All Hallows' Eve. All Saints' Eve. Samhain. October 31. Whatever you call it, and whether you like it or not, Hallowe'en is a holiday that has almost ingrained itself into American life and, in turn, the global culture.
Origins and historyThe roots of what we now know as Halloween are descended from the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sah-win"), which means "summers end." The ancient Celts believed that the "veil" between the worlds of the living and the dead was thin from the night of October 31st through to the night of November 1st; anybody who knows anything about Halloween knows where this is going. It was the Celtic new year, a time when spiritual power heightened, marking the last harvest, the end of foraging for livestock, and the beginning of winter. Samhain was then adapted into the night before the Catholic celebration of All Saints' Day (aka All Hallows' Day or Hallowmas), becoming "All Hallows' Evening", which was then contracted into "Hallowe'en". Originally, in the seventh century, All Saints' Day was celebrated on May 13th, right after Easter. A few centuries later, it was shifted to November, to incorporate Celtic Samhain traditions in an effort to convert pagans. Some Orthodox churches continue to celebrate it in April, as did the Irish for a time. The revival of Celtic culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries only deepened interest in Samhain, contributing to its transformation into the modern holiday of Halloween.
Halloween was imported to the US and Canada in the 19th century, a time that saw substantial Irish and Scottish migration to the New World. Back in this time, Halloween in North America was more of a celebration of Irish and Scottish heritage than anything else, much like Columbus Day is for Italian Americans. It was celebrated with large feasts, apple bobbing, and other divination games, as well as pranks and mischief. By the turn of the century, the "pranks and mischief" had become the defining feature of Halloween, turning it into a night of vandalism. As a result, the Boy Scouts and neighborhood groups started working to turn Halloween back into a safe celebration, organizing trick-or-treating events based around the old practice of "guising" to redirect the focus of the festivities away from violence. With Halloween now becoming a popular celebration outside of Welsh, Irish and Scottish neighborhoods, retailers seized upon a brilliant opportunity to have a new holiday to commercialize. While there was some commercialization going on before (mass-produced costumes were appearing in the 1930s), it really took off after World War II, and it hasn't stopped since.
Today, Halloween is considered a major holiday in the U.S., Canada, Mexico (where it retains more of a Catholic bent, as it falls right before the Día de los Muertos celebrations), and the British Isles (where it is more strongly influenced by the older traditions, particularly in Ireland, Scotland, Northern England and Wales). It has also caught on in mainland Europe, India, the Philippines, and Japan through exposure to American media. It's that part about American media that often creates the most criticism of Halloween outside North America and the British Isles. France, for instance, has long been resistant to celebrating the holiday, seeing it as a form of American cultural imperialism, and celebrations are largely limited to the expat communities. The Australians are more accepting, especially in recent years (it helps that many Australians claim Irish or Scottish ancestry), but it is highly controversial for the same reasons that it is in France; a typical sight in newspapers around October is articles railing against the holiday and the "creeping Americanism" it represents (especially given that, in Australia, October marks the beginning of spring).
- Costumes: One of the standout features of the holiday. The Halloween costume has traditionally been some form of monster — popular choices include ghosts (particularly of the bedsheet variety), skeletons, witches, demons, vampires, zombies, and masked slashers. Big rubber masks are often a component, as is fake blood. Other popular (and less scary or supernatural) choices include police officers, firefighters, pirates, soldiers, doctors, nurses, animals, princesses, TV and movie characters, Presidential candidates in election yearsnote , and costumes that parody the year's events, often in a macabre and deliberately provocative fashion (such as a celebrity who died recently, or a victim of a recent disaster). Historically, costumes based on ethnic groups and stereotypes (particularly Native Americans) were popular, and many stores still carry them, but these days, going out in such a costume is as likely to get you an earful as it is to get you a compliment.
