Halloween, Newspapers, and Mid-19th Century America

Pouring over newspapers, and no mention of Halloween? A 1910 illustration by Charles Mills Sheldon shows Edgar Allan Poe at work. Photo: Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images

Among writers associated with Halloween, Edgar Allan Poe is arguably the one whose prose and poems are most often read this time of year. Yet Poe himself was unlikely aware of the holiday. If he were, he certainly would have noted in his letters awareness of the Robert Burns poem of 1785, or reading about Halloween and its traditions in periodicals of his time. Newspapers and magazines, after all, were his bread and butter. But there’s no mention at all of Halloween in his works. Poe died in 1849, and a brief study of American newspapers of the period would support a theory that he didn’t know much if anything about Halloween because observance of the holiday didn’t really take off in America until after 1850.

What, still no mention of Halloween? “An extensively read News paper” by
David Claypoole Johnston, 1834. Source: AAS Archive.

The Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” service is a great resource for finding answers. At first only referenced in stories about the crimes of Burke and Hare occurring on October 31, the words “Halloween,” “Hallowe’en” and even “All Hallow’s Eve,” appear infrequently in American newspapers of the eighteen twenties and thirties. Other than Burns’ poem being referenced in a story about Christmas in Virginia’s Phenix Gazette in late 1832, it’s not until a brief mention in an 1836 issue of “Ladey Book” (aka Godey’s Magazine) that festivities of the day are given more than a passing reference [note: the author mistakenly credits “Ladey’s Book” as the earliest mention, which, as shown previously with Phenix Gazette, is not the case].

But in November of 1848, in a story in New Orleans’ Daily Crescent Gazette, Halloween is finally discussed by a journalist in some detail:

A future husband’s face revealed on Halloween. Postcard from 1904. Wikimedia Commons.

“The Eve of All Hallows, or Hallow E’en, is a memorable day throughout all Scotland ; but it is regarded more as a festival, which is consecrated to the interests of lads and lassies, and the revelation of the future destinies of loves, than a commemoration of the virtues of the saints. Many a foolish rite is performed more for amusement than from any real expectations of lifting up the veil of futurity and discovering things to come.”

There’s no mention of ghosts and witches, however. Nothing of the supernatural we have come to associate with Halloween. More in line with Burns’ poem, really.

It wouldn’t be until 1850 that one negative aspect of the holiday — as Americans have come to know it at least — is mentioned: mischief. One writer in The New York Daily Tribune of November first that year, makes it clear his or her disdain for the day.

“HALLOWE’EN — Last night, the closing night of the month, was an anniversary which is now almost entirely disregarded in these parts — the old festival of Hallowe’en or All Hallow’s Eve, still duly reverenced in England and Scotland, as well as in some portions of our own country. Its celebration here, however, has regenerated into the practice of all sorts of mischief; the only spirits abroad are imps of fun and fancy…”

It’s the first reference (that I could find at least) that mentions “spirits” of any kind (human as they are). The article ends:

“The sober sense of our community, however, is making way against these relics of ancestral customs and the Eve, with all its more innocent rites of maids that practice mysterious spells to get sight of their future husbands faces, will soon pass out of all memory except such as lives forever in the hale, warm and homely fireside pictures of Burns.”

Oh, was this author wrong.

By 1852, references to Halloween pick up in periodicals. Virginia’s Staunton Spectator of October 27 that year has a whole article devoted to “Rites of the Scottish Halloween.”

By the time of Civil War, was Halloween known to most? Here, President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis is depicted as a reaper with all of the trappings of Halloween. Harper’s Weekly magazine, October 26, 1861.

In 1853, The Washington Sentinel on November 2nd notes vandalism on the day. A handful of other papers through 1859 make note of the holiday (mostly in passing). Then comes 1860, and an explosion of mentions.

Dozens of publications start to make note of the holiday in 1860, most notably a work of fiction called “Not a Spectre” by Mary Kyle Dallas in California’s Mountain Democrat of August 11 of that year. It could very well be the first true American Halloween-related ghost story… or is it? While the answer may be obvious from the title, the story nonetheless cements the association of the holiday with the supernatural.

