Faculty Q&A With Dr. Crystal O’Leary Davidson: Lock Your Doors, Bolt Your Windows, And Dive In To Some Halloween Literature

Author: News Bureau
Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2023 12:00 AM
Categories: Pressroom | Faculty/Staff | School of Arts and Letters

Cochran, GA


It's the spooky season! As the autumn leaves fall and the nights grow longer, our thoughts turn to Halloween, that enigmatic holiday filled with ghosts, ghouls, and jack-o'-lanterns. Yet, beyond the costumes and candy, Halloween carries a rich literary legacy that has fascinated writers and readers alike for centuries. To delve deeper into the influence of Halloween on literature, we turn to Dr. Crystal O’Leary Davidson, MGA English professor, who specializes in horror literature and the Gothic.

How did Halloween evolve into the holiday that we in the U.S. know today?

Some fall harvest celebrations were brought by early colonists, but I’m proud to say that the Irish brought many of our Halloween traditions to America, such as carving and lighting Jack-o-lanterns and giving treats to folks dressed as spirits and ghouls that became trick-or-treating. All of these were practices to appease or ward off hostile spirits.

How far back in literary history can we trace references to Halloween or similar harvest festivals?

Halloween has old Celtic roots, originally called Samhain (pronounced Sow-win), over 2,000 years ago. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory declared November 1 as All Saints Day, to honor the saints, and the night before became All Hallows Eve, the night when all spirits ran free. The celebrations of Samhain and All Hallows Eve were marked with bonfires, and I imagine many a ghost tale was told on those nights. Certainly, the English have their wonderful tradition of ghost stories at Christmas, but I think the first literary reference to Halloween is to a jack-o-lantern and can be found in American author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Haunted Mind” published in 1837.

Many Halloween-themed stories fall under the genre of Gothic literature or horror fiction. Can you discuss the relationship between Halloween and these genres, and how they've influenced each other?

Halloween is a fall holiday, and fall is often the setting of many American Gothic stories, a season that evokes death. But the season, or more broadly nature, became central to American Gothic stories because America, quite simply, didn’t have what the English Gothic did: castles. In the 18th and 19th centuries in America, when English Gothic was popular, American writers searched for alternative Gothic settings, and found that the wilderness was also a frightening place, outside of the boundaries of the town or home. Two wonderful examples of spooky stories about folks wandering into the wilderness and meeting Evil are Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (1799) and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835).

And then we have another Halloween staple, the Haunted House, as an American Gothic literary convention beginning with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). With this story, Poe created the foundation for the Haunted Houses of Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, and many others, in fiction and film.

But I think the wilderness is still central to many Gothic American works as a place of enclosure or exile, disorientation and danger, a place where the Devil dwells. A wonderful modern example is Dave Eggers’ 2015 film, The Witch, about a Puritan family expelled from town, forced to live outside the walls at the edge of the forest, a place of mystery and Evil that literally endangers their bodies and souls. Eggers researched his film to reflect actual Puritan colonists’ fears about the woods and the Devil.

Are there any classic literary works that have become synonymous with Halloween? What makes these works resonate with the holiday?

Washington Irving’s story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with its climactic scene of Ichabod pursued (he believes) by The Headless Horseman, is one the most familiar. While the climactic scene takes place on a spooky fall night, there is a broad hint by Irving that Ichabod is a victim of a prank. The story is grounded in the New York Dutch folk tale stories of The Headless Horseman, and I think it’s a perfect Halloween story of pranks and frights!

Do you have any personal favorite Halloween-themed literary works? What draws you to these works in terms of their literary qualities or their representation of the holiday?

What scares people is subjective, but I do think strong characters, well-structured plots, and quality writing are universal in effective horror and the Gothic. This is one of my favorite genres to read and write in, so it’s part of my life always, but during October, I make a special effort to read only scary or creepy books. I just finished Clay McLeod Chapman’s excellent 2023 Gothic folk horror novel, What Kind of Mother, and I’m currently reading (for the first time!) Richard Matheson’s classic 1971 novel Hell House, a book that heavily inspired Stephen King.

Our house also celebrates Spooky Season by watching a scary movie almost every night in October. Favorites over the years include John Carpenter’s films, aptly Halloween, and The Thing, and a recent re-watch In the Mouth of Madness. While a film like Halloween obviously represents the holiday, any scary creepy film can represent the holiday by evoking Spooky Season vibes. It can be funny, like Fright Night, creepy, like The Others, or downright scary, like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a newer film like Blackcoat’s Daughter, directed by Oz Perkins (son of Anthony Perkins from Psycho) or the 2023 Australian film Talk to Me.

But as we often say in the Horror Writers Association, Halloween can be kept in your heart all year long!


Dr. Crystal O’Leary-Davidson’s work has appeared on the podcast PseudoPod and various other sites, and most recently in the literary journal Vastarien. Her stories are included in the anthologies Georgia Gothic; Generation X-ed; and, most recently, Hard to Find: An Anthology of New Southern Gothic. At Middle Georgia State University (MGA), she teaches courses in early American literature, the gothic, and horror fiction and film. Her academic work includes co-editing the collection, Monsters of Film, Fiction, and Fable. She is a founding member of the Atlanta Horror Writers Association and on the board of the Broadleaf Writers Association.