By Stephen Winzenburg
Associate Professor of Communication
Grand View College
Copyright 2002

The celebration of Halloween in America has grown to the point that it is now the second biggest holiday on television, surpassing Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and even Easter.

Holidays have traditionally been the time when television networks set aside a few hours to air movies and specials. In order to grab the attention of viewers, broadcast and cable networks use holiday themes in films, musical specials, talk shows, and even as special episodes of sitcoms and dramas.

Halloween week has turned into one of the most celebrated holidays of the year on TV. Of the over 100 cable channels studied during the week before October 31st, 2002, 400 hours of television programming was devoted to Halloween. That is about 20% of the entire TV schedule! Most networks began airing holiday-themed shows on October 25th (including the CBS “Early Show,” which had hosts in costumes six days early) and many networks used the October 26 & 27 weekend before Halloween to air spooky material.

The network that aired the most horror material was AMC, American Movie Classics. It had a special “Monsterfest 24/7,” where it aired scary movies all day and night for one week. The R-rated “Halloween” series ran at least four times on AMC, as did “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Dracula,” and some cult horror movie spoofs.

USA Network and FX were other large programmers of Halloween material, but most surprising was the large amount of scary material to appear on two of the networks that appeal to children. ABC Family Channel was the third-largest programmer of Halloween material, and The Disney Channel came in fifth. Both aired mostly “kid-friendly” movies about evil spirits, such as “Casper” and “ Mom’s Got a Date with a Vampire.”

Of the major broadcast networks, only NBC used the Halloween theme regularly throughout its prime time schedule. About 15% of NBC’s series incorporated the holiday into the story line, including “Frasier,” “Will & Grace,” and “ER.” While the WB devoted most of its prime time programs to Halloween on October 31st, the next night NBC’s “Providence” aired a day-late new episode about Halloween in the emergency room with a man believes he is a vampire. And Fox got into the spirit late when it ran the 13th installment of the “Simpsons” Halloween special on November 3rd!

Almost no network seemed to avoid airing spooky Halloween-related programming. Shows that devoted time to the holiday ranged from “Emeril’s Trick or Treats” on the Food Network to E’s “The Curse of Poltergeist” and “Top Ten Cursed Places” on the Travel Channel. Professional journalists should debate the appropriateness of the broadcast news professionals on morning shows like “The Today Show” dressing up in garish costumes while attempting to seriously deliver the day’s news.

Most unusual were some of the specialty cable networks that aired Halloween-themed shows. The Discovery Channel and The History Channel were among the top ten networks for holiday programs. Discovery had specials on Nostradamus, ghost detectives, and haunted houses. History Channel aired documentaries on witches, vampires, and cemeteries.

The Travel Channel had “World’s Creepiest Destinations” and HGTV aired “Ghostly Homes of Cape Cod” and “If Walls Could Haunt.” Halloween also was celebrated on The Learning Channel (“Ghost Waters” and “Hauntings Across America”), The Food Network (“Spooky Treats Unwrapped” and “Haunted Restaurants”), and Game Show Network (“The Match Game” and “Hollywood Squares” stars dressed in scary costumes). National Geographic did a Halloween-titled show that ended up being a special on bug infestation! And VH-1 aired “Graveside Groupies,” as well as multiple airings of Michael Jackson’s “Ghosts” (which it had also inexplicably aired on Easter weekend).

Even syndicated shows took advantage of the holiday, such as Martha Stewart decorating in a spooky pumpkin patch or Regis & Kelly producer Michael Gelman dressing up as Britney Spears to go trick-or-treating.

Obviously some of the networks had their calendars mixed up. What else would explain the Disney Channel’s confusing October 31st ten-hour Christmas marathon! It had Christmas movies and Christmas episodes of its regular series. Why did the network that aired so many hours of spooky programming during the week suddenly turn to Christmas on Halloween? Could it be to promote the new Disney movie “Santa Clause 2” would be premiering the next day in movie theatres?

But what’s QVC’s excuse for running a “Christmas Shoppe Clearance” or WB’s decision to air a “Gilmore Girls” Christmas episode during Halloween week? At least HBO had the right atmosphere when it aired Tim Burton’s spooky animated “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Lost among the evil spirits was the recollection that Halloween started as a day-before-All Saints Day remembrance of the dead. Commercial television failed to cover the spiritual aspects of the holiday. Only a few obscure religious cable networks used Halloween evening to make the spiritual connection. One religious network aired Christian singer Carmen hosting an anti-devil musical special while another showed former professional wrestlers taking off their makeup to give a testimony for Christ and a third network talked with former Satanists about the negative impact of celebrating Halloween. But no religious network used much air time to combat the evil themes telecast on the major commercial networks.

Halloween received four times more TV air time than did holiday themes did during Easter week. And most of television’s Easter-week material focused on the devil. So while only one film about Jesus was aired on the 100 networks during Easter week, hundreds of hours of movies about the devil, evil spirits, witches, and ghosts aired during Halloween week.
Next to the secularized Christmas themes aired on television in December, Halloween has become the second-most celebrated holiday of the year.


2000 hours studied on over 100 networks 400 total hours of holiday programs aired Oct. 24-31, 2002

Network Hours of Halloween Programs

1. AMC 155
2. USA 42
4. FX 22
9. NBC 8