A starving boy and girl rake the ground for potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine, which began in the 1840s. Illustration by James Mahoney, 1847.

But why did it take until the 1850s and (more so) the 1860s before Halloween became a more pervasive topic for mid-19th century journalists? Many posit the theory that the potato famine in Ireland (and later, Scotland) from roughly 1845 to 1852, saw Irish immigrants bring with them Celtic holidays and traditions, including Halloween. It would make sense that, as these immigrants settled into their communities — and made their way East to West across the United States — that periodicals of the time reflected the influence of this immigrant wave.

The timing is certainly right.

To be clear, Halloween is mentioned in many a work of fiction in the British Isles prior to the mid-19th century. An excellent overview is provided by Halloween expert Lesley Bannatyne. And Bannatyne also points out that what may be the first American Opera, “The Disappointment” of 1767, features a conjurer claiming possession of a diving rod cut on Halloween. Yet it’s a quick reference and not a major plot device; it is doubtful it made much of an impression on audiences of the time

Even Bannatyne — having done extensive research (for which she deserves so much recognition) — doesn’t seem to mention another instance of Halloween and American fiction until the publication of “By Cupid’s Trick” in 1885; in another article, however, she cites periodicals of the 1870s as referencing Halloween. She’s right, but as has been seen in this article, those mentions actually start as early as 1850.

Regardless, it’s clear from a search of 19th-century American periodicals that the 1850s and 1860s were the years that awareness of Halloween gained momentum.

Into the 1870s and up until the close of the century, more and more papers cover the events of October 31 — even making it all the way to The Hawaiian Gazette in 1895, where a journalist noted that

“A Scotch writer who contributed an article to an American newspaper about Halloween last year declared himself ‘very much impressed by the almost universal observance of Halloween and its old customes in America.'”

By 1900 and into the twentieth century, Halloween truly began to take shape as more of what we know today (with its witches, ghosts, and jack-o’-lanterns). But American journalists prior to 1850? Like Poe, they definitely knew little, if much at all, about the folklore and traditions of All Hallow’s Eve.



Art or Exploitation? The Case of The Velvet Vampire

Despite stilted dialogue, atrocious acting, and, at times, a nonsensical script, 1971’s The Velvet Vampire is an oddly enjoyable vampire film. And notable, too, as it was directed by a woman — at a time when exploitation films usually relegated women to just one side of the camera.

Its director, Stephanie Rothman, was the first woman to be granted the Directors Guild of America fellowship, a prestiguous award given to a student director. She became an assistant to Roger Corman in 1964, and is primarily known for the cult classic The Student Nurses in 1971.

The Velvet Vampire was sold as exploitation film, despite its art house aesthetic

Also released in ’71 was The Velvet Vampire. Directed and co-written by Rothman, Velvet Vampire is the story of a California couple (actors Michael Blodgett and Sherry Miles) invited to spend the weekend at the desert estate of sun-shy Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall). As LeFanu begins to seduce the couple, we learn she is a century’s old vampire pining for her dead cowboy husband while splitting her time between voyeurism and dune-buggy rides. If it sounds silly, it is. But hang on, it gets sillier: the ending (SPOILER) inexplicably finds total strangers outside of a bus station grabbing crucifixes to help the heroine immobilize LeFanu and destroy her by sunlight (despite her only having to otherwise wear a hat, apparently, to avoid such a death earlier in the film).

What it lacks by way of script, The Velvet Vampire is redeemed by artful sequences of seduction that are part dream and part hallucination — more in line with European art-house films of the time than straight-up sex and violence exploitation flics (with which this movie fell into distribution [and subsequent financial failure]). It probably didn’t help that numerous other vampire films were released around the same time. Hammer Studios had released Lust for a Vampire in 1971. Count Yorga returned that same year in the aptly named The Return of Count Yorga. Jean Rollin released his third vampire movie in 1971: Le Frisson des Vampires. Spain gave us La Noche de Walpurgis (released in the U.S. as The Werewolf vs. The Vampire Woman). And Germany, not to be left out, entered the already crowded vampire market with Gebissen wird nur nachts (U.S. Title The Vampire Happening). All in 1971.

