What is Halloween? – A Guide to the When, Why, What and How

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Skeletons, ghouls and ghosts: Halloween is nearly upon us — this year the spirit-filled night falls on a Tuesday — and with it, a number of strange and bizar`re traditions. How did a pagan Celtic festival and an early church holiday become an opportunity for little kids to beg for free candy and college students to dress as a sultry version of Abraham Lincoln?

Halloween has evolved quickly in the United States, from a harvest holiday brought over from Ireland by immigrants, to a celebration for children around World War II, back around to a holiday that embraces grown-up participation in the last few decades.

 Here’s the complete history of Halloween. (And stick around until the end for some science-y costume ideas.)

If last year is any guide, one costume off the table may be the creepy clown. That’s because last fall, there were several unsettling news reports of people dressed as clowns who were terrorizing kids. For instance, in Greenville, South Carolina, reports of a “clown” allegedly trying to lure children into the woods prompted a property manager at one apartment complex to post a warning to residents on Aug. 24, 2016.

There’s another factor at play this year, however.

Though creepy clowns don’t appear to be roaming U.S. streets, perhaps the creepiest clown of them all hit the big screen in September: “It” (also called Pennywise). The evil clown terrorizes kids with their own phobias.

Even when not wielding weapons or suspicious motivations, clowns are inherently creepy, some say. The wide-grinned tricksters may invoke unease because their face paint masks real expressions. “There’s something inherently menacing about a masked stranger,” Ben Radford, author of “Bad Clowns” (University of New Mexico Press, April 2016), told in September 2016. [10 Clowns to Fuel Your Nightmares]

But let’s get back to the spooky origins of this sugar- and scare-filled night…


The origins of Halloween are (appropriately) shrouded in historical fog. Many scholars link the holiday to a pagan festival called Samhain, which was held around Nov. 1. The word “Samhain” is pronounced “sowen” and translates to “summer’s end,” and has associations with death, said Nicholas Rogers, a historian at York University in Canada and author of “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

In this illustration from 1871, young women gathered around the hearth on All Hallow's Eve.
In this illustration from 1871, young women gathered around the hearth on All Hallow’s Eve.

Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Samhain was a day — if you think of it magically, and they thought of it magically —when fairies or imps or supernatural beings would come out of the countryside, out of the hills and devastate the crops, and they were foreboding death in some ways, the death of the vegetation,”

But there’s some dispute among historians about how directly modern-day Halloween is linked to Samhain. Little is really known about how Samhain was celebrated, Rogers said.

“What we know about that pagan holiday is, historically, pretty slim and it’s pretty vague, Rogers said. In particular, he said, the Romans tended to spread nasty stories about the “barbarian” pagans to the north, whispering about human sacrifices and so on. These stories are sometimes grasped upon by modern religious fundamentalists who dislike Halloween and feel that it has evil origins, Rogers said.

But most of the traditions now associated with Halloween, like wearing masks and knocking on strangers’ doors, probably came courtesy of the Christian holiday Hallowtide, or Hallowmas, Rogers said. Hallowmas included All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and was a time for praying for the souls of the dead.


Samhain took place about halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, and marked the darkening days of the second half of the Celtic year. On the modern calendar, this corresponds with Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.

The Hallowtide holidays moved around in the early Christian calendar. By A.D. 750 or so, Pope Gregory III pegged All Saints’ Day to Nov. 1. All Hallow’s Eve, then, would fall on Oct. 31. This may have been an attempt by the church to co-opt the pagan celebration of Samhain, similar to how Christmas was scheduled to piggyback on winter solstice celebrations.


Halloween arrived in the United States and Canada with the Celtic immigrants of the 19th century, Rogers said. Ireland’s potato famine sent immigrants to North American shores, and their Halloween celebrations were at first viewed as an ethnic oddity.

“Everybody thought it would die out, but what happened was it was adopted by non-Celtic Americans, so it became a continental festival rather than an ethnic one,” Rogers said.

In the latter part of the 1800s, pranks were a common ingredient of Halloween fun. Here, an American Halloween greetings card, circa 1910, shows a woman being frightened by a Halloween trick.
In the latter part of the 1800s, pranks were a common ingredient of Halloween fun. Here, an American Halloween greetings card, circa 1910, shows a woman being frightened by a Halloween trick.

Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the latter half of the 1800s, Halloween got a reputation as a rough and rowdy holiday. Masks, costumes and pranks were common, Rogers said. So were parties. The 1785 poem “Halloween” by Scottish poet Robert Burns highlights some of the paranormal parlor games that might have been played, like dipping one’s sleeve in a spring and hanging it out to dry. Then around midnight, an apparition of one’s future spouse would appear to turn the damp side of the shirt toward the fire.

By the 1920s, banks and other businesses had started celebrating Halloween with decorations and promotions. The holiday had become a little bit commercialized, Rogers said, with party decor and entertaining manuals on sale, but most costumes were still homemade.


