While we all know that the origins of Halloween didn't quite include Grease costumes or Fun Size Snickers, the other facts and tidbits about the best holiday's history may not be so clear. Where did "trick or treat" really originate and what was the first reference to this tradition in pop culture? Did people really put razors in candy or was that just a hoax? (And did you know that some people threw flour on unsuspecting passersby on All Hallow's Eve?!) To explain just when Halloween appeared in North America and how it evolved into the holiday we know and celebrate today, we created this infographic. We hope you enjoy... if you dare!
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The Evolution of Halloween in North America Transcript
If you're like most Americans, the word "Halloween" conjures up images of kids dressed as popular characters, clutching pails of candy, and exclaiming "trick or treat!" Yet none of these traditions—licensed costumes, packaged candy, or even the phrase "trick or treat"—were a part of the holiday eight decades ago. Even the way we spell the word has changed. John Mayne summed it up best in a 1780 poem: "But customs vary wi' the times, at Hallow-e'en."
Before 700 (Before America)
In the olden days, a new calendar day began at sundown instead of midnight, which is why we celebrate a holiday's "Eve" before the "Day". The Celtic new year began at sundown on October 31, kicking off a celebration called Samhain (or "summer's end"): three days of feasting, drinking, and paying off debts.
While the celebration did involve a bonfire and the sharing of spooky stories, there was no "Lord of the Dead" named Samhain. This bit of misinformation originated in a 1786 book by Charles Vallancey, an author whom The Quarterly Review in 1818 asserted "wrote more nonsense than any man of his time."
After 800 (Before America)
Like Christmas and Easter, Hallowe'en was a pagan holiday co-opted by Roman Catholics. Pope Gregory III moved All Hallows Day ("all saints day") from May 13 to November 1, with celebrations beginning on All Hallows E'en ("all saints evening"). The addition of All Souls Day completed the three-day event.
In 1645, Puritans banned all Roman Catholic celebrations in England. Holiday spirit was channeled into Guy Fawkes Night, a bonfire celebration on November 5 in which a dummy wearing a Guy Fawkes mask was burned in effigy. The mask was popularized in America by the 2005 film V for Vendetta.
Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their Hallowe'en traditions to America. Adults held parties for friends and family with activities like bobbing for apples. Young women played fortune-telling games to divine details about their future husbands, while boys snuck outside to pull pranks. Costumes were optional.
The 1820 short story "The Legend of Sleeping Hollow" made no mention of the Headless Horseman's pumpkin being carved; at the time, Jack-O'-Lanterns were typically made from turnips. In the late 1800s, Americans played with making them out of various fruits or vegetables, and pumpkins are what stuck.
Pranks escalated with each passing decade. Instead of just ringing the doorbell and hiding, boys might stick a toothpick in the doorbell, or wait at the door to throw flour at whoever answered. Other mischievous acts included writing in soap on windows, and taking fence gates or other yard items and hiding them.
Girls also sometimes took part in the mischief, as seen in Meet Me in St. Louis' depiction of Missouri life in 1903. Tootie threw flout at a neighbor to symbolically "kill" him, while neighborhood boys made a bonfire out of yard items, an act foreshadowing the holiday's eventual escalation into vandalism.
Crepe Paper manufacturer Dennison published an annual catalog of party ideas called the Bogie Book, with the secondary purpose of demonstrating how to use their paper to make disposable costumes and decorations. By the end of the decade they were offering the first pre-made Hallowe'en costumes.
Everyone today knows that orange and black are the colors of Halloween, but there was no standard color scheme before the '20s. Some authors suggested the use of general harvest colors like brown, yellow, and white, but it may have been Dennison's Bogie Books that popularized orange and black.
Pranks became increasingly more destructive: breaking windows, assaulting pedestrians, flipping cars, and setting fires. To try and curb vandalism, local groups began organizing community activities for kids, such as costume parades, costume contests, and door-to-door parties. Anoka, MN may have been the first.
