Let the Holidays Begin: October

I haven’t addressed the holidays in a few years. And when I have addressed the holidays, I have been limited by my own experiences, which is fine by me, because part of the charm of the holidays is tradition. However, you might want to branch out beyond Elf and Frankenstein, and I might want to mix a little fresh air into the heady aroma of cinnamon and fir. So here I am, tackling the first holiday of the holiday season (in my opinion), Halloween, with my recommendations and then a list of books and movies I haven’t even tried but might just want to.

Note: My laptop broke and I was forced to put this post on the back burner for a week. We’re all good now.

October in modern America is a convergence of three things. First, the cooling off and harvesting, which gives us traditions such as pumpkin spice, jack-o-lanterns, hayrides, and apples, apples, apples. Second, we have Halloween pageantry with its costuming and fantasy, which celebrates children, candy, chili and beer, the nighttime, maybe the spiders and the bats against the moon. Third, we have the exploration of the darker side of life, which can get so dark it’s evil (the devil, demons, black magic) or can just muse on inevitable death, ancestors, the afterlife, and then there’s everything in between: from murder to decay. Of course, there’s a long history of Halloween and this time of year, but we have lost sight of the cause and now, I find, October is a swirl of harvest, Halloween, and the macabre. Therefore, you might be looking for this or that in October. While some books and movies reflect a convergence of all things October-y, many of the titles tilt toward one thing or another (and a majority, I think, toward the dark). (Oh, and there’s also Oktoberfest and The Day of the Dead.)

FYI, I don’t do slasher, I don’t do too much gore, and I don’t do occult (generally speaking). My Halloween standards involve a little creep, maybe some mild scares, and more of the schticky versions of the Halloween standards, including pumpkins, bats, fantasy witches, conflicted vampires, aliens, ghosts wearing sheets, the supernatural, poison apples, fairy tale trolls, werewolves getting their comeuppance, worms and bugs and spiders, potions, caramel and candy, etc. So don’t go looking for really scary or evil stuff here. I don’t think you’ll find it.

Cover Image from Amazon.com

Book Recommendations:

