group of children dressed in vintage halloween costumes
Halloween costumes of the past tended toward the, uh, creepier side.

It’s one of autumn's most iconic traditions; as soon as the month of October arrives, everyone wants to know what you’re dressing up as for Halloween. 

Whether you’re dressing up in a classic costume or going as a character from the current year’s pop culture, many of us will be donning a disguise on October 31st.

But where did this strange tradition come from? Why do we get one night a year to pretend to be someone else? And how did it become so ubiquitous?

The truth is a lot stranger – and spookier – than you might imagine.

From Samhain to Halloween

The roots of Halloween costumes can be traced all the way back to the Celtic festival of Samhain.

Samhain dates back to pre-Chrisitan Europe, where the ancient Celts and Pagans of England and Ireland celebrated the end of the harvest season and the start of winter with massive feasts and bonfires. It was also during this time, ancient tradition says, that the doors between the spirit world and our own creaked ever so slightly open.

That meant that all manner of ghosts and ghouls could visit Earth, but nobody could be sure of their intentions.

With both the spirit gods and the dead visiting our world, many ancient Pagans dressed in disguises, often animal skins, to offer treats to the dead… or protect themselves from them.

But this pagan tradition would soon be co-opted by the Christian church. Hoping to reframe Pagan traditions as their own, the church turned Samhain into All Hallows’ Eve (eventually shortened to Hallowe’en), but kept many of the same traditions, including costuming. 

With Pagan and Christian traditions married, western Europe enjoyed Halloween revelries like costumes, tricks, and treats, for centuries.

Early American settlers, however, weren’t so excited about Halloween. They refused to celebrate what they viewed as a heathen Catholic holiday.

In fact, it wasn’t until a wave of Irish and Scottish immigrants showed up in the 19th century that Halloween truly took off in the United States.

An Evolution of Costumes

This is where things get weird. There’s no other way to say this: 19th and 20th-century Halloween costumes were creepy. Really, really creepy.  

Because many families celebrating Halloween were extremely poor, budget-friendly costumes were necessary for the large majority of revelers. That meant simple masks crafted out of paper cutouts or paper mache, and whatever fabrics were on-hand were used for costumes.

At this time, costumes largely leaned into the spooky and gothic elements of Halloween, so that meant lots of little demons, ghosts, witches and even clowns were running around every October 31st. 

They were absolutely, positively horrifying.

It probably didn't help that all the photos were taken in black and white. 

The Creep of Commercialization

In the 30s, characters from pop culture slowly entered the Halloween costume rotation.

Walt Disney realized that he could license out popular Disney characters as costumes, and in 1937 the costuming company Ben Cooper Inc. partnered with Disney to create a Halloween costume catalog full of mass-produced costumes of Disney’s most popular characters.

The idea was a hit, and soon characters from pop culture were just as common as their creepy counterparts. 

Adults began to want in on the fun as Halloween exploded in popularity during the 20th century. And in the 1940s, the idea of the ‘sexy costume’ was born. Believed to be inspired by the pin-up models popular at the time, many women soon took to wearing revealing Halloween costumes, a trend which has mostly stuck around through the present.

Over the proceeding decades, Halloween has only become more popular – and commercialized. Costumes became cheaper to produce, making them more ubiquitous, and what was once a niche holiday has transformed into one of the largest festivities in the country.

However, not everyone thinks the holiday is such a great idea. In fact, an unlikely alliance is ramping up the pressure and calling for Halloween to be canceled entirely

That outcome seems unlikely, but the holiday is bound to continue to evolve, as it always has.

It's true that the Halloween of today looks quite different from its origins, but there are still elements that shine through. Perhaps the most visible of these is the Halloween costume, a tradition that has always been there in one form or another.

It’s no trick – the costumes may change with the times, but the tradition remains the same.