In comparison to the movie, To Kill a Mockingbird went into greater detail about how Hallowe'en was changing for the town in the early '30s. Having felt the previous year's pranks went a little too far, the town's adults organized a local party and costume contest. Scout dressed as a ham.
Disposable paper costumes were overtaken by cheap cloth costumes. Licensed costumes began to appear, some of the earliest being Disney costumes by A.S. Fishbach. They were quickly absorbed into Ben Cooper, who would soon become the biggest licensed costume company of the 20th century.
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles may have pulled the greatest prank in Halloween history when he performed H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds as a live radio news broadcast. But the real news media got the last laugh, when their exaggeration of the resulting panic forced him to issue an apology.
Kids started offering to not prank neighbors who gave them goodies, resulting in the phrase "trick-or-treat!" It spread along the west coast all through the '30s before migrating east in the '40s. But was it started by adults trying to end vandalism, or kids imitating protection rackets from gangster stories?
Green-skinned witches didn't exist before the 1933 film The Wizard of Oz popularized the concept. In the novels, the one-eyed Wicked Witch of the West looked very different. The film's producer originally wanted her to look like the Evil Queen from Disney's Snow White, but was talked into making her more grotesque.
Not long after "Hallowe'en" was replaced by "Halloween", Ben Cooper replaced their cloth costumes and masks with fire-resistant rayon costumes and vacuformed plastic masks. Candy companies began targeting Halloween, competing with the more traditional apples, nuts, and homemade desserts.
The earliest-known on-screen depiction of trick-or-treating appeared in the 1952 Disney short Trick Or Treat. It was also a full decade early in producing fears of cruelty towards trick-or-treaters when it showed Donald Duck "tricking" Huey, Duey, and Louie by putting lit firecrackers in their bags.
In 1964, a New York housewife handed out dog biscuits, steel wool, and ant traps to kids she deemed too old. Because the ant traps contained poison, she was arrested. Soon after, urban legends started to spread of poisoned treats and razor blades in apples. Fun Size candy was introduced in 1968.
Bewitched was the first tv series to have an annual Halloween-themed episode, from 1964 until 1969. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has aired every October since its first broadcast in 1966, becoming a holiday tradition.
Kids were encouraged to throw out anything unwrapped, and commercially packaged candy became the default Halloween treat. Worries about their children's safety led many parents to begin escorting their kids. Adult parties became much less common, but Nixon masks were popular with adults who did celebrate.
1978's Halloween wasn't the first horror movie to take place during the holiday, but it was the first to use the word in its title. It inspired a string of holiday-themed slasher films, including My Bloody Valentine, April Fool's Day, and Friday the 13th. The killer wore a modified rubber Captain Kirk mask painted white.
In September 1982, seven people died from Tylenol laced with cyanide. The New York Post reacted, "Nationwide Poison Candy Alert: Keep Kids at Home". Many parents organized parties instead, resulting in increased adult costume sales. Seasonal stores began appearing, and yard decorations became more popular.
Released just three months before the Tylenol scare, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial harkened back to a more innocent time, when costumed kids wandered the neighborhood unattended with only a promise to "be back one hour after sundown." The film's product placement was very successful for Reese's Pieces.
Trick-or-treating recovered, but Ben Cooper didn't. They filed for bankruptcy twice and were eventually bought by Rubies, a manufacturer of premium "deluxe" costumes. Rubies quickly introduced licensed deluxe costumes, and by the end of the decade, cheap plastic costumes had faded into obscurity.
The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror is the longest-running series of Halloween-themed episodes on television, from 1990-present. The Nightmare Before Christmas was inspired by The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Rankin-Bass stop-motion holiday films.
In 1998, Leg Avenue began putting a sexy spin on familiar costume archetypes and characters, and sexy costumes became the new big thing. Their popularity with teens resulted in a more modest junior line in 2004. The first licensed pet costumes also appeared this decade, as well as the first online costume retailers.
