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Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  563 ratings  ·  66 reviews
Using a mix of personal anecdotes and perceptive social analysis, acclaimed cultural critic David J. Skal examines the amazing phenomenon of Halloween, exploring its dark Celtic history and illuminating why it has evolved-in the course of a few short generations-from a quaint, small-scale celebration into the largest seasonal marketing event outside of Christmas.
Paperback, 224 pages
Published October 1st 2003 by Bloomsbury USA (first published 2002)
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3.86  · 
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Oct 31, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history
There are parts of this book that are actually quite interesting. It starts strong, with an in-depth examination of the old "tampered Halloween candy" urban legend. And there are bits and pieces throughout the book that are very informative, Skal's history of trick-or-treating, for example. But he also tends to meander, and he gets off track with things that don't really have much of anything to do with Halloween. Still, there's a fair bit of good information in here, and Skal seems to have done ...more
Apr 19, 2010 rated it it was ok
Skal packs a lot into this brisk volume, most often at the expense of substance. He glances over historical mythology, pop culture and modern political responses to Halloween, as per the cover, but seems to wander off into ruminations on the nature of the macabre in general, as opposed to Halloween in particular. He doesn't synthesize as much as merely compile, constantly hinting at the deeper sociological implications of our fascination with fear and ultimately failing to bring his anecdotal re ...more
Keith Bowden
I love Skal's commentaries and documetaries for Universal's classic monster movies, so I was very happy to get this book. He gives a nice overview of the roots of the holiday and its practices, influences (on and from Halloween) through the 20th century. He also touches on the urban myths of poisoned candy (for the record, it bears repeating: There has never been a reported instance of anyone tampering with the candy they gave out, even though tales of razor-blades-in-candied-apples dates back a ...more
Ebster Davis
Oct 24, 2016 rated it liked it
This book is kind of like having a very long, one way conversation with someone who really loves Halloween. It's great if you're like me and you enjoy the holiday, and you are eager to learn about it's traditions and trivia related to it. But less great if you don't enjoy every. single. facet of the holiday or you aren't prepared to put up with some major nerding out.

Seriously sometimes the narrative can meander: One minute the author is talking about how the depiction of witches has changed ov
While it does offer an overview of Halloween's Samhain and All Souls/Saints Day origins, the bulk of this cultural history is situated in the United States from the 1920s to 2000. Skal covers urban legends about lethal treats (and one horrifying real example), the ridiculous racism of early costumes and art, the commercialization of witchcraft in modern-day Salem, the evolution of the haunted house business (including especially disturbing religious ones), the intersection of Halloween and gay r ...more
Jaime Contreras
This was a comprehensive collection of facts, myths, stories, Celtic roots and pop culture connections. Mr. Skal certainly collected quite a bit of information. The construction is very good but it does drag at times. Still, this is a valuable resource for those who want to get to the root of this American ' holiday.'
Sep 16, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Interesting look at the social and cultural history of Halloween. Very detailed, and lags a bit in the middle, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Jul 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
This was a very informative book about the history of how we celebrate Halloween. I found out a few surprising things about the holiday. I recommend it.
Erin Tuzuner
Apr 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays, non-fiction, 2012
Incorporating anthropology, pop culture, history, and anecdotes, this narrative spans the appeal of a celebrated holiday with a dubious past.
Melinda Jane Harrison
Interesting details, flawed thesis, disorganized. The details are better than the whole.
Oct 01, 2017 rated it it was ok
I wish I could say I liked this book. I wish I could say that it scratched the itch I'd hoped it would, that it would be an immersive and fascinating look at Halloween from its ancient origins all the way to the commercialized funhouse it is today.

It's none of these things.

Oddly, I can't really articulate what exactly it is about this book that didn't hit the nail on the head for me. There ARE interesting facts and anecdotes here, and most of the subject matter is stuff I'd like to read about.
Apr 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
I did enjoy this book- but I dId feel that the Chapter about the history of haunted houses ( Home Is Where The Hearse Is) was EXCEPTIONAL.

Hands down it was more informative and enjoyable then a documentary I recently saw on Netflix on the subject.

In addition I found Skal's work on explaining the multiple roots of Halloween, and how those roots will continue to grow and spread as Western society's views on death, superstition and religion change exciting.

As a Halloween fan ( to put it mildly) I a
Aug 15, 2017 rated it it was ok
This book covered all the Halloween basis but was really flat/dry and had enough pop culture or "current events" thrown in to feel extremely dated. Sure it's a history book but it was missing the typical flare a holiday book usually has. The most interesting thing by far was the totally unexpected chapters on LGBT+ history (at times a little cringe-y) and post 9/11 Halloween ramifications. This was a great time capsule in that regard.
Oct 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Skal did an excellent job analyzing several aspects of Halloween from its pagan roots to how we celebrate the holiday today. The main focus was clearly the impact it has culturally, like religious opposition to the holiday and the rise of the bloody, scary aspects we correlate with it now. Overall, i really recommend this book to anyone else who loves anything Halloween and history related.
Caitlin Searcy
Feb 25, 2018 rated it liked it
This book was really interesting, but it doesn't get into a great deal of detail. It provides a brief cultural history on multiple aspects of Halloween in America. If you're interested in learning a little bit about the cultural motivations behind Halloween, you'll probably be into this.
Dec 07, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book just didn't grab me. I started it on October 10 and have been trying to slog through the 190 pages of content for almost 2 months. I'm not sure if I just wasn't in the mood for history or if this wasn't a very good treatment or what.
Nick Martin
Nov 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Great book describing the ancient origins of Halloween up until its consumption by capital.
Oct 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2018
A wide look at the history of the holiday and what we believe about it.
Brandi Thompson
Feb 16, 2017 rated it liked it
I thought the book kind of ebbed and flowed. I enjoyed some parts, but others felt very loosely connected to Halloween. Not a bad book, just not as interesting as I had hoped.
Feb 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
PopSugar reading challenge 2018 (book about or set during Halloween)
Oct 27, 2011 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: pop culture aficionados
I read "Death Makes a Holiday" several years ago, and I thought that it was fantastic! I eventually found and read another book by Skal, called "The Monster Show." I loved that one, too.

