloween short fi!tion ever prod!ed0 *(he 4!tober Aame, is abot a !lassi!
Halloween party prank that is revealed in the last line to be somewhat1er1unsavory.
However, by the end of the last !entry and the beginning of the !rrent one, Halloween fi!tion
both be!ame very poplar, and seemed to settle into a bit of a nostalgi! rt. $ost of those writing
Halloween fi!tion now are old enogh to remember the golden age of tri!k or treat, that
astonishing rital in whi!h !hildren were empowered by !ostmes one night a year and
rampaged throgh sbrbia, demanding !andy. (ri!k or treat has been at the heart of the vast
ma"ority of Halloween fi!tion prod!ed over the last twenty years7 even works # like 2orman
Partridge’s Bram +toker Award#winning novella Dark Harvest – that don’t dire!tly refer to tri!k
or treat nonetheless !aptre the nostalgia of being yong and let loose on that one spe!ial night
of the year.
4bviosly most of the writers who pen tri!k or treat#related works !an draw from personal
!hildhood experien!es1bt I still see them get !ertain key elements wrong more often than
yo’d think. Here’s a .liffs2otes version of tri!k or treat’s history0 It is not based on some
an!ient .elti! rital, nor is it even stri!tly a 9ropean tradition %althogh it probably has its roots
in pra!ti!es like *soling,, in whi!h beggars on!e went from hose to hose performing little
songs in ex!hange for spe!ial breads on All +ols’ 9ve, and some Ay Bawkes 8ay traditions, in
whi!h British !hildren, on or abot 2ovember C
th
, !ostmed themselves in rags and begged *a
penny for the Ay,, or money to by fireworks'. (ri!k or treat may have a!tally started in
.anada : the phrase was first re!orded in asso!iation with Halloween in Alberta in 6=DE
%althogh there’s no mention of !ostming'. It wasn’t ntil after World War II that the version of
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tri!k or treat we know now : i.e., !ostmed !hildren going from hose to hose ttering the
phrase *tri!k or treat, and being rewarded with !andy : spread throghot the Fnited +tates, and
it !ame abot largely as a way to !ontrol the destr!tive pranking that had !ost !ities millions of
dollars in the 6=D>s and 6=5>s. It trned ot to be !heaper to by pint#si@ed vandals off with
parties and !andy than repla!e broken windows, brned bildings, and shattered light fixtres.
Any sggestion that Halloween arrived in Ameri!a via a dire!t line from some an!ient pra!ti!e is
simply in!orre!t, as is the notion that it somehow derived from s!aring off spirits on the most
hanted of nights.
While Halloween fi!tion seems fixated on letting writers and readers re!aptre the magi! of that
spe!ial atmn night, the real#life !elebration has moved on. Adlts began to re!laim the holiday
in the 6=E>s, and by the D>>>s the hanted attra!tions indstry : whi!h in!orporates everything
from seasonal amsement parks to sbrban front lawns : was generating a billion dollars a year
in revene. Halloween sales of beer and de!orations have overtaken every other holiday ex!ept
.hristmas, and over the last de!ade Halloween’s poplarity has exploded globally, with
Halloween !elebrations and events now re!orded in pla!es like Fkraine, +oth Afri!a, and
.hina. (he related holiday of 8ia de los $ertos is !at!hing on, espe!ially in F.+. !ities with a
large +panish#speaking poplation, and also with yong people who feel that Halloween has
be!ome overly !ommer!iali@ed.
I mention all this "st by way of sggesting that Halloween is a holiday that is almost !onstantly
!hanging, and I have no dobt that we’ll see Halloween fi!tion !hange with it. Bt please : don’t
keep saying that every new Halloween pra!ti!e *dates ba!k to the an!ient .elts,7 even thogh
yor work is fi!tion, yo are endangering that all#important sspension of disbelief when yo
offer p false history like that. I’d frankly like to see s lay the ghost of .harles /allan!ey to rest
permanently.
Lisa Morton’s non#fi!tion Halloween books in!lde The Halloween Encyclopedia %now in a D
nd

edition' and Trick or Treat: A History o Halloween %winner of both the Bram +toker AwardG
and the Halloween Book Bestival Arand Pri@e'. Her Halloween fi!tion in!ldes the a!!laimed
novellas Su!!er"s End %Hornal+tone', Hell #anor %Bad $oon Books', and The Sa!hanach
%also Bad $oon Books', and her Halloween#themed short stories have been featred in
$e!etery Dance maga@ine, The Horror %ine& and the forth!oming anthology 'cto(er Drea!s )*
-isa’s Halloween website, http0;;halloween.lisamorton.!om, in!ldes Halloween history,
galleries of images, and more abot her other Halloween books.
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