Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, is a holiday that takes place at the end of October. People dress up like creatures, monsters, or beloved characters and celebrate in fun (and spooky) ways. It’s the start of the new year for Wiccans, who believe it to be the time of year when the boundaries between the real world and the supernatural are thinnest. People could tell fortunes and make significant prophecies about the coming future.
But Halloween has changed drastically since its Druidic origins in Ireland (the original home of this mystical holiday). How people celebrate Halloween has shifted according to technology, the size of cities, and attitudes about celebrating a holiday as a community. Fears for the safety of children alone altered how people celebrate Halloween drastically.
The origin of Halloween was religious, a day designated by the ancient Irish for celebrating and communicating with visiting spirits. It changed shape again when Catholic and Christian churches attempted to convert these people to their faiths. Modern celebrations of Halloween have incorporated aspects of these and other traditions. It’s now a day of lighting candles in pumpkins (and turnips) to keep ghosts away, but also perhaps gathering treats from decorated cars in a church parking lot. A child would be more likely to mention a talking skeleton than a sacred bonfire when discussing the origin of Halloween.
Here’s a list of ways that Halloween has changed over the last 100 years, from how we celebrate it on the day to the costumes we wear trick-or-treating. We’ve included events, inventions, and trends that changed the ways that Halloween was celebrated over time. Many of these traditions were phased out over time. But just like fake blood in a carpet, every bit of Halloween’s history left an impression we can see traces of today.
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It took mass Irish immigration, courtesy of the Great Famine, to bring Halloween to America. The Pagan roots of the celebration may be what led to it being popular with farm communities and people looking to connect with the land as the seasons turned. Natural elements often showed up in costumes of this time.
By the 1800s, Halloween had become popular enough in America that unique methods of celebration had begun to crop up. Parties arose as the method of celebrating Halloween (perhaps to keep an eye on suspected pranksters). But Halloween parties saw a resurgence in the 1950s as the holiday focused on serving younger children and families.
If you were trick-or-treating in the 1940s or before, you would likely receive a popcorn ball, nuts, fruit, or money. Manufactured (and pre-wrapped) candy didn’t fully take off in the United States until the 1970s. Why? Parents were worried about the potential tampering of handmade treats.
Halloween’s origins run deep in superstition, with fortune telling starting traditions like bobbing for apples. Often they included rituals to reveal the name of a person’s future spouse. Today, you’re more likely to find your fortune in a loaf of Barm Brack (traditional Irish Halloween bread) than a game at a Halloween party.
Irish immigrants who introduced Halloween to America chose to carve pumpkins instead of their traditional turnips, echoing the legend of a cursed man navigating his way with a light in a turnip. It wasn’t until the 1960s that America would see the Howden pumpkin, a pumpkin bred especially for Halloween carving. It’s shallow flesh and sturdy stem make it perfect for carving—but not ideal for eating.
Halloween was originally a religious holiday for druids, and is still celebrated as such by Wiccans. The surrounding days were also claimed as Catholic holidays centered on honoring the dead. But pushes in America to take away “evil” elements of Halloween and lower numbers of religious Americans have combined to make this holiday more about candy than evil spirits.
1962 was the year that brought America “The Monster Mash,” a novelty song about the spontaneous party in a mad scientist’s lab. The resurgence in Halloween parties vaulted the popularity of songs like “Haunted House” and the oft-covered “I Put a Spell on You.” These recognizable songs would become associated with the holiday.
In 2019, a basic Halloween decoration costs $27.05, according to a MoneyWise survey. Americans are projected to spend $2.7 billion on Halloween decorations, reports the National Retail Federation. Compare this to Halloween decorations from the 1920s, which were often made from paper and crepe.
Until the 1920s, most Halloween costumes were handmade by the costume wearer or their family. This all changed in the 1920s with the advent of manufactured costumes from companies like Ben Cooper, Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company, and H. Halpern Company. Ben Cooper, in particular, gained Halloween popularity through the production of officially licensed costumes of popular characters. Making a Popeye costume is less appealing when you can purchase your own for $3.
The signature offerings for Halloween before candy were homemade soul cakes. They were tied closely to the Catholic roots of Halloween, and were symbolically given in exchange for prayers. But these cakes disappeared as the nature of Halloween became more secular (though they’re sometimes baked on Halloween in certain parts of Europe).
In 1982, a rash of deaths happened as a result of Tylenol pills that had been tampered with after manufacturing. This single act inspired a wave of fear around trick-or-treating to the point where some towns in American banned it completely. Parents have worried about razor blades, cyanide, and cannabis in Halloween candy—though most incidents of tampered candy are reported to be hoaxes.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, plastic masks with elastic bands were the norm for Halloween. They were cheap to produce and could resemble any character a child wanted to be. The game changed when vacuum-formed latex masks came on the market. Today, plastic is mostly reserved for eye and half-face masks.
