SALEM — This city might think of itself as The Halloween Capital of the World, but does it really deserve the title?
More to the point, does anyone here know anything about Halloween?
For example, do Salem residents know that this is not the “Halloween Capital of the World”? That title has been trademarked by Anoka, Minn., which held the first organized Halloween celebration in 1920 to stop kids from tipping over outhouses and letting the cows loose every Oct. 31.
And does anybody know why we decorate our houses, not to mention ourselves, every Halloween, or why the pumpkin replaced the turnip as the jack-o’-lantern of choice?
“I don’t think anybody does,” said Paul Van Ness, co-owner of CinemaSalem, the downtown movie house.
Van Ness is probably right, which may explain why he made a movie, “The History of Halloween,” to answer all these bewitching questions. It premieres today at his theater in Museum Place Mall.
This is, no doubt, a business venture aimed at making a profit. Van Ness has his own production company and plans to show this 35-minute short film continuously through the month of October, with another 3D documentary he made, “The True 1692,” a film about the Salem Witch Trials.
But he has hit on a good topic — the story behind America’s second-most-popular holiday and Salem’s biggest tourist draw.
The film is both serious and humorous, Van Ness said.
The story is told by two narrators, Jill Rogati and Erik Rodenhiser. Both are well-known local actors who dress as women in the film. Rodenhiser plays a rugged “young Celtic maiden,” Van Ness said.
There is also a debate in the film over the true Halloween capital. The case is argued by a modern American maiden, played by Rogati, and a poorly dressed Anoka businessman from the 1920s, played by Bruce Whear, a normally well-dressed Salem businessman and actor.
The film spans a swath of history from the holiday’s pagan origins to modern times. It features about 40 actors and was shot in Salem, Beverly, Topsfield and Haverhill.
Van Ness says he took on this topic because of the fascination people of all ages have with Halloween, with the aura of death and darkness that hovers over it, and with the chance it offers to become a toothless ghoul or smiling princess, if only for a night.
It’s a holiday that keeps growing in popularity, he said, for reasons that escape most of us.
“The holiday is kind of crazy,” Van Ness said. “Everybody loves it so much, and it has a tremendous amount of energy around it, even though nobody knows why we celebrate it or where it came from.”
“The History of Halloween” tries to provide answers, although Van Ness concedes the teaching technique may owe more to Monty Python than PBS’s “Nova.”
“I think people will come out smiling and have their minds stimulated a bit,” he said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.