Halloween Meets the Day of the Dead

Charles Addams books, a witch rattle and some Japanese skeleton art.

Charles Addams books, a witch rattle and some Japanese skeleton art.

Halloween and the Day of the Dead as Ritual and Festival

This is an exhibit at the Library of the McNichols Campus of the University of Detroit Mercy.

The display runs from October 30th to November 20th, 2015.

The library is currently open seven days a week.  Here are the hours:


It‘s on the west side of Detroit at McNichols and Livernois.  Here’s the location:


Both Halloween and the Day of the Dead celebrations go way back.  Halloween goes back to the Celtic harvest festivals in the 1500’s.

The Day of the Dead has roots connected with Aztec festivals even earlier than the Celtic harvest festivals.  In Spanish it is called El Día de los Muertos.  It used to be celebrated in the summer.  In the 1500’s, it was moved to the same autumn days as the Christian Allhallowtide.  It started as a harvest festival yet ended up as more of an an occasion to honor and remember those who’ve died.

José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) is an important figure in connection with this holiday.  His skeleton drawings have become iconic.

One major expression of the holiday is the ofrenda.  This is a sort of memorial altar which commemorates a specific person or a group of people.  Flowers, food, sugar skulls and mementos are items which are included in these ofrendas.

I made one when I was part of the Zeitgeist Detroit group, about ten years ago.  There are always enthusiastic Day of the Dead celebrations here in Detroit.  In the past few years, the Detroit Institute of Arts has celebrated the holiday by hosting a grouping of ofrendas

I think that it’s important to keep the Day of the Dead celebration separate from the Halloween holiday.  They both employ skeleton imagery.  Both involve the community.  Yet the Day of the Dead is about poetic imagery, memory and honoring those that we’ve lost.  Halloween seems to have become a sort of oddball party.  It’s focus is more wide-ranging.

Halloween goes back to the 1500’s.  It became a popular holiday in the United States around the mid 1800’s.  Before that, it was celebrated here only sporadically.

In America it started off as mainly a children’s holiday, but now Halloween’s become a big holiday for adults, as well.  It gives people and excuse to dress up and to socialize.  Of course, it’s also become big business. There’s money to be made from candy, drinks, food, costumes and decorations.

Kids still go from door to door begging for treats.  They’re usually in costume and collect candy in paper bags or pillow cases.  They ring door bells and yell Help the Poor or Trick or Treat to alert the households on their route.  Sometimes kids go out and play tricks on people, whether they get a treat or not.

There are massive Halloween parties for children or adults or for both.  There are “haunted houses” and Halloween themed concerts.  There are parades.  It’s an interesting holiday.  It’s all about ghosts, witches, goblins, fright and things that go bump in the night.

Halloween rarely seems to be a harvest festival or a time for memorials.  I think that there’s still a little of that though.  It seems to be more in the background.

I’ve seen attempts to commercialize the Day of the Dead as well.  I hope that it doesn’t happen.  We try to pay tribute those who we’ve lost in an honest and creative way.  It shouldn’t become just another way to make money.

A pumpkin, a gift and three masks.

A pumpkin, a gift and three masks.

The exhibit is on the first floor of the library.  In the farthest case, I’ve installed an exploration of the skeleton.  This is made up of quotations and of skeleton imagery.  In the nearby flat case, there a tribute to the Day of the Dead. This includes works by José Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera.  There’s a tribute to Frida Kahlo.  There’s also information and history related to this celebration.

In the lobby there’s a tribute to Halloween.  The first case is primarily a group of masks.  There are also a few toys and books.  The second case is a collection of Halloween themed children’s books.  There’s also an audio cassette of frightening sounds.  In the third case there are books on haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, ghosts and poltergeists.  There are also Crypt of Terror comic books and a few toys.  Case number four includes Charles Addams books and a witch toy.  Case five is a tribute to scary movies.  These are mostly older works from 1920 to 1980, including works by Harry Houdini, Alfred Hitchcock, Tod Browning, F.W. Murnau, Lon Chaney and others.  I hope that these displays give a good sense of the spirit of this holiday.

This case is in tribute to various scary motion pictures. Films featured here include The Haunted Castle, The Phantom of the Opera., Dracula, Freaks, Nosferatu and The Wicker Man.

This case is in tribute to various scary motion pictures. Films featured here include The Haunted Castle, The Phantom of the Opera., Dracula, Freaks, Nosferatu and The Wicker Man.

Further Information

Dia de los Muertos:


José Guadalupe Posada:





Ofrenda Altars:



Halloween “versus” Dia de los Muertos:




Harvest Festivals:






Devil’s Night:



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