Emerging in the 1990s, trunk-or-treat events emerged as a safer alternative to trick-or-treating. Children gather candy from the opened trunks of cars parked together in a designated parking lot. The practice can inspire creative car decorations and has been nicknamed “Halloween tailgating.”
The first haunted houses open to the public opened in 1915, but their Halloween heyday arrived during the Great Depression. People built primitive haunted houses that wound through basements and spooked local children. They were a great attraction for local children—and a great alternative to destructive pranks.
The hyper-realistic fake blood we think of from movies like “The Shining” came about in the 1960s, invented by pharmacist John Tinegate. Nicknamed Kensington Gore, it launched re-formulations of fake blood that would appease audiences of horror movies in color. Today, most fake blood (including the kind you might buy from the Halloween store) is made with corn syrup.
Thanks to sugar rationing in America, Halloween candy all but disappeared during World War II. Communities celebrated the holiday how they could. After the war, cartoons like “Peanuts” reintroduced the idea of trick-or-treating to American children.
Charity balls are an elegant Halloween event in many regions of the United States. But UNICEF introduced the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF program in 1950 to promote their message of “children helping children” on a more local level (and provide a candy-free activity for children). Spirit Halloween stores initiated the Spirit of Children charity for children’s hospitals in 2006.
The 2010s saw an uptick in schools banning students from wearing certain costumes to school, often on the basis of sensitivity or the separation of church and state. 2016’s creepy clown sightings led schools across America to bar students from dressing as clowns for Halloween.
When “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” debuted in 1966, the broadcasters probably had no idea they were starting a trend. The tradition has continued with annual airings of “Hocus Pocus” and “Halloweentown” by television networks. “The Simpsons” made a name for themselves with their annual Treehouse of Horror Halloween specials.
Dressing up as a sexy version of a cat, a ketchup bottle, or even Mr. Rogers feels like a very modern shift. The tradition actually began in the 1970s with the LGBT community in New York City. Greenwich Village’s annual Halloween Parade was the birthplace of the tradition, where it then went on to infiltrate general Halloween culture.
In 1973, Knott’s Berry Farm decorated the theme park for temporary Halloween events and experiences. Knott’s Scary Farm would go on to inspire other seasonal theme park events. Six Flags puts on Fright Fest annually, and Disneyland decorates the Haunted Mansion every year in true nightmare fashion.
People may remember houses in their neighborhoods growing up that didn’t celebrate Halloween, opting to shut off outside lights to signal that treats would be found elsewhere. But those houses have become rarer with time. In 2019, the National Retail Federation projects that 68% of American consumers plan to hand out candy.
Why not let Fido and Fluffy join in on Halloween fun? Dressing up pets in costumes may date back to 327 B.C. in China, but doing it for Halloween has only become more popular with time. In 2019, 29 million people plan to dress their pets in Halloween costumes, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.
The release of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in 1993 introduced a new reason behind the season. No longer was this a holiday celebrating fall and treats (the religious meanings long out of favor). Children growing up in the 1990s now thought of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, initiating Halloween every year from Halloween Town.
The late 2010s saw a wave of schools outright banning Halloween costumes and celebrations from school grounds, sometimes opting for “harvest” celebrations instead. The most frequent reasons for the bans were safety, the fear of scaring children, or general exclusivity.
Homemade costumes have seen a recent resurgence in popularity, likely thanks to the growth of Pinterest, Ravelry, and niche communities centered around crafting. Social media and popular parenting blogs may also be a contributing factor. Handmade versions of aliens and monsters have gone viral in the 2010s.
In the 2010s, the conversation around Halloween focused on selecting costumes that did not offend. Schools instituted guidelines and warnings to students about wearing costumes that may offend others. The trend has gathered criticism from some social commenters, who say that the holiday has become too political.
Perhaps thanks to a growing Hispanic population in the United States (and films like “Coco” and “The Book of Life”), there’s been an increasing awareness of the Mexican holiday of Dia de Los Muertos. Taking place on Nov. 1–2 of every year, this festival honoring deceased loved ones is often celebrated in tandem with Halloween.
The National Retail Foundation reported in 2019 that for the first time in 16 years, superheroes beat out princesses for the most desired children’s Halloween costume. Superheroes also took the #1 and #4 places for most popular costumes for adults aged 18–34 years old. It makes sense when considering that 2019 brought “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel,” and “Spiderman: Far From Home” as inspiration to trick-or-treaters.
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