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 pretty much ingrained itself into American (and, in turn, global) culture.
Origins and historyThe roots of what we now know as Halloween are often thought to be descended from the Irish Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sah-win"), which is believed to mean "summer's end". Very little is known about the original Samhain, but during the Celtic Revival movement of the 19th Century, a lot of speculation was put forth about the holiday which seems to have stuck in the public consciousness: supposedly, 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. Of course, Halloween was already a popular holiday by the time these theories were put forth, so most serious historians agree that it was Halloween that shaped our perceptions of Samhain, rather than Samhain shaping Halloween itself. What we do know is that Samhain marked the last harvest, the end of foraging for livestock, and the beginning of winter. It may have been a religious holiday or a purely practical harvest festival; we're really not sure. It is also worth remembering that "the Celts" were not a single people with a single set of traditions, but a disparate group of many tribes stretching from Ireland all the way to the Adriatic Sea, so the traditions of one Celtic people would not have lined up with those another.
During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church put forth the celebration of All Souls' Day (aka All Hallows' Day or Hallowmas), becoming "All Hallows' Evening", which was then contracted into "Hallowe'en". It was a day on which the living would pray for the souls of the dead who were still thought to be in Purgatory. 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 - there are multiple theories as to why. Some Orthodox churches continue to celebrate it in April, as did the Irish for a time. During the Reformation, Protestant monarchs tried to ban the practice (Protestantism largely rejecting the idea of Purgatory), but by then it had entered into too many folklore traditions, and was hard to stamp out, but the traditions were strongest in places where Catholicism remained - specifically, Ireland, parts of Northern England, and the Scottish Highlands. Over time, it had absorbed a number of other autumn traditions, including the practice of "souling", also known as "wassailing", in which people - usually out-of-work plowmen - would go door-to-door begging for food and drink. Those who were generous to the soulers would be rewarded with a song, a display of acrobatics, or a prayer for their recently departed, shortening their time in Purgatory, while stingier homeowners might be punished with retaliatory pranks from the rough-and-tumble plowmen. To avoid the shame of begging, and to avoid reprisals for their pranks, the soulers would often wear frightening disguises, hence the Scottish name for the practice: "guising". This tradition would obviously grow into the modern ritual of trick-or-treating, but was also the forerunner of Christmas caroling later in the year, and some older carols still have references to praying for the host's household, or veiled threats of mischief, in the lyrics.
What really took the festival beyond a few rural folk traditions and into the cultural mainstream was Robert Burns' poem "Halloween", published in 1785. Burns, a chronicler of Scottish cultural practices, was not the first to write a poem on the subject, but his poem was by far the most successful, and he is often considered the godfather of the entire holiday today. Nearly a hundred years later, the Irish Canadian poet and political leader Thomas D'Arcy McGee would refer to Burns simply as "the Bard of Hallowe'en" in his poem "Hallowe'en in Canada, 1863". Burns also wrote the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne, the undisputed anthem of New Years, making him a defining figure in two major holidays.
By the 19th Century, the aforementioned Celtic Revival movement was launching, bringing a new wave of interest in the traditions and beliefs of pre-Christian Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It was here that Samhain was finally dug up as a possible antecedent to Halloween, and relatively-recent traditions derived from Christian folk theology backdated to new origins in pagan antiquity.
The 19th Century also saw substantial Irish and Scottish migration to the New World, and these immigrants brought Halloween traditions with them. 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 (mostly based around romance and marriage), 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 hooliganism and 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 jumped at the opportunity for a new holiday to commercialize. While this commercialization first began in the early decades of the 20th century (mass-produced costumes started 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 US, 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 tends to be more strongly influenced by the older traditions). It's also caught on in mainland Europe (especially in those regions with a strong Celtic influence, such as northernmost Spain, where it is often also closer to the older traditions), Australia and New Zealand, India, the Philippines, and Japan, largely through exposure to American media. It's that part about American media, however, that tends to provoke the most criticism of Halloween outside of 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 Halloween is still fairly controversial there for the same reasons that it is in France; a typical sight in newspapers around October is one or more articles railing against the holiday, and the "creeping Americanism" it is held to represent (especially given that, in Australia, October marks the beginning of spring). Even in the UK, you can encounter quite a number of people who bemoan the degree to which Halloween has displaced the more traditional Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night observances of a few days later. Thus, a new myth is emerging about the origins of Hallowe'en: whereas Victorian mystics put forth the idea that the holiday was derived from ancient pagan Irish traditions, today we're seeing the idea that it is a purely modern, American invention.
