The Scholarship of Scary
By: Hannah Fields; videos by Jason Cannon
From ghosts and goblins to costumes and candy, Halloween has situated itself as one of America's most popular holidays. Look in any store after the Fourth of July and you'll begin to see evidence of the season earlier and earlier each year. Sometimes, decorations even find their way to front porches before October 1.
So, what's the cause of Halloween's popularity in our society? Where does our fascination with monsters come from? Why do we spend so much money on a celebration that happens only once a year? Three Texas Tech University professors provide their answers to these questions and more.
According to marketing professor Debbie Laverie, the overall spending on Halloween in 2016 was $8.4 billion, with average spending per person more than $80. Most of the money (60 percent) was spent on candy with the remaining reserved for items such as costumes, pet costumes and decorations.
In fact, 2016's spending was the highest it's been in the past three years after a slight dip in 2014. Laverie said that in years of presidential elections, spending tends to go up, as Halloween offers a fun alternative to an uncertain environment.
“I think people are stressed and they need a way to escape,” Laverie said. “Last year's spending was very close to 2012, but it stays relatively stable.”
Halloween also serves as a “kick-off” to holiday spending, which not only carries over to Black Friday and Christmas, but boosts the economy in the process.
“It's additional spending that retail research shows does not take away from Christmas spending,” Laverie said. “Marketers get consumers in that spending mode. There's a debate about whether this helps the economy and I think it does in the long run.”
The growth of Halloween shopping is due mainly in part to marketing. Retailers are putting Halloween décor on shelves earlier each year, many after the Fourth of July. This, combined with the fun nature of Halloween, leads consumers to spend more.
“The holiday is a license to have fun, so people spend more because they get pleasure out of it,” Laverie said. “There's also a lot of different ways to celebrate now. There's a lot of Trunk-or-Treat events and I think it has become a more social event. People spend money in order to go out, be with their friends and have fun in a lot of different ways.”
The fun nature of Halloween has continued to evolve over the years and that evolution is connected to community, says popular culture librarian Rob Weiner. This togetherness can be traced back to colonial times, when there was still magic in throwing hazelnuts into fires or partaking in matchmaking during Harvest feasts. From then on, beginning in the 1920s, Halloween came back into favor, taking on the old traditions of going door to door asking for treats or money.
“I think there's something at our core that makes Halloween, or Harvest Festival, or whatever you want to call it, bring people together in a spirit of comradery and fun,” Weiner said.
Fun can also be found in the more frightening aspects of the season. Whether it's watching a scary movie or reading books about monsters, horror and Halloween go hand-in-hand.
“Whether it's literature, films, or video games, people like to be scared,” Weiner said. “They like to watch something that puts them on edge or to fight monsters, say, in video games, and to dress up like them. We like the chill down our spine and watching something that takes us to another place that might horrify or scare us.”
While monsters in books by authors such as Edgar Alan Poe or Stephen King haunt readers, it's the monsters on screen that have taken on more prevalence in culture. Beginning in the silent film era with “Nosferatu” and continuing through the decades with “Dracula,” “The Exorcist,” “Halloween” and beyond, movies almost serve as a rite of passage, especially for teenagers.
“They're too old to go trick-or-treat at this point, so they go see a horror film,” Weiner said. “This hasn't changed. I remember being sixteen and getting with my friends and watching “Evil Dead.” Now I see the film as something almost comedic, but it's fun to watch.”
There is also a timeless nature about the monsters that make an appearance every Halloween. They continue to be popular in movies, books and costume choices. However, there is one monster in particular that has continually withstood the test of time: the vampire.
Ask anyone about vampires and they might describe Bela Legosi's “Dracula,” pale skinned with a widow's peak, or more modern versions depicted in “Twilight” or “The Vampire Diaries,” moody and sexy. The vampires we've come to know, says associate professor Erin Collopy, are far from their roots in Slavic folklore.
Unlike the vampires of contemporary literature and film, the Slavic folkloric vampire was a member of the community who recently died and did not possess any special powers.
“Slavic vampires are a member of the community who comes out after death and somehow terrorizes the community or creates bad things by being one of the undead,” Collopy said. “It was used as a scapegoat to describe bad things that could happen in the community. It was also used as a means of social control because people did not want to become vampires. Being a vampire was not a good thing. It was humiliating for the family and terrorized the community.”
The vampire owes its transformation to Western Anglo Europeans and the Romantic period. German romanticists were the first to insert vampires as a character as part of their love for the supernatural. The vampire as a dark and brooding lover became even more popular with the publication of John Polidori's “The Vampyre” (1819), who was based on Lord Byron, one of the great English romanticists. From there it went to many different iterations in literature and probably culminated with Bram Stoker's “Dracula,” the best known of the fictional vampires.
“If “Dracula” stayed a novel, I don't know if it would have made such a great impact,” Collopy said. “It's a very good cinematic character. In 1931, when Todd Browning filmed “Dracula” with Bela Legosi, that established the prototypical idea of what a vampire is.”
Halloween and its monsters may have undergone change throughout the years, but one thing is certain, the holiday will continue to have a fun nature, keeping it a popular facet in our culture.
“Whether you call it Fall Festival, Harvest Festival, or Halloween, it has always been a community activity with people getting together to celebrate something,” Weiner said. “I think it's still telling that Halloween is the second most popular holiday after Christmas. It shows us that Halloween can be good clean fun. We sometimes forget that that's really what the spirit of Halloween is about in 2017.”