One of the real wonder of books is that they can spawn ideas outside their specific topics. While revised dissertations can be somewhat difficult to read, Derek Johnston’s Haunted Seasons: Television Ghost Stories for Christmas and Horror for Halloween contains quite a few such moments of birthing ideas. While being largely British-focused, it nevertheless explores holiday horror, a phenomenon that I’ve been researching for some time. Not really a television watcher (not any more—as a child things were quite different), I don’t really keep up with many programs. Still, I learned a lot from this book. One of the main questions it addresses is something I’ve long wondered about—why is there a connection between Christmas and ghost stories in England?
Johnston points out that Celtic areas tended to have Halloween or its precursors to supply an occasion for otherworldly thinking. The English, not wanting to think of themselves as these outer-lying cultures (I’m simplifying and abstracting a bit here), developed their own tradition of the Christmas ghost story. It pre-dates Dickens and probably goes far enough back in history that there’s no way to trace it. Telling ghost stories around the shortest day of the year makes its own sense. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was perhaps the most famous example, but M. R. James’ habit of telling ghost stories (later published) to students and fellow enthusiasts on Christmas Eve also plays into it. In Britain this led to a series of BBC Ghost Story for Christmas shows. Meanwhile, in America, where there was quite a lot of Celtic immigration, a taste for Halloween grew.
There are so many ideas that swirl around holidays. I’ve been exploring the topic for nearly two decades now. Publishers, always with their eyes on the bottom line, don’t produce much like this, figuring people will only buy it one season a year, and for books that means usually the first year only. Some people (yours truly, for one) will buy books about holidays out of season. So much of life is preparing for special times. I suspect that ancient people also fell into humdrum daily existences also. Humans require stimulation, we like variety and novelty. Holidays are a great solution—they don’t occur every day. If they did they wouldn’t be special. They bring something different into our workaday world and, in modern times especially, we brand them so that each one is at least slightly different. I don’t mind seeing the seasonal displays so early in the stores—it reminds me that haunted seasons are just around the corner.