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Christmases Long Long Ago: Ghost Stories and the Winter Solstice

While humanity’s mystic ties to the winter solstice may be as ancient as humanity itself, associations of this time of year with Christmas (and the birth of Christ as light returning to the world) are most decidedly an imposition of the Roman Church upon what was centuries of pagan tradition. That this time of year carried stories of darkness as well as light, however, still comes as a surprise to many. When Andy Williams sings “there’ll be scary ghost stories…” in “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year,” many stop to question why anyone would tell scary stories at Christmas? Isn’t telling ghost stories more appropriate for Halloween? or scouts gathered around campfires? The Victorians didn’t think so.

While not Victorian, “The Ghost – a Christmas frolic – le Revenant” by John Massey Wright (1814) shows the holidays can be a time for family fright (in this case, a prank)

The same group that gave us odd Christmas cards, Victorians are responsible for giving us many of the Christmas traditions we enjoy today. Including, perhaps, the telling of ghost stories. Generations have come to know the ghosts that plague Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (published in December 1843), but other tales of apparitions abound in England during what is considered the Victorian Period (from 1837 to 1901). Henry James’s famous gothic novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898), for example, contains a frame story that involves a group of men sitting around a fire telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. And one need only pick up The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories to find numerous tales of things that go bump in a cold winter’s night. Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852), for example, is among the best of them — with a ghostly child and creepy organ that spook the narrator, Hester, and her charge, Rosamund (mother to the child to whom Hester relates her tale) in the days leading up to Christmas.

“Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve,” writes nineteenth-century British travel writer Jerome K. Jerome, “but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” Taken from the introduction to his Told After Supper, an 1891 anthology of Christmas ghost stories, Jerome continues with “[Christmas] is a genial, festive season,” when “we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”

“So what is it about Christmas that goes so well with ghosts?” Jerome asks. “Such a question inevitably brings up the issue of why we celebrate Christmas in December at all.”

THE INFLUENCE OF ROME

Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) whose light began to return around the solstice, was adopted as chief God by Emperor Aurelian in the 3rd century; the feast day was December 25th. The church in Rome began formally celebrating Christmas roughly a hundred years later, in 336 AD. When they settled upon December 25, they likely wanted the date to coincide with existing pagan festivals not only honoring Sol (from whom we get “sol-stice”), but also Saturn (for whom Saturnalia, on December 17, was celebrated and named).

The influence of Rome upon Germanic / Scandinavian people (and these people upon Rome) may, however, be tied to why some things supernatural find their way into Christmas tradition.

Yule, for example — a festival celebrated by Germanic peoples dating back to long before Romans ever set foot in lands to the north — began in late November and ended sometime in early January, it was first referenced in the western historical record in the 5th century. Named for the God Odin (aka Jól), Yule (“Yule Time”) was closely associated with the Wild Hunt. And the Wild Hunt was an event played out across both land and sky, involving both the living and the dead. Also known as Åsgårdsreien, it is often depicted as being led by Odin himself, and, as the name implies, was a time when Asgard interacted directly with humankind. The afterlife — with beings both from Valhalla and Hel — come to earth, with beings both living and dead.

MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS AND MONTY JAMES

Orderic Vitalis, a Benedictine wonk writing in the 11th and 12 centuries, first mentions the “Hellequin’s Hunt,” and a procession of what can only be described as the medieval equivalent of THE WALKING DEAD (see a great in-depth article about The Wild Hunt and this procession of the damned on medievalists.net). Later, in what are referred to as the Peterborough Chronicle (from 1127), the Wild Hunt begins to take shape as it does in modern fantasy fiction as a thunder of hellhounds and spectral horseman. Scary stuff indeed!

The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1868)
The Wild Hunt of Odin by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1868) shows spectral figures in the sky.

Were the Victorians aware of the Wild Hunt from medieval manuscripts? Certainly, Norwegian artists of the period like Peter Nicolai Arbo grew up steeped in such folklore (see above or click here). But tying nineteenth-century interest in medievalism to the telling of ghost stories at Yule-tide is a specious argument. It may be enough to say that the dark days of early winter just lend themselves to a belief in a world beyond. The land of the dead. The land of ghosts.

One celebrated teller of ghost stories — especially at Christmas — was, indeed, a noted medieval scholar.

