Using Commonplace Books to Study (Save?) Halloween

Photo by Andyone on Unsplash

This Halloween will definitely be interesting as we create new traditions in response to COVID-19. What is great about Halloween is that it has always adapted to societal challenges and in impactful (and sometimes questionable) ways. Did you know that haunted houses have roots in the Great Depression? Instead of lamenting the fact that some traditions might be put on hold (i.e. trick-or-treating), let us celebrate the fact that this Halloween’s adaptations may inspire new traditions and activities.

With that said, I have an exercise that will (1) aid in exploring the history of Halloween, (2) help with inspiring new traditions for your own family in quarantine, and (3) introduce you to a new hobby. I am asking you to start a Halloween commonplace book.

What is a commonplace book? I explain more in the next section, but commonplaces books “serve as a means of storing information, so that it may be retrieved and used by the compiler, often in his or her own work” (Harvard University Library). I sometimes describe them as DIY textbooks with one reader in mind: you.

Now, before you are scared off (Boo!), commonplace books are accessible to everyone. You simply need the desire to learn. You will not be tested on the material. There will be no final paper! You are simply researching and documenting for the sake of learning.

You can start a commonplace book on any topic, but today I challenge my spooky friends to study Halloween. By looking back you might feel rejuvenated in a time when everything seems “on pause.” History reveals, though, that nothing is really dormant.

In the following post I briefly introduce the topic, explain how to start one, and list general tips, topics, and resources to get you going. Also, please check back to this post at a later date. I will update it with more information and resources as it comes up.

What is a Commonplace Book?

The commonplace book, not be confused with a journal, organizes information by topic (rather than by date) so that it can be easily accessed at a later date. This information includes research notes, clippings from newspapers, printed articles, collected quotes, readings notes, images/photographs, drawings, and more. Think of it as a repository.

These do not need to be beautifully designed and handwritten. Organized chaos is welcome here! So don’t feel pressured to make everything look neat. This book is meant for the individual’s learning.

I have always loved learning new things and have found commonplace books an effective tool in archiving that information just in case my memory fails me. We all absorb so much information each day, especially due to social media. Why not take time to learn something new and really sit with it? Commonplace books give me the opportunity to (slow down and) document and reflect on topics I am passionate about. In some ways, it is an act of self-care.

I have written about this topic at length before. I have covered the history (with pictures!), addressed how tech-savvy people can use commonplace books, and given so many tips on starting and maintaining your own. If you would like a detailed introduction, check out these two posts:

Starting Your Commonplace Book

I am going to explain how to start a physical commonplace book, but you can definitely make a digital version. I just prefer the “paper and pen break” from technology. Again, I have written about this topic at length, so check out those blog posts linked above. They even include photographs of commonplace books as examples.

  1. Find a notebook. You can use whatever type of notebook you like. I prefer sturdy, beautifully decorated notebooks. Picking out my next commonplace book is always a fun experience. I have a commonplace book for each subject. For example, I have a commonplace book just for spooky topics. You might have one strictly for Halloween, another for Literature, Occult History, Witchcraft, whatever!
  2. Create a Table of Contents. Save a couple of pages in the beginning for the Table of Contents. You will be adding entries as you go.
  3. Number your pages. You can number all the pages at once or you can number as you go. When you start a new entry, you will put the title and page number on the Table of Contents page.
  4. Start archiving! Sometimes I start an entry with a topic in mind. Sometimes I watch a show or find an article I want to take notes on. Sometimes my entries are just entire articles printed and pasted into my book for future reference (with all the citation information of course). I take my book along to paranormal conferences to take notes. The possibilities are endless, really.

This commonplace book will explore the topic of Halloween. What is it all about? What are its origins? How has it changed over time? Through the study of Halloween, you might feel inspired to create new ways or bring back old ways of celebrating the holiday (safely!). For example, by researching vintage postcards, you might feel inspired to design your own and send them to friends. And, Halloween has a long history of games you can bring into your own home as well. Maybe adding entries to this very commonplace book will be a new tradition.

An Example of a Table of Contents Page
An Example of an Entry

General Tips

Here are some general tips. If you have any questions, please post them in the comments. I will address them in this section as well.

  • Your note-taking style will be as unique as you. My notes are truly inspired by my work in academia. I use lots of bulleted lists, highlighting, and tables. I sometimes create sidebars and text boxes (like a textbook). That’s just me though! Take notes in a way that works for you.
  • Make sure to write down where you get your sources. Do not worry! You do not need to follow the citation style taught in school. Just make sure to write as much information as possible so that you can find it again (if necessary).
  • Get creative if you want! I usually just fill my book with text. Sometimes I feel especially inspired and will add flourishes on my page with stamps, stickers, and colored pencils.

Possible Topics and Resources

Here are some possible topics to start with.

  • Origins of the Jack-o’-lantern
  • Origins of Trick-or-Treating
  • Interesting Halloween Festivals Across the United States
  • The History of the Haunted House
  • Halloween Postcards

Here are some possible resources to start with.


If you have any questions, please post them in the comments below. This is a “living” blog post and I will update it if something comes up (a question, new resource I come across, etc.). Don’t hesitate to ask questions! I love talking about commonplace books. đź‘»

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