Spooky Scary Nonfiction for Halloween and Frighteningly Good Reads: The Frighteners and Damnation Island

It’s Halloween month! What spooky scary nonfiction might you be reading? I mean yes — real life is scary enough, especially this year, but perhaps you’re distracting from the everyday horror and existential angst with some nonfiction about less-present scariness? Just me?

The wonderful Molly at Silver Button Books is again hosting Frighteningly Good Reads, a fun, relaxed initiative to read and discuss scary books this October, so go see what she’s reading and share your Frighteningly Good Reads posts there. (For my previous spooky nonfiction reading recommendations, see here and here.)

This year I read The Frighteners: A Journey Through our Cultural Fascination with the Macabre. Reverend Peter Laws is long obsessed with horror and all things grim and gruesome, jokingly calling himself a “sinister minister”. In this pop psychology/sociology study crossed with memoir, he writes about some of the mental impulses behind our collective undeniable fascination with macabre topics and lore.

What’s interesting here is that things like gory horror movies, graphic and violent video games, and a general inclination towards entertainment or hobbies of a more macabre nature are often dismissed as not having greater cultural value, or, worse, negatively contributing to behavior and perceptions. Laws sets out to prove why this isn’t so based on the psychology behind our consumption of such things.

He examines his own love of horror movies despite an aversion to real-life blood and gore, looks at local legends like the Hull werewolf, vacations in Transylvania, meets shopkeepers and collectors of objects once belonging or peripheral to serial killers, and interviews real vampires and a convention of furries (I’m not convinced the latter quite belonged in this book, although made for an interesting look at an unusual social group nonetheless).

The format and style have a Mary Roach-type of voice, but the research isn’t as intense. It’s more a surface-skimming look at these ideas, but that’s not the worst. I’m not sure how much more time I would’ve really wanted to spend hearing about actual blood-drinking vampires, so the quick tour through these worlds was fine by me.

Yet it falters a bit for this too, since we get more of Laws embarking on fear-stoking activities as opposed to what I would’ve liked — more history and related case studies to explain where this fascination comes from and how it actually benefits us. It’s at its strongest where the sociology and psychology are explained and the focus is less on the personal, even if that was a necessary starting point.

I was intrigued to learn that activities like rubbernecking at car accidents, a kind of real-life horror consumption, are evolutionarily beneficial, as they help teach us what we should be afraid of and how to avoid mistakes that might cause us harm. So morbid fascination has its advantages. It’s a simple, perhaps not novel concept, but the way Laws illustrates and contextualizes ideas like this felt freshly informative.

The Frighteners isn’t as broad in scope as I would have preferred either, but for what it does cover it’s enlightening and entertaining. I had a laugh-out-loud moment and elsewhere the light tone just made reading it more fun, but it wasn’t at that Mary Roach sweet spot of scientific smarts plus well-played humor. I think it’s just a light way to enjoy the season and learn a little about why we’re drawn to darkness and spookiness at all. published September 25, 2018 by Skyhorse

For an eerie, chilling historical read there’s Stacy Horn’s Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. It’s perhaps unfair to group the ominous specter of the mental institution with Halloween, but this is exactly where ideas of hauntings come from — physical locations where unthinkably terrible things or mistreatment occurred, where even for decades or centuries after, we struggle with processing what happened there and how people unnecessarily suffered.

These spots seem too laden with history not to be somehow haunted, and even if you’re not a ghost believer (me), it’s chillingly frightening.

The Asylum itself sat opposite Seventy-Ninth to Eightieth Streets in Manhattan. The two islands lay so close to each other that inmates on Blackwell’s could watch the ever-changing steel, brick, and granite panorama on the opposite shore. Commissioners would mention this in their reports as if the views of New York City were an entertaining feature, but in reality it was like being on the wrong side of a moat surrounding an enchanted, glittering palace.

Blackwell’s Island is now called Roosevelt Island, a slim stretch of land situated in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. Today, it features luxury housing sold promising “small-town charm” with big-city views and upscale riverfront cache, but it was once nicknamed Welfare Island for its occupants of a “lunatic” asylum, two prisons, a poorhouse, and multiple hospitals, including one for smallpox.

This very readable, if dispiriting, history of Blackwell Island’s medical and social institutions and how and why they failed those they were meant to aid and protect follows a different figure in each chapter, with some recurrences of the most significant. These include the Reverend William Glenney French, one of history’s unsung heroes, who treated and ministered tirelessly to the incarcerated and hospitalized population.

Blackwell’s was also the setting for journalist Nellie Bly’s infamous undercover reporting, when she got herself committed to the asylum for ten days and reported on the appalling conditions there. So most of the stories are bleak along the same lines — there was never enough money or concern about the sick and destitute, and this attitude led to grave neglect and abuse.

It’s especially unsettling because it’s not buried too terribly deep in the past — the island’s first penitentiary was built in 1832, and the history Horn covers stretches into the early 20th century. And sadly, our stigmas around mental illness still have far to go today, and our treatment and consideration of the poorest and sickest among us, not to mention incarcerated populations, have even farther.

And it’s saddening to consider all of this in one go, although mercifully the book isn’t very long. Some parts are a bit drier and more data-heavy than others, and I far preferred the more-specific anecdotes that were available to illustrate everyday functioning and typical occurrences (horrifying as some of these were — I cringe just remembering the description of baths in the asylums) but I think it’s a worthwhile read for its precise focus, and for a lesser-examined corner of New York City history.