30 comments

  1. Krystina S.'s Avatar Krystina S.

    My parents have told me that, after a particularly stormy Halloween, early in the morning they heard a mewling sound at their front door. They opened it to find me, a little witch infant, who had fallen off the broomstick as the witches were ending their wild celebration. That is my origin story. Who's to say it isn't true?

  1. Cindy L Edgar's Avatar Cindy L Edgar

    I celebrate All hallows Eve every year which nowadays would be called Halloween my ancestors have been celebrating for many years and years and thousands of years it goes way back before Christianity I enjoy this time every year and look forward to it every year and I will until the day I die

    1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      Cindy, it's definitely my favorite Sabbat. I got a new bicycle last month, so I can ride around and look for ghosts to chat with. I do live in a haunted apartment, but the ghosts don't often manifest anymore. They know I'm alright with them being here, and vice versa,but I'm going to especially welcome them to manifest on Samhain, as I do every year. Sometimes they've even been known to play music through my ceiling fan on All Halos Eve. I'd very much like to hear that again. I have a CD by Llewellyn called Ghosts which I play every year on the Sabbat, while burning candles and incense ( usually nag Champa). This year I'll start extending the festivities through November first. Reading this article about Day Of The Dead reminded me that the veil between the living and dead isn't only the lightest on or day, but lasts atleast a few days, and starts lightening up even sooner. This is a good day for me to start watching my ghost show and movie DVDs again, such as Ghost Whisperer, Ghost Hunters (TAPS), and Topper, as well as a few others, and reads books I have such as When Ghosts Speak, and Buckland's book on spirit communication. Doing such things everyday for the rest of the month (and then some) will make it easier for me to experience more ghostly activity.

  1. Reverend Kurt's Avatar Reverend Kurt

    My ex mother in law was the chief test pilot in the broom factory. She would really dress up at Halloween. I would look to the sky to see if I could see her fly over on her broom. All the years that I did not see her were good happy and bountiful years!

  1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

    So what? If this is all you have to cry about then you live a very sheltered life.

    1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      Daniel, why did you address Cindy out of context?! You do so much better around here when transcribing laws right from a book, but when left to your own device you're often rude and your comments totally suck!

      1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

        I didnt. My point is if this is all she has to complain about then she should consider herself lucky as other people suffer far worse happenings and yet you dont see them here complaining. And as for being rude and the comments sucking, thats rich coming from you. I mean YOU were the one that the mods are watching and the one the mods called a troll. So maybe next time you want to try and chastise people, you should look at your own actions first

  1. Robert Gagnon's Avatar Robert Gagnon

    I remember as a kid loving Halloween. I didn't think of religion or evil, just dressing up and gorging on candy simply by saying trick or treat. My daughter at the age of 2 was so cute in her devil outfit, she really cleaned up. Nether of us were ever possessed, or evil for that matter. I have to admit that these older outfits were pretty creepy. But the result had to be the same, kids having fun. I imagine these turn of the century kids couldn't wait for sundown.

    1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      Robert, I bet the vampire kids especially couldn't wait for sundown.

    2. Hector M Belen's Avatar Hector M Belen

      Yes we had fun in the 60s

  1. Nicholas J Page's Avatar Nicholas J Page

    Trick or Treaters is now a thing of the past here in the UK I think it's a traditional custom that is dying out.Prices rocketing plus it's too dangerous for kids anymore shame really

    1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      If you can't afford to buy candy to give the kiddies Nicholas, try making candied apples, or popcorn balls.

      1. Candace Sue Singleton's Avatar Candace Sue Singleton

        Still takes money to buy caramel, apples and popcorn.