Like Rollin’s many bloodsuckers, Rothman’s velvet vampire is certainly erotic. Not so much exploitation. While the film is not shy in showing boobs and bare bottoms, there are no bared fangs or gratitutious violence. The Velvet Vampire is still a genre piece with a sensationalized plot, nudity, and (a small degree) of violence that capitilizes on a pop (sub) culture trend aimed at drive-ins and small theaters. That is, exploitation. But it plays more as art house than grindhouse.

One particularly effective dream sequence finds the husband lured from the comfort of his wife (and brass bed) to tread on desert sand, pulled by the vampire who, in flowing red gown, is literally in a tug-of -war with the wife.

A human tug-of-war from The Velvet Vampire (1971)

In this regard, Rothman upends the trope of the female victim for an inversion of straight dynamics where the female vampire, as oppossed to a male (in, for example, Dracula films), holds all the power — over men and women; the only real threat comes not from a Van Helsing, but from another woman (who, despite being a “dumb blonde” character, manages to figure out how to escape, and ultimately destroy the vampire by film’s end). There is the suggestion of lesbianism, but it would seem Rothman is more concerned with pushing female empowerment than exploring sexual identity.

In a 2008 interview with UCLA’s CSW Update Newsletter, Rothman talks about The Velvet Vampire, the limitations of the genre, the expectations of distributors of exploitation films, but also a certain degree of freedom that, in hindsight, critics have come to see as art. She says:

“The freedom that existed [with The Velvet Vampire] was the freedom to take what were the genre expectations and do unexpected things with them. Do things that would make them seem relevant to a wider audience than the usual fans of exploitation films. So we included political opinions and we tried to make the stories have more psychological depth. We tried, given the restrictions of the genre, to address some ideas that were ignored by Hollywood and by most other films made at that time.”

Indeed, it is sexual dynamics and the psychology of seduction that most modern viewers (at least those with an open mind that can ignore some of the silliness) come away with after viewing the film. But Rothman, weighed down by a sexist system that raised up many of Corman’s other acolytes (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bogdanovich, to name just a few), was never given the opportunity to break out like others and make major motion pictures. Her final directorial credit was The Working Girls, released in 1974.

Director Stephanie Rothman
Director Stephanie Rothman

Unlike Alice Guy-Blaché (whose The Pit and the Pendulum (1913) may have the distinction of being the first “horror” film ever directed by a woman [from the first woman director!]), Rothman — and others like her trying to break through the glass ceiling of cinema that had built up in the years following silent film — were rarely given a chance. There are some: Barbara Loden, Elaine May, and a handful of others whose films of the early seventies were critically acclaimed. But they are exceptions to the rule. In the end, Rothman was stigmatized by the type of films she made — an irony that the trend toward exploitation in the seventies that got her started also prevented her from developing into the kind of filmmaker for which she clearly had the ambition and talent.

In a 2008 interview from Interview Magazine, Rothman cites an example that demonstrates why her career as a director was so short:

I couldn’t get any work…  When it came to feature films, I was once invited by an executive at MGM to go and meet her, which was in the days when there were very few female filmmakers at all… she said to me, “…We’re getting a new script ready for a first time director who we want to use and we were talking about the fact that we would like it to be a vampire film. Something, you know, like The Velvet Vampire that Stephanie Rothman made.” My response when I heard that was, “Well, if you want a vampire film like Stephanie Rothman made, why don’t you get Stephanie Rothman?”

Exploitation flics and genre pics boxed Rothman in. Still, The Velvet Vampire shows what could have been. And, on its own, it is a curiosity in the then (and still) crowded market of vampire films.

By Christopher Michael Davis