The Halloween holiday, Samhain, dates back centuries to Celtic festivals, and many cultures pay respect to the line between living and dead. In contrast, zombies and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are only about fifty years old, while candy corn is a little older, dating back to the 1880s. All of them reflect a fascination with blurred lines, with candy and people that cross over, which explains why candy corn, Reese’s, and zombies are so popular and will likely remain so for decades.
Love It or Hate It
A recent Monmouth University poll suggested a sharp divide in American attitudes about Halloween. 45% said that the October festivities were among their favorite holidays. Another 53% don’t particularly like it at all. That kind of polarization isn’t surprising in today’s divided populace, although who doesn’t like dressing up in costumes or eating candy? (Answer: lotsa people).
Know what else divides the populace? Orange. Not the orange head you might be thinking of, but the orange and yellow corn syrup and earwax combination known as candy corn. As Lewis Black and others have pointed out, it’s neither candy nor corn.
All of the candy corn that was ever made was made in 1911. And so, since nobody eats that stuff, every year there’s a ton of it left over. And the candy corn company sends the guys to the villages and they collect out of the dumpsters all the candy corn we’ve thrown away. They wash it!!Lewis Black from “The Daily Show”
Candy corn is made from cane sugar, corn syrup, carnauba wax, and water. Carnauba wax comes from Brazil and is known as “the queen of the waxes.” All of this is melted together in a slurry, and when you look up what a slurry is, you find a list of examples starting with cement, pyroclastic oil, and coal slurries. Candy corn, thus, after emerging as a waxy sugar-cement has fondant and marshmallows added to it. Fondant allows for shaping and marshmallows for “softening.” That must be a microscopically small amount of marshmallows.
When the Wunderlee company invented this waxy slurry in the 1880s, they marketed it as a fun kind of chicken feed for humans. Candy corn remains popular in rural America today, and, in fact, is the most popular candy in several states, including Idaho, Iowa, Nevada, and New Mexico. It also routinely ranks nationally as the worst candy, below circus peanuts, wax coke bottles, and necco wafers.
I always considered candy corn a mystery I couldn’t solve, as in why would anyone eat it? It’s so perplexing that it’s likely if I go to a party where it’s out in a dish, I still try it–every time–just to see if I was wrong. Nope, still tastes like oil and aspirin with pumpkin pie spice sprinkled on top.
The 500-pound Chocolate Peanut Butter Gorilla
What is America’s favorite candy? Monmouth pollsters found that 36% of people ranked Reese’s peanut butter cups as their favorite, twice as many as Snickers and M&Ms, with all other types trailing below 10%. Interestingly enough, candy corn ranked #5 at 8%!!!
H.B. Reese was a dairy farmer and shipping foreman for the Hershey company who started his own candy business, selling it to Hershey in 1963. The value of that merger is now worth $2.5 billion. It ought to be, because within six years, Reese’s peanut butter cups became the best-selling product in the Hershey line, and it’s more or less remained so since 1969.
Like candy corn–neither candy nor corn–Reese’s is a candy that works by combining opposites. Other types of candies thrive by emphasizing the one thing they do best (Skittles/Starbursts=sour; Hershey’s kisses=sweet; Hot Tamales=burning). The salty sweet peanut butter cups are among the few that combine two (e.g. Tootsie Pops).
Reese’s blossomed in the United States because of two other American inventions: successful advertising and product spinoffs. Finish the sentence: You got _______ in my ________. More people are likely to identify the correct answers chocolate and peanut butter than to name their two state senators. Meanwhile, there are now at least 75 different versions of Reese’s. Peanut butter chocolate eggs have virtually replaced peeps as the favorite candy at Easter.
Reese’s combine the best of both worlds and, once marketing muscle pushed them into people’s consciousness, they came to dominate the candy world. That’s true of another notion that took off in the 1970s: zombies.
Take One Portion Mary Shelley, Two of Bram Stoker, and Sprinkle with Voodoo
The first English use of the word “zombie” hearkens back to 1819, although the etymological derivation is from Haitian and Creole cultures, whose voodoo cermonies attempted to create zonbis /zombis, reanimated dead. The idea of the dead returning to life is itself ancient, forming the basis of many religious observances and the underpinnings of Halloween itself. One reference dates all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar warns:
If you do not open the gate for me to come in,from Wikipedia
I shall smash the door and shatter the bolt,
I shall smash the doorpost and overturn the doors,
I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living:
And the dead shall outnumber the living!
But the reanimated body of a physical person wasn’t a particularly well-known monster/creature until George Romero made it so, in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. The film didn’t actually use the word zombie, a word later applied by fans to the creatures who came out of the graves searching for human flesh. The movie spawned the sequel Dawn of the Dead, wherein the monsters became specifically hungry for brains, and Dawn became one of the most commercially successful horror film for decades.
While zombie movies declined in the 1980s and 1990s, the genre was “re-animated,” in part from video games like Resident Evil. More recently, zombie movies and TV series have multiplied like uh zombies, with so many that current Top Ten lists have little overlap, though The Walking Dead and The Santa Clarita Diet seem to be atop most rankings.
Why so popular and pervasive? Because the zombie, like the peanut butter cup, is the perfect combination of Frankenstein and vampires, two of the other most iconic scary creatures. As zombies are already dead, they are hard to re-kill, and, like vampires, they turn you into a version of themselves, like a virus. Unlike giants or ogres, they used to be people, used to be us, which makes their conversion into the un-human much scarier.
Thus, even if the number of zombie-themed Netflix series eventually drops, the idea of the zombie will endure in our consciousness, like peanut butter cups or candy corn, straddling two ideas, neither one thing or another, and utterly fascinating.
You got Frankenstein in my Dracula!