A recent trend has been for women's Halloween costumes to crank up the fanservice with plenty of cleavage, leg, midriff, and leather. In fact, as noted on the page for Hotter and Sexier, the "slutty Halloween costume" is almost a trope in and of itself, with entire companies specializing in making sexy costumes. Halloween has been described (most famously by Cady Heron) as the one day when women are allowed to pretty much dress like strippers without any repercussions, no matter how strait-laced they are on the other 364 days of the year, while Dan Savage has called it the closest thing that straight people have to a gay pride parade, or that Americans have to Carnival or Mardi Gras. That said, it does make a good target for snark, with lists of the most laughable "sexy" Halloween costumes cropping up every October. And in case you were wondering, while it is less common, guys get in on this too; the usual male variation of the above is either the Walking Shirtless Scene, or something that calls attention to the guy's junk (like elephants, hot dogs, genie bottles, or "ball pits").
- Decoration: Halloween trails only Christmas as the most popular holiday for decorating one's house. The Celtic jack-o'-lantern tradition has been imported largely intact, the main difference being that pumpkins have replaced turnips as the carved vegetable of choice (pumpkins being larger, easier to carve and more common in North America). Most people carve the usual scary faces into their jack-o'-lanterns, although some will carve funny faces, words, or images. In addition to jack-o'-lanterns, people will decorate their property with scarecrows, witches, spiders, tombstones, hands reaching out of the ground, and various items (blood splatters, hand prints) in their windows. Invariably, at least one home's decorations will be too realistic, leading to the police being called about the "murder scene" and the very pleased-with-themselves owner on the news as a human interest story. (And in the other direction, there was one time when an actual murder victim was mistaken for a decoration.)
- Trick-or-treating: A practice that is mostly celebrated by children and their parents (although some will tell you that you're never too old to trick-or-treat), in which they go door-to-door asking for candy, saying "Trick or treat!" whenever the door is opened. The "trick" refers to the (mostly idle) threat of performing mischief against the homeowners or their property if no treats are given. No, most of us do not view this as extortion. A house is marked as "open" for trick-or-treaters by the presence of a lit jack-o'-lantern and porch lights. Trick-or-treating usually takes place at very specific hours of the evening (often 5-8 PM) so that kids won't stay out too late. The treats are almost always wrapped candies bought from a store, such as chocolate bars, lollipops, Twizzlers, and candy corn. Sometimes, people giving out candy, not wanting to be bothered to go to the door, choose to rely on the honor system, leaving a bowl of candy that kids are expected to only take small amounts of. Kids being kids, the bowl is usually empty, if not outright gone, halfway through the night. A similar, older tradition in Scotland and Wales is 'guising', where the children are expected to do a 'turn' (e.g. recite a poem or tell a few jokes) before they get any sweets.
Candy apples (apples coated with caramel or toffee) used to be a popular treat, but that ended due to a scare in The '80s over people putting razor blades, needles, or poison in the apples. In reality, the only proven cases of people deliberately spiking kids' candy with poison or drugs were crazy parents who were trying to kill their own children (and one of the most famous cases involved Pixi-Stix, a "safe" wrapped candy), not strangers handing out poison at the door. Hiding pins or needles in Halloween candy has been known to happen several times, but usually as a prank by one's friends — and it can just as easily be done with a wrapped Snickers bar as with an apple. There certainly wasn't any conspiracy by Satanic cultists to murder children as sacrifices to the Dark Lord, as has been claimed.note So basically, nice job ruining our fun, assholes.
- Haunted attractions: Starting in late September, amusement parks go on a massive Halloween splurge, giving all of their attractions a horror theme, dressing the employees in spooky costumes and makeup, and putting up most of the aforementioned decorations. It helps that, north of the snow line, most amusement parks close for the winter at the start of November, making Halloween their last hurrah for the year. This practice died down for a couple of years after September 11th due to the perception that it was too soon to be glamorizing death and horror, but has since kicked back in with a vengeance. Many parks are famous for their big-budget Halloween attractions, such as Universal Studios for Halloween Horror Nights and Busch Gardens for Howl-O-Scream, both of which draw in millions of visitors from across America and beyond.
