Halloween is at once a campy celebration of the supernatural and an ominous observance of the genuinely spooky side of life. Its popularity in the United States only extends back a handful of decades, yet its traditions have lingered since ancient history. Birthed in the rugged landscapes of the British Isles, Halloween melded the sacred and the secular, with different cultures tossing in their own rites and folklore along the way.
Today, the concept of costumed kids begging for candy and bobbing for apples may seem commonplace, but there's far more rhyme and reason behind those holiday customs than meets the eye. To get to the bottom of why black cats got a bad rap and where revelers can catch glimpse of a ghost, treat yourself to these 10 frighteningly fun Halloween facts.
Halloween is probably a cat's least favorite holiday. The Humane Society advises people to keep pets -- and especially black cats -- indoors to protect them from becoming victims of candy-fueled mischief. Black cats are most at risk for pranks and cruelty because of their lengthy association with evil spirits.
In ancient Egypt, cats were held in high esteem and one goddess, Bast, was represented in the form of a cat. But in the 13th century, when the Catholic Church launched the Inquisition, the favorable feline tide turned as alleged pagans sometimes kept company with cats. Because of their dark coloration, black cats became especially reviled, and eventually people started to think that they were special companions to witches. According to popular folklore, witches can also turn themselves into cats.
Although many people probably don't believe in black cats' evil connotations these days, Halloween can revive old superstitions. For that reason, it's wise to heed the Humane Society's advice and keep them away from festivities.
The Halloween jack-o'-lantern pays homage to an old, Irish folk character named Stingy Jack. As the legend goes, Stingy Jack tricked the devil into making a promise that he'd never hassle him. Once Stingy Jack died, heaven wouldn't open its gates for him, but neither would hell, since the devil had to uphold his end of the bargain. For that reason, Stingy Jack's spirit had no eternal resting place and was cursed to roam the Earth forever. In an uncharacteristically kind gesture, the devil gave Jack an ember to light his way on his endless travels, and Jack stowed it inside a hollowed-out turnip.
As the Irish tradition of turnip jack-o'-lanterns traveled over to the United States, Americans began using pumpkins instead of turnips. Apparently the orange fruits are far easier to carve -- and make for tastier pies.
Historians generally point to the ancient Celts as the original founders of Halloween. They celebrated the end of harvest and the beginning of their new year with the pagan festival Samhain (pronounced "sow-en"), which took place on Nov. 1. The Celts believed that on the night before Samhain, the dead roamed the Earth, and they lit fires and wore disguises to protect themselves from any accompanying evil spirits. In the eighth century, the Catholic Church designated Nov. 1 as All Saints' Day, and the day before became All Hallow's Eve, eventually shortened to Halloween.
Although we associate Halloween with all things sugar-dipped and chocolate-coated, apples also play a starring role among the traditional holiday treats. Ancient Celts associated apples with goddesses, who were commonly believed to control people's romantic fates. On Halloween, young unmarried boys and girls would race to pluck out an apple from a pool of water with their mouths, and that evolved into the contemporary game of bobbing for apples. Whoever bit the apple first would supposedly be the next among the group to get married.
Today's trick-or-treating tradition largely developed from soul parades that took place on Halloween in England. Poor people would beg from door to door, asking for food or money in exchange for praying for souls to be delivered from purgatory. Eventually, children took over the tradition, and people began baking sweet soul cakes to give to the young revelers. In the United States, trick-or-treating didn't become widely popular until the 1940s, when communities sought wholesome Halloween activities to discourage kids from vandalism and other mischief.
In the days of the Celtic Samhain festival, people dressed in disguise to avoid being recognized by wandering evil spirits. Centuries later, Halloween partygoers still put on silly and scary getups to celebrate the holiday. And although trick-or-treating is generally reserved for kids, the National Retail Federation (NRF) reports that more than 51 million American adults also wore Halloween costumes in 2008.
NRF data revealed that the most popular kids' costumes in 2008 were, in order:
- Hannah Montana
The most popular adults' costumes were:
Soon after the Obamas moved into the White House, the L.A. Times reported that the first lady had gotten some spooky sensations in her new residence. This isn't too surprising since it has long been rumored that the White House has its share of ghostly inhabitants. According to legend, Abigail Adams' ghost hangs laundry in the East Room on occasion. Andrew Jackson sometimes snoozes in his old bed in the Rose Room, and Abraham Lincoln supposedly roams the hallways from time to time as well.
According to the National Confectioner's Association, the average American gobbles up 24 pounds (10.8 kilograms) of candy every year. As one might guess, Halloween tops the list as the sweetest day of the year, followed by Easter and Christmas.
One of the most quintessential Halloween treats is candy corn. It was invented in the 1800s by George Renninger, and the Goelitz Confectionary Company began manufacturing the sugary kernels in 1898 in Illinois. Today, that company is known as Jelly Belly. Originally, candy corn syrup was hand-poured into molds and required three separate layers to achieve the tri-coloration of white, orange and yellow. Now, that tedious process is completed by machine.
The association of pumpkins with Halloween has roots in the United States. Thought to have originated in Central America, pumpkins were a favorite food of Native Americans, and they introduced the orange fruits to settlers. Although the pumpkin eventually replaced the turnip as the preferred jack-o'-lantern medium, early Americans regularly ate it as part of their diets and sometimes sliced the shells into strips to dry out and weave together. They also snacked on pumpkin seeds, which were considered a homeopathic cure for freckles.
Businesses don't picture Halloween in orange and black hues. Instead, they see big, green dollar signs. From costumes and candy to seasonal haunted houses, Halloween has ballooned into an impressively lucrative industry unto itself. Fast Company magazine reports that the 2008 Halloween season netted $5.1 billion in profits.
The U.S. Census Bureau offers a few stats that show where some of that sweet chunk of change goes:
- $117 million-worth of pumpkins grown in the United States in 2007
- 1,760 chocolate and cocoa product manufacturing establishments in the United States in 2006
- 2,077 costume and formal wear rental businesses nationwide
Are you the ringleader, the offerer or the fifth wheel? HowStuffWorks Now talks with some haunted house experts on how to scare each one.