It’s Probably Best Kids Don’t Know The Real History Of Halloween
In the U.S., Halloween has evolved over the past 185 years into a family-friendly holiday — but its history is full of dark surprises.
Just about everyone loves Halloween: Family costumes! Big bags of candy! Trick-or-treating, orange-and-black cookies, and the cool days of fall.… But while everyone loves Halloween, perhaps no one knows more about it than Lisa Morton, an American horror author and screenwriter who has won the Bram Stoker Award — horror’s premier literary award — six times, for her nonfiction, short fiction, graphic-novel work, and anthologies, and nominated a total of 10 times. She’s also served as president of the Horror Writers Association, a global nonprofit “dedicated to promoting dark literature.”
Lisa has written the book, so to speak, on Halloween — The Halloween Encyclopedia, which is in its second addition, and Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, an anthology of historical accounts of Halloween written over the centuries — and is the go-to expert on the deeper, darker history of the holiday.
Morton’s research and writing have led her to interesting places — from the origins of Halloween in the U.S. way back in the 1840s, to an understanding of what types of costumes dominate each decade, to what the earliest days of the trick-or-treating tradition really looked like.
I love Halloween. Everyone loves Halloween. When did the celebration of Halloween really begin in the United States?
It comes over in the beginning, in the 1840s, with the Irish and Scottish immigrants who were fleeing their homeland because of famine. They loved Halloween, and so they brought it with them. They hadn't been here for very long before the stories of this quaint celebration started to spread.
At the time, new printing technologies had come along and made magazines huge all over the U.S. So all of these middle-class housewives were reading these stories in these new magazines about this Irish and Scottish celebration, and they thought it sounded fun. They start putting them on for their own kids, and it becomes really popular.
It started as a thing that mainly was for kids, but by the end of the 19th century, it was being celebrated by both children and adults. It mainly was a day with parties, but the kids started to play pranks. That became a huge factor in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.
So when the Irish and Scottish brought Halloween with them to the United States, what did those celebrations look like? Was it trick-or-treating? How did they celebrate?
It was not trick-or-treating! That's one of the misconceptions I always work to dispel — this idea that trick-or-treating goes back centuries. It doesn't. They would have these parties where they would tell a lot of fortunes — the fortunes were largely about predicting who you would marry, because that was such a big part of your life back then. They would do things like: Set nuts that they’d given names in front of the fireplace, and depending on which nut cracked first, that would be the person you would marry. Depending on how the nut cracked, that might tell you whether or not you would have a happy marriage, too.
They had specific foods, and they would drink and dance and all the kinds of things that sounded like great fun.
In Ireland they didn't have pumpkins, they had turnips, and they would carve these big turnips into these evil-looking glowing faces and set those out on a dark road on Halloween night and try to scare passers-by. The face was supposed to represent a legendary character called “Jack the Trickster.” Jack is a guy who outwitted the devil throughout his life, but when he died, the devil said, "I don't even want you in hell. Here, the most I'm going to give you is this burning hell lantern. You can use that to light your way through the afterlife." So that's where we get the Jack-o'-lantern. And so, they brought that with them. Of course, when they got here and found these gorgeous orange pumpkins in the New World, those were way better than turnips, so that became the face of the Jack-o'-Lantern.
But it's interesting that if you look at party guides from the end of the 19th century for Halloween, they will suggest carving Jack-o'-Lanterns out of all kinds of stuff, including things I don't begin to know how you could have done it with, like apples. But by around 1905 to 1910, the pumpkin was the King of Halloween.
Halloween comes over in the 1840s, with the Irish and Scottish immigrants who were fleeing their homeland because of famine.
So when did the celebration that we now know as Halloween — scary movies, trick-or-treating, orange-and-black candy — start to take shape?
Those all kind of come about at different times. The colors of Halloween — if you look at a 1900 decorating guide — they'll say, "Oh, they're yellow and brown." We don't really get orange and black until a few years later, about the time the pumpkin really took over. Trick-or-treating came in really about the mid-1930s, and it comes along as a response to these kids who were playing all of these pranks. As America became more urbanized throughout the 1910s and 1920s, these pranks, which had been kind of innocent in the rural areas, tipping over an outhouse, that kind of thing, moved into the cities and became very destructive.