- 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 just 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". The meme "Is Halloween getting too sexy for kids?"◊ parodies this by showing someone crawling in an Amazon box.
- Decoration: Halloween trails only Christmas in the U.S. as the most popular holiday for decorating one's house, and as with Christmas, said decoration nowadays can take place weeks ahead of time. The Celtic jack-o'-lantern tradition has been imported largely intact, the main difference being that pumpkins long ago replaced turnips as the carved vegetable of choice in North America (pumpkins being larger, easier to carve, and more plentiful than in Europe). Most people carve the usual scary faces into their jack-o'-lanterns, although some will carve (or paint) funny faces, words, or images instead. In addition to jack-o'-lanterns, people will decorate their houses and property with things like scarecrows, witches, skeletons, black cats, spiders, tombstones, hands reaching up out of the ground, and various items (blood splatters, hand prints) in their windows. Occasionally a home's decorations will turn out to be a little too realistic, leading to the police being called to the "murder scene" and the very pleased-with-themselves homeowner getting 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. The first written record of the phrase "trick or treat" dates back to 1927, in the Blackie Herald, a local newspaper from Blackie, Alberta, Canada.
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, 2001 due to the perception that it was too soon to be glamorizing death and horror, but it quickly 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 and SeaWorld 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, Michigan and the north of England), the night is associated with far more serious acts 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 around this time, and most customers will be 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 them onto home video and streaming in time for October without also running into Summer Blockbuster season.
TV channels, particularly cable channels, will 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, The Munsters, 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. And most long-running TV shows will do at least one Halloween Episode during their run; among the most famous of these 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 holiday-appropriate songs like "Thriller", "Somebody's Watching Me", "Monster Mash", and the Ghostbusters and Halloween themes can be expected to get played 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, regarding 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 and fundamentalist churches, complain about the connections between modern Christmas celebrations and the pagan solstice holiday of Yule?) To them, Halloween is seen as a harmless, secular event 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. True, 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 holiday's roots are Catholic, and it was Irish and Scottish Catholics who brought Halloween to the Americas in the first place.
Some conservative Christians, however, maintain that Halloween trivializes (or outright celebrates) the occult and is therefore incompatible with the Christian faith. They will often bolster this stance by pointing to the holiday's alleged pagan connections, which they maintain to be Satanic in nature. There have consequently been many religious challenges to and protests against the celebration of Halloween lodged over the years, particularly in the evangelical "Bible Belt" regions of the South and the rural Midwest. A more recent tradition among many conservative Christians has been to hold "Halloween alternative parties", in which people dress up as Biblical characters, and to stage "Hell houses" as The Moral Substitute to regular Halloween attractions. At Hell houses, attendees are shown scenes meant to portray the decadence of secular culture, finally ending up in a room that represents either heaven, which is the reward for not behaving in the manner just witnessed, or hell, which is occupied by Satan, who claims that all of the characters they have seen (who usually reappear here) are now firmly in his grasp. In order to get out afterwards, attendees must agree to be "saved" (become born-again Christians) or traverse the length of the building. In some cases a Hell house will be marketed as a normal haunted house attraction, making it a Bait-and-Switch for unwitting attendees who don't realize that they're going to a fire-and-brimstone sermon until they're already through the door.
Similar dichotomies exist within Judaism and Islam. The Orthodox Jewish and conservative Muslim views on the holiday are not unlike the conservative Christian one: it has deep pagan roots, and is therefore incompatible with the proper observance of those respective faiths. 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 alleged 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. (One Boston Legal episode, "Witches of Mass Destruction", featured conservative Christians and hardline Wiccans teaming up against Halloween, which is sad.)