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Chaparral 2018-2019: 27.2 The Halloween Trifecta: An Interview with Wendy Fonarow

The Halloween Trifecta: An Interview with Wendy Fonarow

by Joanna Parypinski and Wendy Fonarow

Halloween only comes around once a year, but Halloween scholarship happens all year round in the form of planning and research. Wendy Fonarow (Anthropology), our own resident Halloween scholar, is obviously very busy this time of year, but I managed to snag a few minutes of her time to find out more about the Halloween Trifecta and what she’ll be getting up to with her research this year.

Note: The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.



  • What is the “Halloween Trifecta,” and what are your plans for this year’s Halloween Trifecta?

    Halloween, Day of the Dead, Guy Fawkes Days are three historically interrelated celebrations. Most people don’t know what those interconnections are, but since I’ve been doing Halloween research for over 30 years, I have expanded my research to study all three of these. It’s been probably about ten years that I’ve wanted to experience all 3 in a single string of celebrations.

    This year I’m doing participant observation of Halloween in Los Angeles: trick-or-treating hot spot, and an adult Halloween event. Then I’ll fly to Mexico City to experience Dead of the Dead celebrated in an urban area of Mexico City. Then I’ll be flying to the UK to Lewes, England, which is ground zero for Guy Fawkes Day / Bonfire Night. So: three rituals, three countries, six days.

    I proposed a grant to the academic Senate to offset some expense of doing this, and the grant does help offset the costs, although it won’t cover everything. Getting the grant to do this work shows that this campus really supports innovative collaborative learning, and that it supports faculty’s professional research. Every year, I give presentations to the Classified Council about these holidays, depending on what is most interesting in that year.

    There seems to be genuine support right now, from the Senate, the Administration, and our President Dr. Viar, of professors being active in their professions. Along with teaching, we have amazing, talented faculty here, and Administration wants to encourage us to do our work, attend conferences, be part of our community, and have our knowledge of our disciplines be shared beyond our students so that the community knows GCC is a vital college making important social contributions.

  • What kinds of Halloween scholarship have you done in your thirty years of research (publications, presentations, etc.)?

    I did my Masters on this Halloween research, so my master’s thesis is my primary publication. I did my dissertation on indie music. My Halloween work is primarily in giving lectures. I’ve given lectures at places like UCLA, and this year I’m going to give a talk on Day of the Dead at a gallery here in LA. I also frequently give interviews like the forthcoming piece in Sapiens magazine on Halloween’s emergence in Mexico City. Around this time of year, media outlets will also contact me for expert commentary.

  • How do you bring your Halloween research into the classroom? Do your students engage in the study of Halloween?

    For my Magic, Witchcraft and Religion class, I give lectures on Halloween and Day of the Dead as examples of rituals and different attitudes of the dead. So every year, keeping up to date on trends is part of the course materials. This year I’m having all five of my classes participate in the first two components of the Trifecta. All students will all do participant observation research in LA, using the same hashtag (#HalloweenTrifecta) on Twitter. The innovative goal is to make this a collaborative research effort. I have the historic experience, but I’m also like a colleague to my students as we endeavor, together, to explore the meaning of these rituals. Using Twitter, we’ll be able to post in real-time. For instance, if a student goes to a trick-or-treating hotspot and finds that there aren’t really any trick-or-treaters there, they can post, and others may be online to help guide them somewhere else. In this way, they can help each other out and share the challenges of doing research in non-controlled setting with unexpected outcomes. This kind of project requires a lot of preparation; I’ve been preparing for this for over a year.

    Even though all five classes are participating in this work, so there are really three different assignments, all of them focusing on Halloween and Day of the Dead. Aside from the Magic, Witchcraft and Religion class, the Cultural Anthropology class gets experience in participant observation, and my Linguistics class has a different kind of project doing microanalysis of face to face encounters. But they All students including myself will be presenting results

    Doing fieldwork is a big part of anthropology. We talk to people so we know what people think about what they’re doing, but we also observe to see what they are really doing. It’s a conversation between insider and outsider points of view, which is the essence of our method. Students get to experience moving between those perspectives and having guidance by having other students and their professors working alongside them, using social media that was not available ten years ago. So I like to think we’re a leader in trying to come up with a new research paradigm. Our hashtag will allow us all to interact with each other.

  • What’s the most interesting thing about this year’s Halloween Trifecta?

    Currently, of those events, there are two big things this year.

    One of them is that in Mexico and the US, there is currently a blending, or increasing acceptance of, both holidays (Halloween and Day of the Dead) in tandem with each other. That’s a really powerful thing because each traditions represents very different attitudes toward the dead, suggesting a switch in the American mindset that is looking at the idea of the living and the dead in not just one way, but in plurality of ways. The movie Coco, for instance, got Day of the Dead so right, and in the US you have stores like Target, Crate and Barrel, and World Market that all have Day of the Dead merchandise along with Halloween. It’s a really big deal that there is this increasing acceptance of celebrating both holidays, and it’s a truly American thing to be able to incorporate a holiday from another culture and make it our own.

    In Mexico, they are also increasingly celebrating Halloween. It’s currently a point of conversation in Mexico. The cultural elite are sort of against it, saying that this isn’t us, it’s not our thing, but for the people, the “folk,” there isn’t this idea that Halloween is taking over: it’s not deductive; it’s additive. There’s also this new tradition in Mexico City area that started because of something in film, so we see this relationship of cinema to actual practice beyond Coco.

    Second, for Guy Fawkes Day, which is a very political event occurring on November 5th, the question is always what figures they plan to burn in effigy. This year, it takes place the day before our midterm election, so that will be interesting to see. Some figures are always there, for instance Guy. People also say they don’t burn effigies of the Pope anymore, but I’m wondering is that true? This was originally a Protestant vs. Catholic holiday, and its historic precursors are the same precursors to Halloween. Halloween and Guy Fawkes are siblings. Halloween and Day of the Dead are more like in-laws. In Mexico and the United States, that marriage is working really well right now.

  • What are your other plans for Halloween this year?

    One thing I just went to is Boney Island, which used to be a home haunt and this year has become a professional haunt. It’s a really extraordinary event, a home haunt turning into a professional event, and it’s very family friendly and fun. I’m also planning on going to the Haunted Hayride, which is more of a scary adult event.

    Also, this year on November 3rd, Glendale is having a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) event at the park by the downtown public library (links ). There have been groups on campus that have been contributing to that celebration, and I’ve also asked my students to go to that event so people from different classes can meet each other. This also provides faculty the opportunity for outreach into the community. Everything about Day of the Dead is about bringing together people who have been separated, and I think that’s a beautiful metaphor for this event.

Thank you, Wendy, for sharing your work with us.
And don’t forget to follow #HalloweenTrifecta on Twitter, or indiegodess on Instagram  and Twitter where you can ask questions and see the research unfolding.

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