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Trick or treat? A guide to Halloween’s hidden (and not so hidden) gems

Despite concerns that Halloween celebrations might be one more concession to the rampant commercialisation of seasonal change, it would seem that more and more people are warming up to this imported unofficial holiday. Sales of pumpkins rose by 20% in October of 2013 and they are projected to rise by another 6% this year in the UK. While still considerably behind the average American, Britons nevertheless managed to spend a whopping £310m on Halloween in 2016 – 5% more than in 2015.

So in the spirit of the season, I wanted to suggest some of my favourite books and films about Halloween. They will hopefully help sceptical readers understand why some people are so passionate about the season of monster confectionery, horror reruns and skull crockery. For those who already love Halloween, these recommendations are 100% treat and 0% trick, and certainly worth revisiting.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Washington Irving (1783-1859). American author of classic short stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. EverettHistorical/Shutterstock

This classic story from Washington Irving is not about Halloween, but has come to be associated with it. The tale of a superstitious schoolmaster driven out of town by the apparition of a headless horseman, Sleepy Hollow contains a number of elements and images that evoke this holiday. For one thing, events take place on a dark autumn night during harvest time after an evening spent telling “stories of ghosts and goblins”. For another, Sleepy Hollow ends with a conspicuous pumpkin and a great scare. If you like it, try Tim Burton’s 1999 adaptation.

The Halloween Tree

This is the quintessential novel about Halloween for young and old. The Halloween Tree follows the adventures of eight children as they try to save their friend Pipkin on a journey that takes them through the whole history of Halloween, from ancient Egypt to the Middle Ages and even Mexico and its Day of the Dead. In the novel, Ray Bradbury manages to capture the magical excitement of Halloween without refusing to acknowledge the nostalgic aspects of the autumn. If the novel’s briefness leaves you wanting more, try the carnival rides of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes or the macabre short stories in The October Country.

Trick ‘r Treat

This 2007 American-Canadian movie made anthology horror films exciting again, and it came as a surprise to those who had long hoped for a fun Halloween screamer. Trick ‘r Treat is original, scary and made with a palpable love of all things Halloween. It is made up of four independent stories, featuring new and ironic takes on traditional monsters like the vengeful ghost or the werewolf. The tales are interconnected by Sam – a burlap sack-wearing, trick-or-treater child figure who appears to those who break Halloween traditions. Despite never receiving a wide theatrical release, Trick ‘r Treat soon became a cult film that spawned two comics and a forthcoming sequel.

October Dreams

The award-winning book October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween is possibly the biggest (at over 640 pages) and best modern Halloween-themed anthology. Expect modern twists on trick-or-treating, pumpkin-carving, mask-wearing, witching-houring and general spooking around from a host of top authors.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

A cult horror film and interesting curio. Although billed as the third in the famous slasher series, this 1982 film is a standalone entry. Its plot about the sacrifice of children in a Celtic ritual echoes Halloween’s origins in Samhain – the Celtic festival that marked the end of the harvest season (and included no murders.). In the movie, novelty Silver Shamrock masks act as receivers of killer signals from flashy television adverts.

The Shadow at the Bottom of the World

For those who may find that all the fanfare and histrionics of these Halloween texts and films pervert the true spirit of what should, by right, be a dark and sombre season, try Thomas Ligotti’s long story, available in Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. A warning to the curious, though: Ligotti’s soul-crushing rendition of the autumn is a powerful one, so handle it with care.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

And finally, it may be well known but I simply could not leave out this film. Like many other holiday movies that have become traditions in themselves, watching The Nightmare before Christmas on the run-up to Halloween is now compulsory in my household. Originally developed from a poem by Tim Burton, the film takes place in Halloween Town. Its leader, Jack Skellington, becomes enamoured with a very different celebration after accidentally stumbling upon Christmas Town. Thankfully, his botched attempt at replacing Santa only reignites his passion for Halloween.

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