M.R. (“Monty”) James published most of his work at the very end of the Victorian period, and his tales very much show a Victorian sensibility. Considered to be one of the best writers of ghost stories of the early twentieth-century, he was known to particularly revel in telling these tales at Eton at Christmas. But this was long after the tradition began. James’ first book of ghost stories was not published until 1904. That said, his contribution to the tradition of “scary ghost stories” during the holiday season cannot be ignored, and M.R. James has gone down in literary history as a master of the ghost story.

BLAME AN AMERICAN?
Christmas Dinner Crusader
Illustration of the Crusader Knight portrait in Washington Irving’s The Christmas Dinner
(limited edition; privately printed for friends of Abbott Kimball, 1967)

Published over eighty years before James’ first collection of ghostly tales, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving (neither British nor a Victorian!) contains the curious Christmas Dinner where the narrator returns to a drawing-room to find his holiday party company sitting at a fire, listening to a parson who “was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country.” These included mention of a crusader whose portrait hung on the walls; turns out he was “the favourite hero of ghost stories throughout the vicinity.”

Irving doesn’t tell the tales in detail, as one of the guests, Master Simon, interrupts with “Christmas mummery,” taking the party in a completely different direction. But it seems pretty clear: the party-goers were about to be told a ghost story during a Christmas dinner. It’s interrupted. And Irving leaves it at that.

Curiously enough, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens struck up a friendship in 1840. It was short-lived, but was it just enough time for Dickens — who would publish A Christmas Carol just three years later — to become aware of Irving’s tale? We’ll never know. Some of their correspondence is believed to be lost, and no biographer has made mention of such a connection.

TRADITION AND HISTORY

Christmas traditions themselves can rarely be traced to a single source, In his Collected Travel Writings, Henry James — whose Turn of the Screw is mentioned earlier in this post — wrote that “it takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.”

Where did the tradition of telling ghost stories around the Winter Solstice begin? It doesn’t matter. What does is that it should perhaps continue and be carried on for generations to come.

So gather around the fire this year and tell tales of horror and the supernatural. Then get to sleep before the truly scary Santa Claus invades your home.

All in The Timing: Halloween and Horror FIlms

DRACULA (1931) Poster Style C
Poster style C for DRACULA (1931)

As hard as it is to believe in our era of Halloween holiday mania, horror films timed for release in October is a relatively recent phenomena. Arguably one of the biggest of the early classic horror films, Universal Studios’ DRACULA was released on February 14, 1931* — timed to be in theaters for Valentine’s Day. Billed as “The Strangest Passion the World Has Ever Known,” DRACULA was sold as a bizarre love story. Lugosi’s vampire was promoted more as a ladies’ man than boogeyman. FRANKENSTEIN would follow later in 1931 — in late November. The trend would continue for Universal into the forties. SON OF DRACULA missed the Halloween mark by 6 days in 1943 (released November 5th). Even Hammer’s House of Horror a little over a decade later failed to take advantage of the Halloween holiday. CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN? It was released in June of 1957. Roughly a year later, Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA (U.S. title) hit theaters in May of 1958. Indeed, the trend for horror films seemed to be release when the weather got warm.

SUMMER SCARES
In a “release reversal” of sorts, I Know What You Did Last Summer hit theaters on October 17, 1997 — just in time for Halloween.

Summer seemed to suit William Castle. Though his gimmicky flics were released at all times of the year,**  summer was by far the season when his films were most commonly in wide release.  Younger audiences craving air-conditioned respite during the stifling months of summer vacation were treated to films like Castle’s TINGLER in the summer of 1959, and 13 GHOSTS in 1960.

Roger Corman’s “Poe cycle” of films were similarly summer releases. HOUSE OF USHER in June, 1960. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, released in 1964, was another June release. While the concept of the Blockbuster had yet to be conceived and given a label, studios must have realized by the mid fifties that May through July were peak times for releasing movies.

Take 1955 as an example. Two very different and quite successful movies, THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH and LADY AND THE TRAMP were both released in June. MISTER ROBERTS, a comedy-drama that would be among the most popular movies of the year, would follow in July. Hollywood, it seemed, was learning that audiences were primed for the moving pictures when the weather got warmer. Kids were home from school, families took vacations, and drive-ins were at peak capacity. Certainly, there seemed to be some seasonal strategy at play.

‘TIS THE SEASONAL RELEASE

Even Christmas would become a prime movie season strategically. Many point to the success of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s comedy ROAD TO RIO , released to theaters on Christmas Day, 1947, as the first to prove it.*** The film was a hit, and the theory was that, with everything else closed, the movie theater was a place to go for those not celebrating the holiday in the traditionally Christian religious way.