In the early 1900s, Halloween was rather controversial. The pranking had gotten out of hand — or at least it seemed that way to many city leaders, according to Lesley Bannatyne, an author and folklorist who writes about Halloween.

“Some cites, Los Angeles for one, had to hire several hundred extra police on Halloween night to keep an eye out for vandals during the 1920s. In Chicago of the same period, civic leaders gave out 100,000 free movie tickets in hopes of keeping children busy on Halloween. What was once excused as the exuberance of young boys was beginning to look — to the modern eye — like vandalism,” Bannatyne wrote in an article on the holiday’s history.

Halloween became so unpalatable to adults that in 1950, President Harry Truman tried to rebrand that day “Youth Honor Day,” Bannatyne wrote. (The Senate failed to act on the suggestion.) During this period, adults pushed the child-like side of Halloween, encouraging trick-or-treating and other nondestructive activities. The changing living arrangements of American families also contributed to an evolution of the holiday.

“Trick-or-treating became a big suburban thing, as new suburban areas were created in the 1950s and 1960s,” Rogers said.

It was in the 1970s that the commercialization of Halloween really took off, Rogers said. Stores started selling costumes and candy well in advance of Oct. 31. Meanwhile, the holiday’s adult side became more entrenched, with grown-ups dressing up for their own soirees. Meanwhile, pubs, bars and restaurants realized that they could capitalize on Halloween with holiday promotions.

“It becomes a kind of segmented holiday,” Rogers said. “It has a kiddie side and then it has a young adult side to it.”



Much of the paraphernalia of Halloween relates to festivals like Samhain: Pumpkins, hay bales, apples and other signs of the harvest. Halloween colors, like orange, yellow and black, are basically the colors of changing leaves and darkening skies, Rogers said.

Many traditions, though, have roots in folklore. An old Irish legend tells of a trickster named Jack, who outsmarted the devil many times in life. In death, God refused to let Jack into heaven, and the devil refused to let him into hell. According to the tale, Jack was turned away from hell with only a burning coal to light his path, which Jack promptly put into a carved turnipto make a lantern. From this story emerged the tradition of carving faces in turnips to frighten away old Jack.

Pumpkins are native to North America, so when Irish immigrants brought their traditions over, they adapted: Out with the turnips, in with the orange gourds.

Candy came to be associated with Halloween as trick-or-treating took off. Trick-or-treating wasn’t part of the original Hallowmas tradition, but door-to-door encounters were. Poor people would knock on the doors of the rich, particularly homes where there had been a recent death, and offer to say prayers for the souls of the dead in return for food and drink, Rogers said. At the time, church doctrine held that people could actually pray their deceased loved ones into heaven, so any extra intercession was welcomed.

In 1950s America, trick-or-treating became a way to encourage young people to do something other than cause trouble on Halloween, according to Bannatyne. As she points out in her piece on Halloween history, the term “trick or treat” appears basically nowhere in books prior to the 1940s, when it suddenly skyrockets (as seen on Google’s Ngram Viewer). Samira Kawash, author of “Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) wrote in 2009 that the first trick-or-treaters were likely to find things like nuts, cookies and coins in their bags. In the 1950s, though, candy companies saw the opportunity to market individually wrapped goodies for the Halloween crowd. Life Magazine’s first ad featuring Halloween was for Fleer’s Dubble Bubble bubblegum, Kawash found, and showed a woman with a black cat next to her holding out gum for a crowd of costumed kids.



Those costumes are part of a long tradition of topsy-turvy fall festivals in which masks and strange costumes were key. Most early-modern festivals involved some level of role reversal, Rogers said. The Roman holiday of Saturnalia, for example, involved masters serving their slaves. In medieval Europe, part of the Christmas celebration involved crowning a “boy bishop” from the choir, allowing the child to take on the role of a church elder for a day. Another ancient tradition, widespread across Europe, involved men putting on strange animal costumes to herald spring.

Modern Halloween costumes seem to have descended indirectly from this European penchant for celebrating with masks and “mumming” (amateur acting). Like trick-or-treating, the Halloween costume was codified into American tradition in the 1950s.




<a href="http://www.livescience.com/56692-halloween-monster-science-infographic.html">See the full Halloween monster infographic</a>
See the full Halloween monster infographic

Credit: Michael Reis, Purch

Both Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve focused on the supernatural, whether fairies and imps or the spirits of the dead. Over time, though, Halloween has come to encompass pretty much anything spooky. Here are a few favorite monsters and their brief biographies:



Bram Stoker created an enduring archetype with his 1897 novel “Dracula,” about a bloodsucking count and his bug-eating buddy Renfield. This Gothic masterpiece codified today’s vampire mythology, such as the aversion to garlic and the importance of graveyard dirt for getting one’s beauty rest. Stoker, however, drew his novel from Eastern European lore. Notably, some Eastern Europeans who lived before the 18th century have been found buried in cemeteries with rocks wedging their jaws closed or sickles wrapped around their necks, insurance policies against reanimation.

