We learned last week that puddles are mirrors into our souls,
and this spell shows your future when you get old:
“Write ‘S. Solam S. Tattler S. Echnogarthner Gemartar’ on a mirror and bury it at a crossroads after sundown with the glass facing down. On the third day in the evening, remove the mirror but don’t look in it until a dog or cat has looked into it first. It will then reveal the future.” - Charm used by Germans, similar to the futuring rites of old European Halloween.
Always let the dog or cat go first.
And with that we elegantly transition from puddles to pumpkin month or pompkin month if you live in the past.
I am incredibly excited to announce that Mel Keedle co-founder of Still Life Ceramics and I are launching a ceramics collaboration called No Notes today! Our first limited edition mug will be our ‘Hobby Ghost’ on sale here.
And so this week I wanted to explore the history of Halloween merchandise. A warning that I will be discussing the idea of death in this substack, nothing too morbid but just in case you’re not in the mood!
I got a few books out of the library on Halloween in the hopes to find a deep dive on merchandise - especially the ‘cute’ kind.
I am fascinated by the cute-ification of death and why we are so drawn to it. We are complicated future ghosts so I’m sure it cannot be whittled down to one reason but in the book Death Makes a Holiday, David J. Skal speculates:
Like death, Halloween is also subject to decorative, euphemistic rites. The unruly energies and overtly morbid aspects of Halloween have always been targeted for control, from the early Christian church to present-day mavens of political correctness. Always, the goal is the same: to tame the holiday, to somehow make it “nice.” And nobody makes it nicer than Martha Stewart, America’s formidable and self-created doyenne of the artistic arts. For Stewart, everything about Halloween is Perfectly Under Control.
Did you know Martha Stewart is currently selling NFT portraits of herself in Halloween costumes? I could not tell if this was one of them:
It reminded me of something Alan Watts said during one of his Out of Your Mind talks:
I can’t think about death with you because it gives me the heebie jeebies. Alright then, death is not the problem, the heebie jeebies are. Understand you can’t stop them and you shouldn’t - you learn a lot from them. But social pressure in you to resist the heebie jeebies is terrific.
The ‘heebie jeebies’ was said to be first coined in the 1920s by Billy BeDeck in his cartoon Barney Google, with the character Spark Plug most often falling prey to them:
I’m no heebie jeebie specialist myself but if I wanted to avoid them when I thought about death, perhaps i’d make sure death seemed like a fun, cute, relatable every skeleton, maybe even danced a little….
Death had first been seen dancing in Europe in 1425, on a mural at the Paris Cemetery of the Holy Innocents. From there it had jigged its way across Europe.
To Germany! The famous Renaissance woodblock print ‘Dance of Death’ by German artist Hans Holbein was created around 1523:
The Dance of Death was a response to the mass plague devastation of the middle ages. David J. Skal observes that:
The public’s appetite for stylized encounters with images of death has always been whetted by troubled times.
Trouble times you say? Sounds familiar.
Other examples of dancing death - Disney’s Silly Symphonies:
And our most modern interpretation:
So we’ve often made death cute as a button to avoid the dreaded H.J’s.
Halloween after all:
Marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.
One of my favourite spooky facts is that you can track where we are in our cultural perception of death based on whether or not Casper the Friendly Ghost is a dead child, or a ghost born of two ghosts.
Based on internet research, here is the timeline (if I was still at University I would write a thesis paper on this, and compare it to the I,We,I curve we discussed a few weeks ago):
Casper is a dead boy:
Casper is a ghost born of two ghosts:
I didn’t go past 1995 but please feel free to continue the trajectory in the comments or add your theories on the move to Casper being a ghost born of two ghosts in the 60s to 80s. It was certainly a jam packed period in American History.
Perhaps it is my own way of avoiding the H.J.’s but the cute Halloween aesthetic is deeply appealing to me. I present my custom made E.T. Halloween costume from 2014 (when you hugged me my belly lit up, which happens when I am not wearing the costume also):
Whoever designed the E.T. Merchandise should be given a medal, and a commission for being my interior designer:
While I believe these to be playing cards of some kind, they also work well as makeshift tarot cards. Especially if you read these as :
One early example of Halloween Merch was Witch Cream sold in Salem in the 1890s:
And the very classic Halloween postcards made by Ellen Clapsaddle (brilliant name):
And her rival Frances Brundage, for whom I have a sticker collection:
From 1912 to 1934, the Dennison Paper Company published a yearly guide called Dennison’s Bogie Book:
Decoration, costume and party suggestions for the night of Halloween, that one time (according to the book) "of all the year when an opportunity is supposed to be given for looking into the future and having one's fate settled for the coming twelve months".
Which is interesting because I have never heard Halloween (derived from Samhain) described as such, and also because in Judaism, at the end of Yom Kippur which is also in October (and consequently begins this evening) your fate is sealed for the coming year in the Book of Life.
During both holidays the veil between the material world and the subtle spiritual realms is said to be at its thinnest. While Halloween is associated with being more connected to the world of the dead, Yom Kippur is more a time for purifying old patterns and making a fresh start. Of course there is also the Day of the Dead at the beginning of November this year, so probably best to start sharpening your subtle knives
There are of course other celebrations throughout the year which also commemorate the dead, including something I discovered called Thursday of the Dead (!!) around Easter Sunday.
I shall leave with you what I consider to be some of the cutest attempts to ward off the heebie jeebies, and a gentle welcome to the thin veiled month of October.
And of course our new mug!
I would like to take this moment to confirm that our ceramicist ghost is born of two ceramicists.
Please share all Casper theories and links to your own favourite Halloween merchandise in the comments section.
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Loved the sad-Casper-cracked-egg-puddle in the 1945 video!
As the youths say, I am/was a complete simp for 90's Casper. "Can I keep you" still haunts me! To be honest the 90's were a great time for swoon worthy ghost boys. I also deeply loved Thackery Binx from Hocus Pocus and ardently knew we were meant to be together.
I'm also just a huge sucker for Halloween in general. I love most halloween merchandise. Motion sensor lights, fog machines, smiling pumpkins, skeleton graveyards imbedded in lawns, etc. However, if I had to pick a lifetime favorite it would be a little jar of Hello Kitty branded body glitter. It came in orange and black glitter pieces with I think little purple bats. The thing I remember most about it is that it smelled exactly like Reese's Pieces candy. I spent years hoarding this little jar and taking little sniffs of it when I was sad. It tragically got lost, as many beloved childhood objects do. But I still think of the little jar with Hello Kitty with a witches hat.