THE “DUMP MONTHS” COME

On the flip side to summer was the dead of winter — a time of year that has since come to be known as the “dump months.” January and February became the time when studios would release films not anticipated to be Academy Award worthy, (or big earners… or feared to be torn apart by critics). Even late August into September would become a time when movies thought to be less than successfull were relegated to a late summer release.****

OCTOBER RUSH

But Halloween? Both 1968’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and 1974’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE — two classics of the genre — premiered on the first of October of their respective years. In plenty of time for the Halloween season. Still, the reasons for October releases for each of those pillars of the genre don’t appear to have been strategic.

CHAINSAW reached a distribution deal in late August, making late September or early October the soonest it could be released. Otherwise, there’s no evidence from Tobe Hooper or any associated with the film realizing an October release was the perfect time.

NIGHT, which premiered on October first in Pittsburgh (the city in which it was filmed) was widely released to theaters on October 14, 1968. But Joe Kane’s Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever makes no mention of a strategy for its October release date either. Beyond local television horror host Bill Cardille promoting it on his Chiller Theater show, there appears to have been no Halloween holiday connection at all. No extant quotes from George Romero, his cast, or crew, reveal any reason why the film was released in relative proximity to the holiday. It’s highly unlikely anyone planned much of anything by way of timing and promotion for such a low budget, independent film.

Then came 1978. And everything changed with the release of HALLOWEEN on October 25.

Reputedly first conceived by Executive Producer Irvin Yablans on a flight taken one Halloween night — the idea was given to John Carpenter and Debra Hill who produced a script called “The Babysitter Murders.” Yablans soon thereafter had the idea to call the project “Halloween,” and the rest is history (history that can be read here). It was also Yablans who apparently wanted to get the movie into theaters in time for the titular holiday. Carpenter apparently agreed to this plan, and he has even been quoted as saying “Halloween night. It has never been the theme in a film [before].” So the entire production worked backwards from a pre-determined deadline.

Ad from the first time HALLOWEEN was shown on television (click to see text of ad).

HALLOWEEN II and HALLOWEEN III follwed suit in 1981 and 1982, respectively. The original was even shown for the first time on television the night before Halloween in order to coincide with the release of the sequel (see photo at right).

From there, many studios found that releasing their horror films in October meant a bigger box office. Stephen King’s SILVER BULLET and the cult classic RE-ANIMATOR were both released in October of 1985. The holiday tie-in TRICK OR TREAT followed in October of 1986. PUMPKINHEAD in 1988. Even the remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) made its way into theaters during the month of October.

HALLOWEEN kills, released October 15, 2021 in the U.S.

From there, dozens upon dozens of horror films to this day have been released in time for the Halloween season. Including the latest installment in the adventures of Michael Myers: HALLOWEEN KILLS (being released in the U.S. today).

In the end, it is not surprising to anyone that Halloween is prime time to watch horror movies. But it is curious that it seems to have taken until the late nineteen seventies for the holiday and the genre to be inexorably tied to the time of a film’s release.

EPILOGUE: WHAT ABOUT TV MOVIE MARATHONS?

The connection between horror films in general and showing them on TV or around Halloween definitely goes back to the early days of television. Someone may find the exact day the horror movie marathon debuted, and with whom (though I agree with one author that thinks the origin may be lost to time). But until someone finds that evidence — an episode of Vampira or Zacherle perhaps with those hosts of horror showing a string of films on or near October 31 and tying the holiday to the event? — the first time it was done will remain a topic for another blogger to address.

But I will leave you with something of a substitute for pinpointing early television’s first Halloween movie marathon, and give you a bit of good old host-of-horror-from-my-hometown (Philadelphia). It’s Zacherle — after he moved on to NYC — on All Hallow’s Eve, 1967. Enjoy the dance party.

 

* The NY premiere of Dracula technically happened two days before Valentine’s Day, which stirred up interest in the film for its romantic release

**HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL for example came to theaters in February in 1959. (curiously, it’s 1999 remake was released two days before Halloween!).

*** One year earlier, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE missed a (wide) Christmas release.  It was planned for January, 1947. It’s premiere, however, was pushed up to December 20th of 1946 — not because of Christmas, but to meet the deadlines for consideration for the Academy Awards. But the film was not widely released  to theaters until January 7, 1947. Also in 1946? MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Released in May.

*** In a 2015 New Yorker article, James Surowiecki suggested that the lack of interest in going to the movies during the “dump months” may be the result from moviegoers’ lowered expectations — caused by the studios themselves (a self-fulfilled prophecy of sorts).