In case you have been on a tropical beach or away from the northern hemisphere for an extended period of time, you’re probably aware that it is not only fall, but also spooky season. For many people, this is a favorite time of year. Personally I like all the seasons equally, but since soup is one of my favorite foods and I love tea, October is definitely a favorite month.
Halloween is generally a very fictional time of year. The veil between the physical and spirit worlds is thin, gardens are either dying back or preparing to sleep for the winter, and there is something in the process itself of shifting into winter that is active. Readers are drawn to darker stories, all the year’s horror movies come out, and we indulge shamelessly in ghost stories. (Some of us do this all year, but YKWIM.)
But behind all the fiction, imagination, and scary stories is a deep historical tradition. I’ve gathered here 20 nonfiction books about Halloween, its surrounding celebrations, and the generally taboo subject of death and death rituals, which is largely the point of Halloween in the first place.
Note: This list is low on titles by authors of color and thus not up to Book Riot standards for diversity and inclusion for several reasons; the first being that Halloween began as a Celtic holiday. And while Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated by thousands of people of color, I felt it would be disingenuous to pack the list with Mexican/Latine authors and call the list diverse; in my opinion, that would paper over the issue of authors of color tending not to write about Halloween, etc. In addition, most of the discussion I could find around death rituals in other countries were written by white authors; I would like to have encountered authors of color writing about death from within their culture. Lastly, while I did include Zora Neale Hurston’s book about voodoo practices in the 1930s, I am anxious not to put the practices of non-Western cultures in the “spooky stuff” category, as that is diminishing and elitist, and often racist. Hurston’s book is more academic in nature, as well as being written by a Black woman, so I felt it was appropriate. I apologize if I have assessed its inclusion incorrectly. In any case, this list is more white than I’d prefer.
The Ghost Photographer by Julie Rieger
Rieger was a Hollywood executive when her mother died. Shortly thereafter, she captured her first ghost on camera, leading her down a “spiritual rabbit hole” of paranormal activity.
Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom
What is creepier than books bound in human skin? In the world of books: NOTHING.
The Festival of Bones / El Festival de las Calaveras by Luis San Vicente
San Vicente uses skeletons to illustrate the traditions around the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos. It has become a larger holiday in the United States recently, and since this book is geared toward children, it might be a good one to pick up to educate the little humans in your life.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
Doughty is the mortician behind the incredible YouTube channel, Ask A Mortician. In From Here To Eternity, she chronicles the practices surrounding death and dying around the world.
50 Real American Ghost Stories: A journey into the haunted history of the United States – 1800 to 1899 by M. J. Wayland
Wayland is a historian focused on ghost stories, specifically in the U. S. Here are 50 stories he has gathered about spirits of the 19th century who are still with us.
Bardo Thodol, aka The Tibetan Book of the Dead revealed by Karma Lingpa
What is known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a smaller piece of the teachings of Karma Lingpa (1326-1386 CE). It is intended to guide the reader through the liminal space between death and the next karmic rebirth.
Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton
Morton delves into the history of Halloween and surrounding holidays such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead and the Celtic Samhain. In addition, she digs into the current and growing popularity of Halloween, especially in the United States.
The World of Lore by Aaron Mahnke
Mahnke hosts a podcast by the same name, and in both he delves into the culture surrounding “monsters.” What is the social impetus behind vampires, werewolves, etc., and what can these creatures tell us about ourselves?
Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston
Before she was a novelist, Hurston was an anthropologist and folklorist. In Tell My Horse, she recounts her experiences participating in voodoo rituals in the 1930s and gives a clear context for an often demonized and misunderstood practice.
Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead by Jovanka Vuckovic
Zombies are definitely near the top of the list of “most easily recognized monsters.” But where did they come from? And why are we so obsessed with them? Vuckovic dives into the lore of the undead in this illustrated history.
The Death Class: A True Story About Life by Erika Hayasaki
Hayasaki teaches a college course on death, which sounds morbid but is, in fact, a way for students and teacher alike to find a new respect for life and heal from loss.
THIS PARTY’S DEAD: GRIEF, JOY AND SPILLED RUM AT THE WORLD’S DEATH FESTIVALS BY ERICA BUIST
Buist visited seven different death festivals around the world in an attempt to reconcile with the death of her fiance’s father. She tackled questions about mortality, death anxiety, and how to celebrate the passing of a life.
Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural by Peter Bebergal
Bebergal explores the fascinating and strange history behind the technology used to speak to the Invisible World, while also attempting some communications of his own.
Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof by Roger Clarke
Humans have been searching for proof that the Invisible World exists for much, much more than 500 years, but Clarke has very reasonably only tackled half a millennium’s worth of ghost hunting in this volume.
Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting by W. Scott Poole
As an American, I feel qualified to say that our obsession with horror and hauntings is…widespread. Poole discusses American horror stories with an eye to how they define Americans in culture.
The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present by Ronald Hutton
As a practicing witch myself, I am keenly aware of my privilege in being able to announce such a thing in public. Generations of witches have been unable to do so, and fear of specifically women as witches runs deep in culture. The Witch discusses this in detail.
The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark Half of the Year by Jean Markale
Markale wrote her book before Lisa Morton, also on this list, completed hers. Markale’s take is a bit more philosophical, discussing how children, dressed up as the things society fears, collecting candy is a ritual that reaches back into antiquity.
Real Ghost Stories: Haunting Encounters Told by Real People by Tony and Jenny Brueski
The hosts of the podcast Real Ghost Stories Online have collected their most haunting stories in one volume. Guaranteed to make you reconsider joining a ghost hunting tour — or is that just me?
Images of Death in Mexican Prints by Mercurio Casillas
Casillas is an expert in 19th c. Mexican graphic art, especially as it surrounds death culture. He surveys the titular subject from pre-Hispanic colonialism through contemporary newspapers.
Haunted Air: Anonymous Halloween photographs from c. 1875–1955 collected by Ossian Brown
Images of Halloween celebrations from ages past. Brown has collected a fascinating survey of a holiday that is still only partially understood; the images trace how people interpreted Halloween in recent history.
We don’t tend to think of Halloween as an “educational” holiday, but I hope you’ll take the time to learn about this ancient holiday, perhaps over a bucket of leftover candy.