The returning spirits of the dead are a staple of folklore the world over. Some Buddhists and Taoists in China and Southeast Asia celebrate Ghost Festival, which typically falls in August or September and is seen as a day when the dead can move among the living, similar to ancient Celtic beliefs about Samhain. In ancient Egypt, a ghost of a mummy complains (in a pottery inscription) that he is alone in the dark. In Venezuela, travelers at night might meet a frighteningly tall figure lugging a bag of bones. His name is el Silbón, The Whistler, and the bones are those of the father he murdered. (Don’t let him count them in your house at night — if he does, someone will die the next day.) Perhaps one of the most universal ghost tales is that of the vanishing hitchhiker: a person picked up by a well-meaning stranger who then disappears before they reach their destination. Invariably, the driver later learns that their mysterious passenger has been long dead.

The idea of a person who can shapeshift into a wolf dates back to at least ancient Greece, when it was believed that the affliction was caused by eating a mixture of human and wolf meat. These days, stories of werewolf transformations usually involve the bite of another werewolf, making these monsters close cousins to vampires. Strangely, a 2014 article in the journal History of Psychiatry found 13 case reports of “clinical lycanthropy,” or cases in which a patient had the firm delusion that he or she was a werewolf. [10 Medical Conditions That Sound Fake But Are Actually Real]

Zombies have their roots in Haitian folklore. According to myth, sorcerers could poison a person with a substance that would make them appear dead. After the funeral, the sorcerer would retrieve the body from the grave. The person, stripped of free will by the sorcerer’s power, would forever after be a slave. Zombies made the move to American pop culture in 1968, when George Romero released “Night of the Living Dead.” It wasn’t until the 1985 sequel, “Return of the Living Dead,” that these monsters acquired their taste for brains.

Yes, yes, the creatoris named Frankenstein, and the lumbering green guy is his monster. Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from dead bodies and reanimated with electricity, was the brainchild of Mary Shelley, who published the book in 1818, at the age of 20. The original Frankenstein’s monster is huge and hideous, but also intelligent and philosophical. The lumbering, block-headed creature with electrodes in his neck comes from the 1931 movie “Frankenstein,” in which Boris Karloff played the monster.

There’s no mystery about where the bandage-wrapped Halloween mummy comes from: Egypt. Many other cultures practiced mummification, but Americt65re4w3q21a probably owes its Egyptian mummy fixation at least in part to the same guy who played Frankenstein’s creation. In 1932, Boris Karloff starred as the titular mummy Imhotep in the film “The Mummy.”



Revelers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, dance during a celebration of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, on Nov. 1, 2015.

Revelers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, dance during a celebration of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, on Nov. 1, 2015.

Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Halloween is celebrated with trick-or-treating in the United States, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom (though a 2006 New York Times article highlights some of the generational gap over the tradition in London). In Mexico, Halloween plays runner-up to Day of the Dead, a holiday dedicated to honoring the deceased, but children have also adopted the American tradition of trick-or-treating in some areas.



  • The myth of the poisoned Halloween candy isn’t true. There are no documented cases of a child getting sick or dying from poisoned Halloween candy given to them by a stranger. The only legitimate case of candy poisoning is a sad story of a man who reportedly killed his own 8-year-old son with a Pixy Stix laced with cyanide in 1974 and attempted to make it look like the work of a stranger.
  • Traffic, however, can be a danger on Halloween. An analysis for the insurance company State Farm in 2012 found that there were 5.5 child pedestrian fatalities on Halloween across the country, on average, over 21 years of data, compared with an average of 2.6 child pedestrian fatalities on other days. More than 70 percent of the accidents occurred away from a corner or crosswalk, suggesting parents can reduce the risk by discouraging jaywalking.
  • The good news is that Halloween is getting safer: The State Farm analysis found that there was a decline in pedestrian deaths from 2005 to 2010.
  • All that candy adds up. The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that Americans would spend $8.4 billion on Halloween stuff last year, 2016, and that 70 percent of the country planned to celebrate in some way.
  • The most popular mode of celebration, endorsed by 70 percent of respondents to the NRF survey last year, is handing out candy. About 48 percent of people plan to decorate, and 47 percent plan to dress up.
  • Sorry, Fluffy, you’re not off the hook: About 16 percent of Americans plan to dress their pet(s) in a costume this Halloween.
  • Chocolate wins the favorite Halloween treat competition with 72 percent agreement, according to a 2014 survey of Americans by the National Confectioners Association. Candy corn was a very distant second, with 12 percent rating the waxy treats as top.
  • The same survey found that 48 percent of men and 39 percent of women give out more candy to trick-or-treaters with creative costumes. … So hurry to the next section for some science-inspired ideas.
Today, pets are part of the Halloween fun, with some 16 percent of Americans saying they plan to dress up their pets for Halloween in 2016. Here, a Persian cat during the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy's 'Supreme Championship Cat Show' at the NEC Arena on Oct. 24, 2015, in Birmingham, England.

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