2004's Mean Girls was the earliest film to recognize the sexy costume craze. Unaware of current trends due to having grown up homeschooled, Cady confused all her friends by showing up to a high school Halloween party in a scary costume instead of a sexy one like all the other girls.
Girls have become more interested in dressing as superheroes, resulting in princesses being dethroned as the top kids' costume category, according to a 2016 survey by the National Retail Federation. This decade also saw an increase in the number of Halloween— and costume-related infographics...
Trick-or-treating mini-games had previously appeared in the series Animal Crossing, but 2010's Costume Quest was the first video game designed entirely around the concept of trick-or-treating. Knocking on a door could reveal an adult offering candy or a monster to be fought. A sequel was released in 2014.
Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton, Death Makes a Happy Holiday by David J. Skal, Halloween Costumes and Other Treats by Schneider & Zalkin, Mars, Inc. v. Curtiss Candy Co. by Samira Kawash, Gangsters, Pranksters and the Invention of Trick-Or-Treating by Samira Kawash, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Newsweek, NRF (National Retail Federation)
Special thanks to Howard Beige at Rubies, Lisa Griffin at Leg Avenue, Bruce Baum at In Character Costumes, and Diana Clements at Princess Paradise
What was your favorite fact about the history of Halloween in North America? Ours was the fact that Scout dressed as a Ham for Halloween in To Kill a Mockingbird! How inspirational. If all this talk about celebrating Halloween in years gone by has you excited for this season, you can check out our classic Halloween costumes to pick your favorite.
Why do people dress in costumes for Halloween?
Many believe this tradition derived from the Celts and Irish, celebrating a Druidic festival known as Samhain. For some, costumes and masks were used to ward off evil spirits. For others, they were used to assist in communicating with the spirit world. Nowadays, costumes are used for celebrating. They are more lighthearted and most do not have a spiritual connection.
How is Halloween celebrated?
Halloween is celebrated in a multitude of ways. Some people will host/attend Halloween-themed parties, while others visit haunted houses and pumpkin patches in search of some scares. The most classic traditions include trick-or-treating, carving jack-o'-lanterns, and having parties.
Which city is the Halloween capital of the world?
Anoka, Minnesota is known as "The Halloween Capital of the World." In 1920, the city began the Anoka Halloween celebration, a weeklong celebration which included a parade and bonfire to combat the amount of tricks versus treats that were happening. The city is believed to be the first to host an official Halloween celebration in the country.
How to store Halloween costumes
The first step to ensure proper storage of your Halloween costumes is cleaning them. After cleaning, make sure they are entirely dry to prevent mold. Once your costumes are completely dry, keep them sealed in an air-tight bag to prevent dust, pests, and germs from gathering.
Where can I buy Halloween decorations?
If you're looking to deck out your house or yard this year with spine-chilling decor, some of the best places to find decorations include garage sales, thrift stores, or even here at HalloweenCostumes.com. We have over 700 decorations for you to choose from, so let's get spooky!
What are costume props?
Costume props, also known as accessories, are items that help bring your costume to life. Think handcuffs for cop costumes, swords for pirate costumes, wands for witch costumes, the list could go on. Costume props aren't necessary but will definitely help give your costume a more 'finished' look.
What are easy Halloween costumes?
Witches, ninjas, pirates, cowboys, and fairies are all quick and easy costume ideas but if you're looking to go an extra step, check out our article on Easy Halloween Makeup Tutorials for Beginners for looks that are quick and easy to put together.
What are classic Halloween costumes?
These are ten of the most classic Halloween costumes:
What should I dress as for Halloween?
Is there a character from a movie that you always role-played as a child? Or even a character from something you currently love? That's a great place to start! The best part of Halloween is that you're allowed to be whoever you'd like to be with no judgment. If you're in need of inspiration, check out our costume guides.
Design and Research Credit: Kate Willaert