Photos by Jason Walcott
These days, Halloween decorations run the gamut from garish and gory—decapitated rubber heads and smashed arms sticking out of car doors—to cheap and cheesy—fake cobwebs and tree-hung ghosts. But Halloween decorations made before the 1950s aren't nearly as heavy-handed. Instead, they are subtly insidious and deeply weird. The old school decorations often feature haunting figures in twisting contortions, sporting leering smiles. Their bodies are crumpled up or stretched and their faces seem off and unsettling. Many of the pieces are downright demonic. Although these vintage decorations are rare, there is a small group of people who spend a great deal of time and money hunting them down.
“Most—but not all—of the Halloween items that collectors go after today were made by three basic sources: two American companies, Beistle and Dennison, and various German artisans who made holiday items to be imported to the USA between the two World Wars,” explained Jason Walcott, a dedicated collector of old-timey spooky stuff.
These companies, back in the early part of the 20th century, weren’t making Halloween decorations for kids. “Back in the 20s and into the 30s, if you were going to have a Halloween party, it would be adults throwing the party for other adults. They didn’t want cute decorations,” said Mark B. Ledenbach, proprietor of Halloween Collector and author of Vintage Halloween Collectibles. “They wanted something that would be unsettling and memorable for adults.”
And that unsettling nature is the common theme in these classic decorations. Each piece seems to be a study in devious grins and perverse, impish nature. And for the collectors I spoke to, that’s the whole point. “I think I am drawn to their darkness,” said Brenda McNeilly, “in particular the ones from the golden era of Halloween. [Back then] the party favors and lanterns were less benevolent, and more malevolent in design and intent.” These pieces, coming from rural Germanic towns and Germany itself, evoked a kind of creepiness that we don’t see in today’s decorations.
But collecting at this level isn’t cheap—some pieces fetch more than $5,000. As Mark said, “You have to have some financial resources to truly delve into vintage Halloween.” When I asked collector Cynthia Vogel if she ever had to sacrifice anything for her Halloween collection, she told me, “There have been years where I have purchased items for the collection that precluded me from doing other things such as vacations that most people would find enjoyable. But for me, acquiring a piece on my most-desired list is far more fun than any vacation I could ever imagine.”
All the collectors I spoke with were careful to point out that collecting Halloween decorations is an art. And at this level of collecting (we’re dealing with pros here) they don’t purchase anything without inspection, meticulous grading, and a confidence that they could flip it to recoup their investment. As Brenda puts it, “I always make a conscious effort to pay no more than what I believe is a "recoverable price" for a top flight, museum-quality item.” While some collectors don’t purchase at all, “All the advanced collectors, they want what you have and you want what they have. If you can work out a trade, that’s much more satisfying than money, which feels kind of mercenary,” said Mark.
When people on the outside come to a collector's house, they generally have a whole lot of questions. “When it comes to Halloween memorabilia, most non-collectors look at me and say, ‘Really?’” said Cynthia, “and then they begin to speak about their own pleasant childhood memories of Halloween. A lightbulb begins to shine and understanding begins to show.” For a lot of non-collectors, seeing is believing. “People just don't get it until they see it,” said Jason. And as Mark said, “There are people who collect and people who don’t collect. I was always one of the collectors. If you’re not a collector, there’s nothing I can say to you to interest you in the collection, except to maybe throw out a value here or there and say, 'Look at this piece of cardboard. Did you know that this cardboard is worth $2,000?'”
Prices on these decorations always generate a lot of interest from outsiders. A quick search I did on eBay for “Beistle Halloween” produced results with lots of cheap reprints and some staggering asking prices for originals, like a rare Halloween Lamp for almost $1,600. The value of these pieces comes from their rarity. Halloween decorations weren't preserved as carefully as those of other holidays. "No one cared about Halloween back in the 20s and 30s," Mark told me. "So if you threw a party, unlike Christmas decorations that were passed down and lovingly curated, on Halloween no one did that. So they were just ripped down and thrown in the garbage.” Cynthia described, from that rarity, a broader appeal, “Most people, even if they are not collectors, appreciate the historical value of the items we collect.”
After speaking with these collectors, I was impressed with the level of passion and dedication they give to their hobby, but not surprised. For some people, collecting in all its forms (baseball cards, vintage cars, old pornos) can be “a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life, like calming fears or erasing insecuritm.” wrote Mark B. McKinley for the National Psychologist. “Some people collect for investment... some collect to expand their social lives, attending swap meets,” and “for some people collecting is simply the quest, in some cases a life-long pursuit that is never complete.”
Whatever the motivation, collectors love to collect. When asked what she would say to people who don’t understand her hobby, Brenda told me, “They don't have to, and that's OK. It's my strange little obsession, and that's how I like it."
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