Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Death Makes a Holiday (copy)

Did you know Ehrich Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini, died Halloween night in 1926? It wasn’t a stunt gone awry, but a dare acted out a week earlier which led to his demise. The story, told through David J. Skal’s book Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, clarifies a university student followed him to his dressing room where he dared Houdini to take a stomach punch. Skal continues, “He may already have been suffering from undiagnosed appendicitis; the result was peritonitis and a swift but excruciating death.”

During Houdini’s time, Spiritualism was a growing movement. Some Victorians believed spirits of the newly departed could be communicated with through the use of Mediums. World War I also gave rise to the movement because of the enormous death toll.

Mr. Houdini thought Mediums were con artist and enjoyed debunking their methods. His wife Bess, on the other hand, was a devote Spiritualist who lived to prove him wrong. Before Houdini’s death, he gave a secret code to his wife and other believers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If Mediums were the real deal surely one could relay the message back.

Every year for ten years, Bess attended different séances on Halloween night, with noted Spiritualists. She left unenthusiastic. Finally, a New York seer named Arthur Ford claimed he had been contacted by Houdini’s spirit. Bess acknowledged his claim and signed a statement proving its validity, but she later recanted claiming the code wasn’t all that secret.

What was the secret message? I know you are dying to know! The bunch of garbled-goop goes, “ROSABELLE ANSWER TELL PRAY ANSWER LOOK TELL ANSWER ANSWER TELL.”

Author Skal has written an engaging history of Halloween. Through the use of the Oxford English Dictionary and period postcards, he follows the migration of the celebration from Europe to America. What started as a way to relax after the harvest has now turned to big business with Disney costumes and Hershey candies.

Within the pages one will read all about haunted houses, witches, Jack-o’-Lanterns, and skeletons. He includes a fascinating chapter on Hollywood title, “Halloween on Screen” and concludes with the scariest of scenarios, September 11.

This was a purely fun, nostalgic look at Halloween when the monsters were in front of the door and not behind it.

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