By 1933, a lot of cities were thinking about banning Halloween because it was very costly. It was costing them millions of dollars in broken light fixtures, car windows smashed, and fires set. But a few of the cities said, "No. You know what? Maybe we'd do better buying these kids off." They actually created little guides that they sent to homeowners saying, "Hey, here's what you can do for these kids on Halloween night. Get together with your neighbors, and the first house can give them a little simple costume. The next house can give them some treats. The next house can give them a game to play." That kind of thing. And it was very successful. By 1939, we're getting National American magazine talking about this whole thing called Trick-or-Treat. Trick-or-Treat really is less than a hundred years old.
In terms of scary movies, that kind of really comes in about the end of the 1950s — that’s when Universal Pictures took all of their classic monster movies and syndicated them to television. At that point, we get both people watching horror movies on Halloween night, and we get that this sort of monster thing coming into the costuming as well.
It's so funny to me that trick-or-treating was basically born to stop kids from damaging things.
Exactly. I mean, I hear these things all the time, like, "Oh, it goes back centuries all the way to the ancient Celts and the Druids." No, it doesn't really. It's very recent. I mean, there are parts of Halloween's distant history where people would occasionally dress up as things, but there are no direct ties between those and Trick-or-Treating.
By 1933, a lot of cities were thinking about banning Halloween because it was costing them millions of dollars in broken light fixtures, car windows smashed, and fires set.
At what point are Halloween costumes a major part of the celebration of Halloween?
At the beginning of the 20th century. The Decorative Guides will mention costumes. One of the things that cracked me up with those — there was a paper company called Dennison's that was huge at the beginning of the 20th century. Starting in 1910, they put out these yearly books called the Bogie Books. The Bogie Books are their Halloween decorating guides.
Because they were a paper company, they actually showed people making their costumes out of things like crepe paper. The costumes at that point were mainly just for adults who were gathering to have a party. It's less for kids. That's another misconception that I see with Halloween — people will show any vintage photo of people in costumes and say, "Oh, it's Halloween." It probably is not. People dressed up in costume for all kinds of things back then. At most parties throughout the year, they would dress in costume, for pageants, or for parades or for themed dinners. So people were doing a lot of costuming anyway.
Then trick-or-treat really started to be instituted, which is really at the end of the ’30s, and then World War II kind of got in the way — so it really came back strong right after World War II.
That’s when the costume companies came along. Because up until then, kids who were going out for trick-or-treating would probably just get dressed in whatever mom could find in the attic. So they would be a cowboy or a hobo, or tie a bandana around their head for a pirate.
But by the ’50s, television was happening, the kids were seeing Superman and cartoon characters. These costume companies come along and say, "Hey, wouldn’t you rather be Superman?” Obviously, every kid's going to go, "Heck, yeah!" So costume companies really took off then.
How have Halloween costumes changed over the generations, from the paper costumes or costumes pulled from the attic to the Party City, Spirit Halloween of it all?
The big change is the retailing. You get these companies like Collegeville coming in there.
You get the monsters coming in at the end of the ’50s, the beginning of the ’60s. The costume companies start doing a lot of licensing. They're making these popular characters available for people for Halloween.
For the first few decades, the retail costume companies were really oriented toward kids. But then in the ’70s, the holiday began to shift much more to adults. There were a number of reasons for that. One was that there were all these urban legends springing up about the dangers of trick-or-treat candy — that were almost completely bogus, by the way.
Then in 1978, we got this one movie called Halloween that just scares the heck out of people, becomes a humongous hit, and has a big impact on the holiday. It really turns it from kids to adults and makes it a scary thing, unlike the sort of fun, whimsical, slightly macabre thing that it had been. And so now you get the costume companies are now starting to cater much more to adults.