For those with a smaller budget than the big amusement parks, the Haunted House (or abandoned factory, prison, mental asylum, or other spooky place) is a popular attraction, as are the haunted hayride, the corn maze, the haunted airboat ride (in the southern US), and the haunted trail in less urban areas, with people jumping out of the shadows to scare the bejesus out of the visitors. The "scariness" of attractions varies widely, depending on the target audience — some may be family attractions (the haunted hayride in particular is seen as this), while others are most definitely not recommended for children or those with weak stomachs. In recent times, due to their popularity, many major haunted attractions have grown to be highly elaborate and sophisticated, with Hollywood-quality special effects and production values.
A popular urban legend claims that there exists a haunted attraction somewhere in the country that is so scary, it offers cash rewards or full refunds to anybody who can complete it — and of course, nobody ever succeeds. To the best of our knowledge, such a place does not exist, though as described above, people have tried their damnedest to come close. Direct contact with the guests can easily cause an accident that can lead to a lawsuit, which is why, usually, the performers stop just short of doing this. In recent years, there has been a wave of "extreme" houses where guests are physically restrained and even abused, but such houses require guests to sign waivers clearing them of any liability — and they don't give refunds. Some of the most famous/notorious examples include Blackout in New York and McKamey Manor in San Diego, which are designed to simulate the experience of being in a Torture Porn film. For some time now, Universal Orlando has been trying to create such a house for Halloween Horror Nights, but for the longest time, their efforts were derailed due to concern over injuries and lawsuits; the closest they got was the "Severe Fear" house in 2003 that was scrapped at the very last minute. They finally pulled it off in 2016 with "The Repository", a combination of an extreme haunted house, an escape room, and Virtual Reality.
- Mischief Night/Devil's Night/Gate Night/Goosey Night/Cabbage Night/Mat Night/October 30: Whatever you want to call it, the night before Halloween is a night when many teenagers choose to go out and raise a little hell, keeping alive the tradition of Halloween as a night of pranks and mischief after the day itself became more sanitized. Pranks usually involve petty vandalism, such as throwing toilet paper into trees, throwing eggs (preferably rotten) at houses and cars, rubbing soap or wax on windows, and smashing jack-o'-lanterns.
However, in some places (most infamously Detroit and the north of England), the night is associated with far worse cases of vandalism, including arson, putting fireworks in mailboxes, breaking windows, and setting fires in the street. As a result, the police tend to step up their patrols on October 30 to deter vandals. In addition, some parts of the UK put age restrictions on buying items like eggs, flour, and toilet paper around Halloween, in order to prevent under-16s from buying such items for vandalism.
- Movies and television: While new horror flicks usually come into theaters at a steady stream year-round (about once a month), October is when the studios decide to stack their release schedule with these films, releasing a new one at least once a week. For instance, during the Turn of the Millennium the Saw franchise marketed itself as a modern Halloween tradition, with at least one entry bearing the tagline "if it's Halloween, it must be Saw", and new installments coming out every October like clockwork... at least, until Paranormal Activity blew it out of the water and took its place. Stores that sell or rent out movies will dramatically expand their horror sections, and customers are more than happy to oblige. With the rise of home video, this has also been the reason why August has become such a popular time to release horror movies — it provides ample time to get the DVD into stores in time for October without running into Summer Blockbuster season.
TV channels, particularly cable channels, run marathons of horror films for weeks, from the old classics (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man) to modern ones (Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead, Scream, and of course, Halloween), as well as shows like The Addams Family and The Twilight Zone. For kids and those not in the mood to be scared, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is usually on the air somewhere, as are other Halloween specials both classic and modern. Most long-running TV shows do at least one Halloween Episode during their run; among the most famous Halloween episodes are The Simpsons' annual "Treehouse of Horror" anthology episodes.
- Parties: As noted under American Holidays, Americans will never resist the temptation to go out and party. After trick-or-treating ends, kids and their parents usually go to their friends' houses to bob for apples, search for candy in the backyard, tell spooky stories, and compare their respective hauls for the night. Pumpkin pie may be served. Teenagers and young adults, meanwhile, often have parties of their own. Horror movies (or The Nightmare Before Christmas) are played on the TV, the guys go to check out how sexy/slutty the women's costumes are, and songs like "Thriller", "Somebody's Watching Me", the Monster Mash, and the Ghostbusters theme come on at least once during the night. These events may run the chance of turning into the Wild Teen Party, although oftentimes, they are held at bars and similar establishments that can deal with rowdiness better than the parents of a teenager. In places with a lot of countryside, Halloween parties traditionally involve bonfires and activities like snipe hunts.
