Halloween 2017: Haunted Air by Ossian Brown

Book: Haunted Air

Author/Photo Collector: Ossian Brown, with introduction by David Lynch, epilogue by Geoff Cox

Type of Book:  Non-fiction, photography collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The photographs themselves are odd and unsettling, but this book came with unexpected (and sort of gross) surprises.  Plus this book links David Lynch and the dude from Coil together and that has some odd potential.

Availability: Published by Jonathan Cape in 2010, you can get a copy here:

If you live in the UK, it may be cheaper to get a copy here.

Comments: Sometimes the story of how I obtain a book is odd, though the story behind how I came to own this particular title is grimly predictable.  Periodically, I will wake in the middle of the night and will take a sleeping pill to go back to sleep.  This is problematic because I must take a Lunesta every night to sleep at all and am generally not really “awake” when I wake and take the second pill.  Under the influence of double the dose I need to take, I will sometimes not go back to sleep.  Sometimes I open my iPad and order strange fabric collections or, as you can guess, a load of books.  I don’t know I’ve done this until I receive the shipment and wonder why it was sent and go online and see that I was shopping at four in the morning, ordering stuff from sites where my credit card is evidently stored in my account information.

And that’s how I came to own Haunted Air.  Interestingly, I picked out books from my “wish list” so every book I ordered was something I wanted and none of them were too expensive, which was good since I ordered nine books.  Since then I have kept my prescription anywhere other than the drawer of my bedside table and this hasn’t happened in about a year.  I mention all of this because I personally find it creepy when I find evidence that I was moving around, engaging in activities I commonly associate with consciousness, when I was supposed to be sleeping.  But given the popularity of hypnotics as sleep aids, this may not be creepy to others, especially Ambien users who wake to find they ate entire boxes of cereal with their hands or drove their car up to the Wag-a-Bag, executed a perfect parallel parking job, walked back home and went back to bed.  Ordering books in an altered state of consciousness by most standards is vaguely creepy but largely benign.

That sort of describes this book, if you take out the “vaguely” and replace it with “rather.”  This book really is rather creepy but largely benign, with any ill-intent coming from the reader herself. Ossian Brown has an impressive collection of old Halloween photos. The front page calls it “Hallowe’en” and the photos date from 1875-1955.  I only mention the use of the precise but twee “Hallowe’en” because I really wanted to include this video wherein a Chloe Sevigny impersonator pronounces the word as written.

Back to the book.  It occurs to me that the main reason this book is so creepy is because everyone takes about ten photos a day on their phone and so many of us are so very curated in how we appear, even when we disguise ourselves to celebrate pagan holidays.  Endless Instagrams of intricate make-up jobs, exquisite costumes, spider-leg cupcakes straight from the latest Martha Stewart Living fall edition.  We are hyper-aware of ourselves even when we appear candid.  I personally won’t post photographs online if I find there is too much cat hair on the carpet or sofa, unless the purpose of the photo is to document the cat hair and even then I may use a filter.

So it’s unnerving to see people so nakedly and without guile wearing paper or burlap bags fashioned into masks.  Church ladies with their hair up and their dresses buttoned to their necks wearing paper mache masks in scenes that are wholesome as wheat bread yet reminiscent of the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  That sort of messy, archaic, unmatched, unincorporated Halloween is not a part of any American’s landscape any longer and the viewer of such photos can find herself in an uneasy place, understanding she is assigning a malignancy to plain-spun activities that was not intended by those in the photographs yet unable to stop herself from imagining someone in such a mask stabbing her to death.

Most of the photos in this collection are nightmare fuel.  They are raw and primal, with a humble intensity that still surprises me when I revisit the photos.  Here are some of the ones that set my teeth on edge.

It’s like The Hills Have Eyes Episode One: Wagon Train.

I personally believe the person behind the mask was dead when this photo was taken.  There’s something about the way his left hand looks…


The short kid in the center is terrifying to me.


Those burlap bags as masks remind me of Leatherface and the Texarkana Moonlight Murderer.


This is unadulterated, pure, straight-up nightmare fuel. It doesn’t matter that the lady on the right has her handbag with her, making the scene appear somewhat harmless, like these are just some country folk out on a Halloween lark, because I think we all know that bag contains the heart of the child these four just killed.

It’s worth mentioning that some of these photos are somewhat charming.  Were I to see any of these people on my front porch at dusk I would not immediately want to load a gun just to be safe.


The mask reminds me of an Edward Gorey cat.


This is pretty adorable.  All those pointed hats remind me of garden gnomes.

But, in a way, the most frightening parts of this book were unintended, or at least I hope they were.  On the front end pages there is a brownish-red discoloration that looks like drops of blood fell onto the book.  Mr OTC says they are just foxing but this book is rather young to have that sort of aggressive discoloration, and the back end pages, made of the same patterned paper, do not have similar stains.

Is it blood? I don’t know but it definitely adds to the book’s character.

Also adding to the book’s character was this delightful discovery.

Yep.  It’s a dead bug.  Not uncommon when you buy used books.  I’ve encountered bugs that were accidentally smashed between book pages, leaving a mess on the two pages they were pressed between.  This is different, though.  Somehow the page on the other side of the bug, a completely white, blank page, is indeed white and blank with no dried dead bug upon it.  It looks as if someone smashed this bug on the page, placed a piece of wax paper over it, closed the book for a couple of years, carefully removed the wax paper and sold it to me.  Generally when you close a book on a bug this large it spatters on both pages, yet here I sit, smushed bug on one side only, wondering what the hell?

The epilogue of this book was a bit purple and excessively long even for this site, but David Lynch’s introduction yielded several interesting turns of phrase, one of which has become this site’s tag line.

I seemed to be inside foreign worlds where there was some kind of troubling camaraderie – as if a haunting joke was known to everyone but me and yet faintly I knew it too.  I couldn’t pull away – it was all like a magnet and there was beauty in it.  Human creatures with the feeling of being turned strange and open to falling and glee – they seemed to have a glee for somehow stitching a laugh to darkness.

…they seemed to have a glee for somehow stitching a laugh to darkness.  What a perfect phrase.

Regardless of the hapless and unintentional manner through which I obtained this book, I am very glad I have it, weirdly smashed bug and all.  Halloween, or Hallowe’en, should be wilder than it is now, less sanitary, far more extemporaneous.  Too much practice and polish has killed it a bit, as this book well shows.

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