I just re-read DMaH, and decided to downgrade my rating from 5 to 3. Am I getting old and jaded? Probably.

Skal is an excellent writer and a good cultural historian. He delves into things that most historians ignore, like horror movies and the obscure (but comparatively recent) origins of today's Halloween ritual
May 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Halloween lovers
I really enjoyed reading this book, mainly because it's about my second-favorite holiday, Halloween. Halloween just rocks. It's easily the most fun holiday. More fun than Christmas? Of course. To many, Christmas is more of a chore than anything else. Not so Halloween. We can celebrate his holiday however we wish, or even ignore it. No chores involved.

But back to the book. It's an informative and fun look at Halloween, both its history and how it's celebrated today.

Skal, author of other books li
Death Makes a Holiday really does not start out well. The introduction to the book (‘The Candy Man’s Tale’) tells the depressing story of a man who brought the tainted Halloween candy urban legend that every parents fears to life back in the 1970s. By swapping out the sugar in a “pixy” stick with cyanide, Ronald Clark O’Bryan murdered his own son and would have taken the lives of three more if their parents hadn’t sent them off to bed without candy. What a way to open a book, eh?

After that gloom
I love cultural history and folklore. The combination of those in this book should have made me love it. I have trudged 6 weeks through this book without making much headway.

Skal flutters from topic to topic with only a thin connection between them. Take the introduction for instance. How does the criminal case of the "candy man" have to do with setting the tone of the book, central thesis, and organization to defend that thesis? Yes, that does lend to a drier kind of book. But, I would underst
Oct 24, 2013 rated it liked it
I wavered between 2 and 3 stars on this one, but wound up giving it three because it was very readable and interesting even if it wasn't what I thought it would be. From the description, "Skal examines the amazing phenomenon of Halloween, exploring its dark Celtic history and illuminating why it has evolved...", I thought there would be more examination of the historic roots of the holiday, but he focuses much more on the more recent popular phenomenon of Halloween as we know it now. It was an i ...more
Jan 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
David J. Skal writes cultural studies of horror, films, and Halloween themes. I first read The Monster Show after seeing one of his lectures at my college in 1995, and have been hooked on his books ever since. Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I find all of his writing extremely interesting, and presented in language and style that is not too scholarly. This is nonfiction, but it is "fun" reading, not "work" reading.

Death Makes a Holiday, about Halloween, is a fascinating book, and my favor
This book started out well with the beginning chapter dispelling the myth of dangerous candy during Halloween. It explains why there are such worries about it. To me it seems a lot of it is the media hyping up the idea and of course, there is actual cases of candy that have been messed up. However, those cases are parents doing it and then giving the candy to their own children. The first chapter even gives the details of such a case.

I thought the first chapter was great and I'd recommend the bo
Jul 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2009
In this short history of America's second-most popular holiday, author Skal examines several ways Halloween has influenced our culture. After first attempting to disprove some of our favorite legends about the holiday (there is apparently no evidence that Jack O'Lanterns originated in Celtic Europe, as many assume), Skal tells us of the strange way the Salem witch trials have been co-opted by enterprising New-Agers in modern Salem, Mass. He also leads us through several decades of American haunt ...more
Oct 16, 2014 rated it it was ok
I started this last October and when I failed to finish before Halloween put it down until this October, so in all honesty, there's a lot I can't remember from the first half. But I do recall thinking that it was not exactly what I had been hoping for. And as for the last several chapters... really not a useful book for understanding the holiday. Certainly not useful for gaining any insight into it's history. What struck me most overall was how little history there was. Or, to be more precise, h ...more
Jan 01, 2018 rated it liked it
This book is ostensibly about the history of Halloween as a holiday, but apart from some speculation about Halloween's roots in Celtic festivals and All Hallows' Eve, it mostly spends its time on Halloween as celebrated in the United States in the twentieth century. He discusses legends surrounding Halloween- including that of poisoned trick or treat candy- haunted houses and ghosts, questions about Halloween's appropriateness as a holiday, Halloween in the movies, and finally the effect on Hall ...more
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Halloween lovers group... 1 6 Aug 03, 2009 01:35PM  

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David J. Skal became fascinated with monsters at the height of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when indestructible monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man provided a "nuclear security blanket" for a whole generation of youngsters.

Active as an editor and reporter on his high school newspaper, he was granted a journalism scholarship to Ohio University, Athens, where he earned a bachelor'