Then of course, by the time we get into the new millennium, suddenly we get a huge influx of these sexy costumes. That was just gigantic for about 15 years. It has died back now. But when I was doing interviews like this 10 years ago, I was complaining about the fact that if you were a woman, there was nothing out there in terms of retail costumes that didn't say “sexy” on it.
But then in the ’70s, the holiday began to shift… all these urban legends spring up about the dangers of trick-or-treat candy — that were almost completely bogus, by the way.
Sexy police officer, sexy fire fighter, sexy postal worker.
My all-time favorite was actually “Sexy Corn.” It was cut really short, and you're just really sexy corn.
And what was happening to kids costumes over the decades — how have those trends evolved since, say, the 1970s?
Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, it kind of remained a little bit the same. The only thing I would say is that there were mask companies who came in and made very collectible masks, although that's probably more for adult collectors than kids.
There were things that came along in the ’70s — you probably get a lot of licensing related to Peanuts because It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, really hits at the end of the ’60s. So then you get the Peanuts and more of the cartoon characters coming in.
Then, of course, as you go by decade, it really depends on what's hot at the time. What are kids watching? What are the Saturday morning cartoon shows that they were loving? So that became more of almost a movie and TV trend.
One thing I remember seeing more of, in the ’80s and ’90s, was celebrity costumes for kids. That probably has to do with the rise of popularity in the ’80s of sitcoms. So suddenly a 10-year-old could be Roseanne Barr on Halloween with a retail costume. That kind of thing.
One big trend that came around about 2000, was the explosion of Disney princesses. That was not huge when I was a kid. There were Disney costumes, but not every little girl wanted to be a Disney princess. That's become really huge thanks to, of course, the Disney marketing behemoth.
One trend that has come along just in the last 10 years for kids is costumes based on games. We started to see that, and then the last few years in these Spirit stores, I noticed huge sections on Fortnite. I'm also seeing a lot that are dedicated to anime. Manga and anime are huge for kids right now too, which is kind of interesting.
Are there any costume trends for kids and/or adults that have stood the test of time, that are still going strong, decades later?
It's funny that you should say that — I was just in a Spirit Halloween store the other day. I was astonished at how much the Spirit store was pushing the Universal monsters. So I mean, for both adults and for kids, there's a Boris Karloff as Frankenstein mask and costume. I mean, just huge. It was really surprising to me that that was still so big. If anything, it seems way bigger this year than it has in the last few years that I looked at these things.
What trends interest you the most as a Halloween historian and expert?
The gaming thing is interesting to me. I'm not a gamer — I go into Spirit and I'm like, what the heck is this entire wall of costumes?
Fortnite in particular has been huge for a few years now. Evil clowns are an odd one. Even though that seems to be marketed mainly toward adults, there's also a lot of it for kids out there. Obviously, I think that stems from the 2017 release of the It movie. But it really has taken off and become its own huge thing.
How has trick-or-treating changed over the decades? Clearly, it's evolved a lot from when it first started happening to today.
Over the last few years, I've seen it become very regionalized. I think back in the ’50s and ’60s, it was the kind of thing that you can find in almost every neighborhood in the U.S. Now, parents drive their kids to special places to do it. They don't do it in their own neighborhood.
In L.A., we have three big neighborhoods where people will come from all over Southern California to drive their kids to these places to trick-or-treat. That's new. Obviously, things like the trunk-or-treat, which is part of the idea that you want your child to trick-or-treat in a very safe environment, are popular too.
When did it really become all about the candy?
That kind of happened at the end of World War II. There’s a 1939 article that first mentions trick-or-treat and talks about, as the housewife, how to make all of the treats for kids, and it gives these little recipes for popcorn balls and donuts and cider. Then during World War II, there's all this sugar rationing, so people can't get these things so much, and trick-or-treating goes a little bit on hold. Then after World War II, it comes back strong and these candy companies come along.
Here again, they're looking at the moms and saying, "Hey, you don't have to spend all day making this stuff. We'll do it for you. The candies are pre-wrapped. And by the way, it's chocolate." So that catches on in a huge way because who wouldn't rather have a chocolate bar than a popcorn ball?