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LOC Halloween: Enter the Chambers of Mystery!

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As our readers know, Folklife Today is particularly fond of Halloween. We launched the blog just before Halloween 2013 with a post updating Jack Santino’s Halloween article. We’ve had special posts for Halloween every year thereafter. So we’re especially happy to announce that the Library of Congress will be hosting a special pop-up exhibition for Halloween this year, which embodies seasonal traditions of fantasy and folklore. We’re also excited to say that some of the exhibited items come from AFC’s collections! In this blog I’ll tell you a little about the exhibition, and let you see a few of the images we’re contributing.

Folklorist Sue Samuelson documented this scarecrow as part of her series “Halloween porch decorations, New Gretna, New Jersey” in 1983. We used it as the model for our scarecrow in the Chambers of Mystery! See the photo series at this link.

According to the Library’s press release about the exhibit:

At “LOC Halloween: Chambers of Mystery,” visitors will learn about the ancient and mysterious traditions behind these autumn holidays through a rich selection of books and archival special materials. The display will feature items of various themes including Halloween origins and traditions, curated ghost stories, a commemoration of Día de Muertos, Houdini’s pursuit of the supernatural and the films that brought them all to life.

Elaine Thatcher documented artists painting pumpkins for the Pinelands Folklife Project collection. (AFC 1991/023)

The press release goes on to say:

Visitors will be encouraged to experience the sound and video recordings, prints and photographs, film scores and sheet music, chapbooks and movie memorabilia that embody the spooky holidays. Families can enjoy storytellers spinning yarns about ghosts and witches, and learn about trick-or-treat and the art of disguise. Guests can engage in reflection and remembrance at an altar for Día de Muertos of iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Footage of classic horror and noir films such as “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Nosferatu” and “Carnival of Souls” will run throughout the exhibition, along with old-time radio programs of mystery and horror. The iconic artwork of Edward Gorey, a historic Dorothea Lange photograph of a Halloween Party in California in 1938, the magic and stunts of Harry Houdini and the timeless poetry of Robert Burns will also be on display.

What’s Halloween without a scary clown? Sue Samuelson photographed this one in the 1980s in New Jersey, for the Pinelands Folklife Project collection. (AFC 1991/023)

If that’s not enough to get you here, let me tell you what the American Folklife Center is contributing!

First off, we’ve mined our collections for scary stories about ghosts, witches, monsters, and devils, told by some of the greatest storytellers ever recorded.  Tellers include Jackie Torrence, Kathryn Windham, Don Davis, and Bessie Jones, among others. You’ll be able to hear them spin their spooky yarns on a video loop in one of the chambers of mystery.

These three (or is it five?) trick-or-treaters were photographed by Joseph Czarnecki in the 1980s for the Pinelands Folklife Project Collection. (AFC 1991/023)

Similarly, we’ve pulled out some of our best spooky songs songs and installed them on a listening station. Jean Ritchie, I.G. Greer, and Kilby Snow are just a few of the great singers you’ll encounter spinning yarns about “unquiet graves,” frightening revenants, haunted fiddles, and the terrible revenge of a murdered woman’s ghost!

We’ve selected a range of Brazilian chapbooks on supernatural themes from our collections of literatura de cordel.  These feature such characters as the lobisomem (werewolf), mulher vampiro (vampire woman), assombração (ghost), and diabo (the devil). Some feature older style woodcut prints, and others have a modern aesthetic closer to comics. We’ll have all these supernatural creatures rendered in a range of art styles on display!

Jai Williams photographed these colorful dressers at the 2015 High Heel Drag Race, a Halloween tradition in Washington, DC. (AFC 2016/016)

Finally, of course, we have Halloween photographs. One source of our photos was the Folklife Halloween 2014 collection, which we publicized on the blog here, here, and here. Two others are not yet available online, so you can’t see them except by coming to the exhibit–except for the examples right here in this blog!  These are the Pinelands Folklife Project Collection and the Jai Williams Collection.

The Pinelands Folklife Project Collection is a vast ethnographic collection documenting the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and includes 300 hours of sound recordings, 5 hours of moving images, and (believe it or not) 80,000 photographs of cultural activities, work, and land use.  The Jai Williams Collection documents Washington, D.C.’s annual High Heel Drag Race which has occurred near Halloween since 1986 along 17th Street in Washington, D.C. The photos come from the 2015 race.

Another of Jai Williams’s photos from the 2015 High Heel Drag Race in Washington, DC. (AFC 2016/016)

Folklife is just a small part of this exhibition. (Small but integral, of course!)  Our colleagues throughout the Library will be bringing all their spookiest goodies, from movies and radio shows to fine art prints, from Edward Gorey to Harry Houdini. I can’t wait to see the altar my colleagues are building for Frida Kahlo!

To find out more about the exhibition, including our costume policy (since you’re going to want to dress), visit the press release.  To sign up for the event, visit our eventbrite site.

We can’t wait to scare you! In the meantime, I’ll be back about once a week on Folklife Today, sharing just a few of the items my colleagues and I have exhumed for the exhibit.




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