  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. Perhaps the first book ever in the horror genre, it’s pretty anthropological, thoughtful, intense. It’s not anything like a slasher, but much more explorative. If you haven’t read it, it will surprise you because the modern adaptations and conceptions have almost nothing to do with the sad and beautiful story that is the original. This year, I’m going to give the Mary Shelley movie a try.
  • The Witches, Roald Dahl. I looooove Roald Dahl and this is his most Halloween-friendly title, obvi. There is a new movie coming out in just a few days! Some of his other books are a little creepy and a lot magical, too, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, Matilda, The Enormous Crocodile, The BFG, Dirty Beasts, etc.
  • Among the Shadows, L.M. Montgomery. If you know Montgomery’s name, it’s probably as the author of Anne of Green Gables. She also wrote (besides other novels) books of short stories set in 1800s Prince Edward Island, and this one, uncharacteristically, is all about ghosts, criminals, etc.
  • Stephen King’s non-horror stuff: The Stand, The Green Mile, and “The Body.” Perhaps I should branch out and try a few more. And though these aren’t particularly Halloween-y, they are Stephen King and involve at least a little creepiness and grit.
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte and Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. If you enjoy classics, these each have a certain amount of gravity and creepiness that might do it for you this October, but don’t go looking for overt Halloweenishness.
  • Edgar Allan Poe, known for “mystery and the macabre,” is full of what now makes up Halloween, from ravens to hearts beating under the floorboards. Get a Complete Works or Best Short Stories and dig in.
  • “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow,” Washington Irving. What’s Halloween without Ichabod Crane running for his life from the headless horseman? And I love classics.
  • Almost every October, I read the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. It could be read at other times of the year, but it does fit in perfectly to the feel of Halloween, with its world of witches and wizards, pet owls, cats and frogs, cauldrons, potions, you get it. I love Harry Potter and I love going to back to Hogwarts every fall. I am currently collecting the illustrated edition by Jim Kay.
  • The Twilight Saga, Stephanie Meyer. This was a suggestion by my daughter, and might be the only vampire book (series) I have ever read. I don’t highly recommend this series, but it is about vampires and werewolves and is wildly popular and addictive, which I outline in my review.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders. I am just adding this book this time around, because I read it last year. Again, not overtly Halloween, but it is a ghost story, about death, and an excellent read.
  • Sherlock Holmes short stories, Arthur Conan Doyle. I love Sherlock Holmes, and it qualifies for October reading because of all the mysteries, the murders, and the classic grit. And it can be followed up with Sherlock, the British Television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, which is one of my favorites.
  • The Ghost-Eye Tree, Bill Martin Junior. This is a picture book, but my favorite Halloween picture book, probably because my aunt used to read it to me in a hushed, almost-spooky voice. A great bedtime story to break out for Halloween.
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School,which is my first recommendation for elementary-age readers. It’s not about Halloween, per se, or even very scary, but it always gave me this creepy crawly feeling, this iciness in the pit of my stomach. Maybe it’s just me.
  • Chris Van Allsburg has some creepy picture books, and for Halloween I would recommend The Strangerand The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events (thirteen book series), Lemony Snicket, is a middle grades choice for Halloween, but would probably take most much longer than October to read them. It is missing a lot of the usual Halloween elements, but it is dark, mysterious, and even a bit dysthymic with a constant theme of danger and death. But for kids. A quicker thing would be to watch the TV series from 2017-2019, which is also dark and my son and I really enjoyed. Review forthcoming.
  • Another elementary school chapter book recommend would be My Teacher Is an Alien, by Bruce Coville. When we read this as a family we found it a surprisingly good read.
  • A picture book favorite of mine is Sesame Street’s The Monster at the End of This Book. It’s a classic at any time of year, but it is about a monster, even if it is just Grover.
  • Another picture book: The Berenstain Bears: Trick or Treat, by Stan and Jan Berenstain. Part of the original series of books, this is one that was in our house when I was kid and that I read to my children. I love the Berenstain Bears.
  • You want historical pandemic reading for your middle grades reader? Try Fever 1796.
  • I did not highly recommend them, but The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch is mysterious and dark.
  • Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs, is a dark, creepy, and fantastical book filled with monsters and scares. I would recommend the first book in the series most strongly and the movie to go with it.
  • Some eerie but not scary reading that I would recommend for October, as well, would be Tuck Everlastingby Natalie Babbitt, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and maybe even A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd.
Cover Image from Amazon.com

Movie Recommendations:

  • Basically, Tim Burton is perfect for October viewing, but especially Beetlejuice, The Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and a little less so, Edward Scissorhands. Bonus: they are all great movies. I would also like to try Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, and perhaps Sweeny Todd, though that might be too scary/gory for me. Even Peewee’s Big Adventure, Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland might have enough creepiness, darkness, and costuming to make them count as Halloween-appropriate.
  • Coraline (2009) was based on a children’s horror story by Neil Gaiman and definitely qualifies.
  • Donnie Darko(2001) is a cult classic, sci-fi, psychological thriller that I think fits nicely into the Halloween season. It’s funny and mind-bending, involves mental illness and perhaps some supernatural powers and it is quite dark but not scary.
  • Since I don’t do real horror movies, M. Night Shayamalan—who specializes in the supernatural and twist endings—is another Halloween pick for me, including The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. I would like to watch Glass, but the rest of his films I can leave.
  • And J.J. Abrams, in sci-fi and monster movies. For Halloween, try Super 8, Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and The Cloverfield Paradox as well as the TV series Lost and Alias. I haven’t seen the Stephen King collaboration, The Dark Tower.
  • One of our absolute favorites—as gen X-ers with current teens—is the Stranger Things TV series. We’re still waiting on the final season, which has been delayed by the pandemic. Sigh. It does have some gory moments, but most of it is creepy and full of suspense and occasionally jump scares. One scene (I am not alone in this) really ticks me off, but the rest of the series is nostalgic, spot-on, well-acted, and full of Durham Easter eggs.
  • Another one of our favorite all-time TV shows is The X-Files, which would make great Halloween viewing, especially if you happen to land on the movies at this time of year. Aliens, yeah, but also anything that could end up in X-files, from monsters to murders. There are scads of posts, online, laying out Halloween X-Files marathons with the scariest or the most Halloween-friendly episodes. Look it up.
  • The Dark Crystal is pretty dark and creepy, though meant as family entertainment. If you’re a Muppets fan, this is your Halloween pick, for sure.
  • Warm Bodies was the first and so far only zombie movie I have ever watched. The quirky romance really appealed to me in the previews, and I did end up liking it, though there was perhaps too much gore for me. (That could be said about Kill Bill as well, but it’s such a good movie.) Sometimes I’m conflicted.
  • I mentioned theTwilight books, I guess I should mention the movies as well, not because they are amazing but because they are about vampires and werewolves and are very, very, very popular. I think I might like some things about the movies more, actually.
  • Generally, movies made from Roald Dahl books have taken his black humor and turned it into slightly creepy movies that are good family picks for Halloween, also considering the fantastical elements and the costuming. Some of the these I have already mentioned but would include Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), James and the Giant Peach (2006), and less-so Matilda (1996), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and The BFG (2016). Even more appropriate are the two version of The Witches, one from 1990 and one being released to HBO Max on October 22 of this very year.
  • If you find murder mysteries (or vintage thrillers) have a Halloween feel for you, I would recommend Hitchcock, first and foremost (especially Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds, Vertigo,and North by Northwest as well as Dial M for Murder and Spellbound) and then Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and Knives Out (2019).
  • Another Halloween classic which they keep playing at my gym along with Beetlejuice (which is experiencing a revival) is Ghostbusters. The biggest comedy of the 1980s which I can appreciate (and marvel at the rudimentary special effects) but gets a little too evil for me, you can stop at the first and best movie, though there is supposed to be yet another sequel out in 2021 and my daughter keeps asking to watch the girl version again.
  • Hotel Transylvaniaand the sequel. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Vlad the Impaler is no laughing matter, but these movies are cute and funny and entertaining.
  • One of my all-time favorite Halloween movies (though TV-special short) is It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. My kids avoid it, but I cherish the annual watching, with a nostalgic twinkle in my eye.
  • Another almost-too-scary scary movie that I have enjoyed is The Quiet Place. It has perhaps the most per-capita jump scares of any movie I have ever actually enjoyed watching.
  • If you have a family and it’s October, you might want to pull out somestuff from the Scooby Doo franchise. About as un-scary as ghosts can get, my kids loved Scooby Doo growing up. Some of the movies cross the line for most kids, but I like the TV series better anyways, both the 1969 Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and 2010 Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, the two series I and my kids grew up with.
  • One of the best October movies for the family is Goosebumps (2015). Though I had long opposed my children reading R.L. Stine, I had to eat crow a little bit when this movie immediately became a family favorite, turning the franchise in on itself to include both the author and a number of the books in one funny film. The sequel, though a Halloween-specific movie, received mixed reviews.
  • To honor the Day of the Dead, which takes place during the same season and has many celebrants in our country, I am going to recommend Book of Life and Coco. Though Coco has gotten more attention and plaudits over the years, I much prefer Book of Life. They’re both great, family movies.
  • And I saved the best for last. Though you can watch them all year round (we do), the Harry Potter movies are great to watch in October as you warm up for Halloween for all the same reasons I said it’s also a great time of year to read the books. We’ll be having yet another Harry marathon over the next three weeks and enjoying our new Blu-ray edition.