- Other Traditions: In Ireland, barmbrack (a sort of light fruit cake) is made with a ring and other minor charms baked into it — the idea being that the person who finds the ring in their slice will also find their true love within a year (commercially produced brack include a toy ring.) In some Wiccan and neo-pagan religious groups, the holiday actually starts during the Autumn Equinox (September 21st or 22nd) and lasts until November 2nd or 3rd depending on the year, although it's a fairly lite practice as fewer then 3 or 4 known groups do openly admit this.
Remember what we said up at the top of the page about how Halloween is (allegedly) descended from the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain? Well, there are some people and places that don't take too kindly to this little tidbit.
For the most part, Catholics and mainline Protestants are tolerant of the holiday, seeing any ties to paganism as having long since been buried by centuries of Christian and secular tradition — after all, does anybody, apart from Jehovah's Witnesses, complain about the connections between modern Christmas celebrations and the pagan solstice holiday of Yule? To them, it is a harmless, secular holiday built around imaginary monsters and handing out candy. Catholic schools often hold Halloween celebrations, and a Vatican exorcist has said that the day is harmless. The Catholic and Anglican Churches may emphasize All Saints' Day, the celebration that comes after Halloween, while Protestants may celebrate Reformation Day — the day when in 1517, Martin Luther started The Protestant Reformation — which falls on the same day. However, these celebrations are usually held simultaneously with Halloween, rather than in opposition to it. The laissez-faire attitude that Catholics hold to the holiday makes sense — the Catholic Church was instrumental in Christianizing the holiday, and it was Irish Catholics who brought Halloween to America in the first place.
Some conservative Christians, however, feel that Halloween trivializes and celebrates the occult and is incompatible with the Christian faith. They point to its Celtic pagan connections, which they feel to be Satanic. There have been many religious challenges to and protests against the celebration of Halloween over the years, particularly in the "Bible Belt" region of the South and the rural Midwest. A recent tradition among conservative Christians has been to hold "Halloween alternative parties" in which people dress up as Biblical characters, and "Hell houses" as The Moral Substitute to regular Halloween attractions. At Hell houses, the attendees are shown scenes meant to portray the decadence of secular culture, finally ending in a room that represents either heaven, which is the reward for not behaving in the manner just witnessed, or hell, occupied by Satan, who claims that all of the characters they had seen (who usually reappear here) are now firmly in his grasp. Afterwards, in order to get out, the attendees must agree to be "saved" (become born-again Christians) or traverse the length of the building. In some cases, the Hell house is marketed as a normal haunted house, thus making it a Bait-and-Switch in which unwitting attendees don't realize that they're going to a fire-and-brimstone sermon until they're already through the door.
The same dichotomy exists within Judaism and Islam. The Orthodox Jewish and conservative Muslim views on the holiday are similar to the conservative Christian one — it has deep pagan roots, and is therefore incompatible with observance of Judaism or Islam. It is for this reason that celebrations of Halloween have failed to gain traction in the conservative Middle East—including Israel.note On the other hand, Reform Jews and the more secular and liberal Muslimsnote in the US and Canada tend to follow the more "who cares" view of their liberal Christian counterparts, holding it to be harmless fun that lost any semblance of being any religion's holiday once the marketers got a hold of it. Meanwhile, the Conservative Jews (as usual) stand half-here, half-there on the subject.
And finally, with so much controversy over its pagan history, what do actual pagans think about it? Celtic pagans (of both the neo-pagan and reconstructionist variety) consider the season to be a holy time of year, and make offerings to the gods and the ancestors. A fair number of Wiccans, however, feel that the modern, Western incarnation of the holiday is offensive — they see it as promoting old stereotypes and caricatures of "wicked witches" that serve to make people suspicious and fearful of real-life pagans and witches. (The Boston Legal episode "Witches of Mass Destruction" featured conservative Christians and hardline Wiccans teaming up against Halloween, which is sad.)