I walked the Queensboro Bridge a few days ago and looked down at Roosevelt Island; it seems so slim and small, and looks meticulously upkept. It’s hard to reconcile its current affluent, curated image with the historical reality — just the magnitude of everything Horn relates here, but it’s a history that feels important to know. published May 15, 2018 by Algonquin

Roosevelt Island on the left, now lined with high-rises and luxury housing

What scary or Halloweeny nonfiction are you reading this year?

19 thoughts on “Spooky Scary Nonfiction for Halloween and Frighteningly Good Reads: The Frighteners and Damnation Island

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  1. I liked The Frighteners and thought it interesting he is an ordained minister but refers to himself as the “Sinister Minister.” And I also liked his sense of humor but if I remember correctly, I skimmed a few of the chapters.

    Another I liked was Spirits of the Cage: True Accounts of Living in a Haunted Medieval Prison by Richard Estep (I want to read more by this author). I had heard about the haunting on the podcast Spooked (which is terrific but has moved to from a free site to a paid site so haven’t yet followed it).

    On my TBR list is:
    The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale (April 2021)
    Cursed Objects: Strange but True Stories of the World’s Most Infamous Items by Ocker
    Unexplained: Supernatural Stories for Uncertain Times by Richard Smith (guess I’m going to have to buy this as the library can’t obtain it)
    On the Hunt for the Haunted: Searching for Proof of the Paranormal by Robin Strom

    I’m sure I have more but these are the titles I could easily locate.

    Another silly little short narration I enjoyed was Three Nights in the Clown Motel
    by David J. Schmidt, mainly because we’ve passed this decrepit motel many times on our way to Las Vegas. However, it has been gaining notoriety and is now becoming a cultural icon.

    And are you familiar with the forthcoming book, Made in China by Amelia Pang? A friend read and said it was amazing.

    I also read Rebel Chef by Dominique Creen and was less than impressed. When I read a foodie memoir, I want more food content! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robin, you are simply amazing! I get so excited every time I see a comment from you 🙂 Actually I think The Frighteners was a recommendation of yours too. I’m glad I read it but I was skimming the last chapter. I guess it just had that effect.

      I have a review copy of The haunting of Alma Fielding I’m very excited to get to! I liked Cursed Objects, it wasn’t outstanding but it was interesting and entertaining enough. Apparently the author started with a podcast so I might get to that at some point too. Unexplained and On the Hunt for the haunted sound good too, as does the Richard Estep — his name sounds very familiar, I think you might have mentioned him to me before as well. I need to see what I can get from the library of these.

      I haven’t heard of Made in China, but looking it up I remember when that letter was in the news, or something similar, at least! I’ll be on the lookout for that one.

      I realized the other day that I’ve read so few food memoirs this year, way fewer than usual and I’m not sure why! I abandoned Bill Buford’s Dirt and Onion in My Pocket, I think was the name of the other one, both very early. Neither was gripping me and I felt like I didn’t have enough knowledge of either author to get into them, especially since both seem better known and more established and I was coming in blind to their work.

      Thanks for your amazing recommendations!!!

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  2. It never occurred to me to read spooky nonfiction here in October, but Damnation Island seems to fit the bill. It must be a lot more depressing than fiction, though, knowing that it really happened.

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  3. The Frighteners sounds interesting, but I suspect I’d have a lot of the same small problems with it that you did, since Mary Roach is also my perfect balance of humor plus scientific depth.

    Damnation Island appeals to me more, because, sadly, I do still think it’s a relevant look at the way we treat (as you note) “the poorest and sickest among us, not to mention incarcerated populations”. I feel like I read something recently (maybe Susannah Cahalan’s The Great Pretender?) where I was surprised to learn that abuses continued at Blackwell’s Island well after Nellie Bly. Sometimes it feels like people will never change.

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  4. Great post! These both sound wonderful for Halloween, and Damnation Island looks particularly appealing to me. I’m not really a ghost believer either but am drawn to tragic history and anything to do with hauntings. I like that you point out that the idea of hauntings does come from real places where bad things happened, which really is the bridge between the real and fantastical that makes ‘spooky’ work for me. There’s always a grain of truth, it seems, and the truth is often scarier than the fiction! I’ll be sure to keep this title in mind for next year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree, I’m drawn to the same. As a kid I just liked the spooky stories, but now I find it much more fascinating and telling to understand why we’ve turned tragedy and real-life horror into hauntings, it’s almost like the truth it too scary on its own so we need a ghost story. You might like Colin Dickey’s Ghostland — he explores sites of American hauntings and traces them to their roots, exactly as you’re describing. It’s such a great read, kind of a debunking of widely accepted ghost stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, thanks for the recommendation! I’ve actually had Ghostland on my radar for a while so you’re spot on- I just haven’t come by a copy yet. It does sound right up my alley the way you describe it!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Such a pleasure to catch up on your blog over my breakfast, very civilised way to start the day. However, your output is so high that I have a lot of catching up to do. Would like a lux apartment on Roosevelt Island. I must look into Nellie Bly. Not grabbed by the Sinister Minister. Got the idea from something I read that some of the spooky tales are designed to stop teens having sex in cars in remote places – like The Hook story…spookiness as behaviour control…

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