Books to Read (which I have not already or don’t remember well. I reserve the right to chicken out.):

  • Sandman, Neil Gaiman
  • In the Woods, Tanya French
  • The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
  • The Distant Hours, Kate Morton
  • Rebecca, Daphne de Maurier
  • Still Life, Louise Penny
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker
  • The Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay
  • The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
  • We Were Liars, E. Lockhart
  • The Mockingbird Sang, ???
  • And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
  • A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn
  • We Have Always Lived in a Castle, Shirley Jackson
  • Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye
  • The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay
  • He Said/She Said, Erin Kelly
  • The Hazel Wood, Melissa Albert
  • The Crucible, Arthur Miller
  • The Singer’s Gun, Emily St. John Mandel
  • Not That I Could Tell, Jessica Strawser
  • Trick or Treat: A Peanuts Halloween, Charles Schultz
  • Gil’s All Fright Diner, A. Lee Martinez
  • My Crowd, Charles Addams
  • Witch Week, Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Accident Season, Moira Fowley-Doyle
  • Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol
  • The Likeness, Tania French
  • Resurrection Bay, Emma Viskic
  • Labyrinth Lost, Zoraida Cordova
  • The Diviners and Iron Cast, Destiny Soria
  • Monstress, Marjorie M. Liu
  • Get in Trouble, Kelly Link
  • The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
  • Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
  • The Girl with All the Gifts, M.R. Carey
  • The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown
  • NOS4ATU, Joe Hill

For Kids:

  • The Very Busy Spider, Eric Carle
  • Room on the Broom, Julia Donaldson
  • The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt, Riel Nason
  • Creepy Pair of Underwear, Aaron Reynolds
  • Vegetables in Halloween Costumes, Jared Chapman
  • Pete the Cat: Five Little Pumpkins, James Dean
  • Runaway Pumpkins, Teresa Bateman
  • Bonaparte Falls Apart, Margery Cuyler
  • The Brave Little Camper Saves Halloween, Rosa Vonfeder
  • Peppa’s Halloween Party, Neville Astley
  • Spooky Pookie, Sandra Boynton
  • What Was I Scared Of?, Dr. Seuss
  • Clifford’s Halloween, Norman Bridwell
  • Goodnight Goon, Michael Rex
  • It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Charles Schultz

Getting Older and Older as We Go:

  • The Secret of the Old Clock, Carolynn Keene
  • The Hallo-weiner, Dav Pilkey
  • Goosebumps: Welcome to Dead House, R.L. Stein
  • Bunnicula, Deborah Howe
  • Nate the Great and the Halloween Hunt, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
  • Junie B. Jones Boo! And I Mean It, Barbara Park
  • Frankenstein (Classic Start), Deanna McFadden
  • The Mostly True Story of Jack, Kelly Barnhill
  • School of Fear, Gitty Daneshvari
  • A Tale Dark and Grimm, Adam Gidwitz
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart
  • Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett
  • The Crossroads, Chris Granbenstein
  • The Dark Thirty, Patricia C. McKissack
  • Coraline, Neil Gaiman
  • Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,  Alvin Schwartz
  • File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents, Lemony Snickett
  • The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickhollow Place, Julia Berry
  • Doll Bones, Holly Black
  • Constable & Toop, Gareth P. Jones
  • The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, Sheila Turnage
  • Dying to Meet You, Kate Klise
  • Sammy Keyes and the Kiss Goodbye, Wandelin Van Draanen
  • The Thickety, J.A. White
  • Lockwood and Co., Jonathan Stroud
  • Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, Roald Dahl
  • The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
  • Unnatural Creatures, Neil Gaiman
  • There’s Someone Inside Your House, Stephanie Perkins
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan
  • A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness
  • The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma
  • The Coldest Girl in Cold Town, Holly Black
  • The Dead House, Dawn Kurtagich
  • Wilder Girls, Rory Power
  • Spare and Found Parts, Sarah Maria Griffin
  • Shallow Graves, Kali Wallace
  • The Babysitter’s Coven, Kate Williams

And for your October coffee table:

  • The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks
  • The Werewolf’s Guide to Life, Ritch Duncan
  • The New Vampire’s Handbook, Joe Garden

Movies to Watch (which I have not already or don’t remember well. Also reserve the right to chicken out):

  • Young Frankenstein
  • Clue
  • Mary Shelley
  • Zombieland
  • Hocus Pocus
  • Happy Death Day (maybe not)
  • Death Becomes Her
  • Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • What We Do in the Shadows
  • Shawn of the Dead
  • The Addams Family
  • Little Shop of Horrors
  • Casper
  • Labyrinth
  • Halloweentown
  • The Host

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