Categorized | Arts, Community

Things That Go Bump — Exploring Halloween’s History

Posted on 22 October 2013

A selection of Jack Musnicki's vintage Halloween decorations. (Annette Hinkle photo)

A selection of Jack Musnicki’s vintage Halloween decorations. (Annette Hinkle photo)

By Annette Hinkle

“From ghoulies and ghosties, long leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night good Lord deliver us” — Scottish Prayer, 1800.

This is, indeed, the time of year for things that “go bump in the night” and Halloween as we know it is really an outgrowth of Samhain, the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest and the onset of winter.

As the East End gears up to celebrate Halloween next Thursday, the Bridgehampton Museum is opening a new exhibit featuring the impressive collection of Halloween-themed decorations which belonged to the late Jack Musnicki.

“They are papier mâché and the majority of them were made in Germany,” explains Julie Greene, archivist and curator at the museum.

The objects on view include a “two-faced” globe, tiny fragile figurative boxes of characters like black cats and witches with removable heads so candy could be hidden in the body and several figures which would have been hung and used as lanterns.

Also on view will be an extremely rare example of a marotte from the early 20th century. A marotte, explains Greene, is a stick with a figurative head on the end (in this case a jack o’ lantern) which was used in parades.

For John Musnicki, Jack’s son, Halloween was always a big holiday. These days, John Musnicki spearheads the annual Lions Club Pumpkin Carving Contest which will be held Monday at the Bridgehampton Community House, directly across the street from the museum. But he remembers growing up with an enthusiasm for the holiday which was shared by the whole family.

“Halloween has always been special,” says Musnicki. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the first around here to have a mini-haunted walking tour in our yard – we did that as kids. I remember dressing up as different character every year.”

Musnicki recalls that it was Bridgehampton antique dealer Barbara Trujillo who first piqued his father’s interest in collecting papier mâché Halloween objects, probably in the early 1990s. Musnicki got involved as well, and found several pieces for his father’s collection at antique fairs in Massachusetts.

“I went out and did a lot of collecting for him. Then he got intense with it and preferred to buy more expensive stuff,” says Musnicki who notes that because of their fragility, papier mâché decorations can be extremely hard to find.

“These things had little candles in them – a lot of these probably caught on fire,” says Musnicki.

While trick or treating is the main activity of Halloween today, in the time when most of the decorations in the Musnicki collection were made, it was a different sort of holiday.

“Initially, Halloween was at the turn of the century an adult thing,” explains Musnicki. “People wore spooky costumes and went masquerading. These decorations were made in Germany and Japan to add atmosphere. They weren’t used for anything except to hang or hold a candle — like a Jack O’lantern.”

Musnicki notes in the early part of the 20th century, the decorations were hand crafted and painted. Later on, American influences changed production methods and they were made from a cheaper process of pressing paper.

“When my father started collecting, it was mostly American decorations from the 1930s and ‘40s,” explains Musnicki. “For whatever reason, you couldn’t even find the older German ones on eBay, which are better done than the American stuff.”

“Then there was a spike in interest. It then turned into the high end stuff,” says Musnicki who notes the best decorations wee made in places like Dresden and other parts of Germany known for making paper novelty products and Christmas  ornaments.

In addition to the Musnicki Halloween decorations, Greene is pulling out some antique Halloween postcards from the museum’s collection to put on view. She will also assemble a haunted doll’s house to entice the little ones and she created wall paper for the Corwith House featuring photos of some of the hamlets older tombstones — many of which speak to tragic, frequent and early death among residents.

“Historically, Halloween entwined celebrations of the fall harvest, spirits passing, getting ready for winter, reaping, dying and death,” explains Greene. “Death was all around  back then — people were much more in touch with the cycle of life.”

“Wakes were in the home and you could easily lose a mother and sibling in child birth,” says Greene.

“I’ve found some information from the 1880s where they had Halloween parties in Bridgehampton,” says Greene who, during her research, also discovered written evidence of what may have been the first Halloween “tricks” in the area — the practice of stealing the gates of picket fences so animals and livestock could escape. Perhaps that’s how the “treats” came to be much later (likely in the 1940s or later) — a subtle form of blackmail to protect one’s property from marauding youth.

Some things, it seems, never change.

Jack Musnicki’s collection of antique papier mâché decorations and other vintage objects go on view at The Bridgehampton Museum’s Corwith House (2368 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton) on Saturday, October 26 during the Hampton Library’s pumpkin trail. From 5 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, there will be a reception. The exhibit runs through November. Call 537-1088 for details.

The Bridgehampton Lions Club Carving Contest is Monday, October 28 at the Bridgehampton Community House. Visit for rules and details. All carving must be done at home and entries brought to the community house on Montauk Highway between 5 and 5:30 p.m. Bring a lighting source.


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One Response to “Things That Go Bump — Exploring Halloween’s History”

  1. Tom says:

    Detail: Halloween or Samhain had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead not the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest The ‘harvest’ refference came after during Pope Gregory’s Christian Ireland.

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