        1. Rev. B's Avatar Rev. B

          I didn't realize things were that bad in the UK. Perhaps they could try getting a new PM. :)

  1. Richard Darwin Richards's Avatar Richard Darwin Richards

    satan has many faces and disguises

    1. Rev. Dr. Father JJ's Avatar Rev. Dr. Father JJ

      sometimes he comes as a man of peace how do we know that you aren't satan? trying to lead all of us astray? maybe the guy that was nailed to a tree was satan, or the old man that wears that pointy hat in italy, or the smiling car salesman-like preacher who owns a mega-church, or the politician who claims to be religious but has never actually been religious, or the lady who claims everyone is going to hell if they don't listen to her, or to her god, or her book of fables.

      you wanna know who satan really is? satan is the one who reaches out to children in need, to immigrants seeking a better/safer life for them and their children. satan is the one who will fight for everyone, even those who don't believe in him because satan is not vindictive, he is not psychotic, he is not malignant, he is not a child murderer, he is not incestuous, he is not greedy, he does not crave or covet, lie or mislead. satan offers a path that one can follow or not.

      go and visit The Satanic Temple website, see what satanism actually is, what it stands for and what it does. use a vpn, that way satan can't find you... >{; )}

      1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

        If you think so highly of Satan JJ why don't you capitalize his name? It is a proper noun, you know. You capitalize Santa, don't you? It's spelled with the the same letters, so wouldn't you agree that they're probably related?

    2. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      Richard, that's only because there are many manufacturers of Satan Halloween costumes.

  1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

    I liked Halloween as a kid, but as an adult Haloween has become one of the best holidays ever. I mean who doesn’t like women in sexy, revealing, skimpy outfits knocking at your door playing tricks all night long. The women who really let loose are ones who claim to be devout Christians the other 364 days of the year. I mean all they need to do is ask God for forgiveness until next Hollween when they can do it again.

    1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      The last time I went trick or treating was about fifteen or so years ago (in my early forties), with a group of middle aged friends. Ofcourse, we were all wearing masks. And we only went to rich neighborhoods, so we really got a lot of candy that night!!! Next year I'll be sixty. That will probably be a good time to start doing it again. It's called staying in tune with your inner child, and is something that Ehrman and his silly Desiderata were totally ignorant of. So don't discard the things of youth, but get out there and have some fun! And be sure to only go to the rich neighborhoods.

      1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

        As I get older, I'm amazed at just how wild women can get on Halloween. Devout Christian women at a Halloween Party going topless. Not what I was expecting, but guess even devout Christian women get tired of living a prude life from time to time.

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    Kristina, so you're the infant I saw falling off a besom while we were flying around the moon. I wondered where you fell to. Glad to know you're alright. Blessed be!

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    Douglas, I'm envious of you! That's never happened in my neighborhood. Is there a house for sale in your neighborhood? Please let me know.

    1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

      Homes don't come up for sale that often here. But if you are interested let me know. Or just be homeless as many other are. Google lists San Francisco as being THE best place to live if you are homeless.

  1. Stephen Mohlaloga Makgoathane's Avatar Stephen Mohlaloga Makgoathane

    I love your educational teaching, and also to thank you very much for having listed my Priesthood into your database. It is just unfortunate on my side that i do not have money,I would urgently put orders on things that i from your stores such as priest-shirts etc" Thanks Again for being your member. MAY THE GOOD 🙌 LORD BLESS. Thanking you in anticipation.Rev" STEPHEN MOHLALOGA MAKGOATHANE ( South Africa)

  1. Ty Ford's Avatar Ty Ford

    If Halloween were banished, what wold the candy makers do? Dentistry, as we know it, would be decimated!!! Oh, the HORROR!!!!

  1. Joy 's Avatar Joy

    This time of year is one of my favorites. I live an hour and a half from Disney World, and I try to go to Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party at least one time. This year is twice - going again this Friday. Adults can wear costumes. This Friday I'm going as Buddy The Elf.

    Growing up my Catholic mom always encouraged us to go trick or treating and to wear costumes. I remember one year I went as some sort of a skull vampire or something?

    And Ty Ford - love your comment LOL

  1. Joseph Edwin Plankinton Sr's Avatar Joseph Edwin Plankinton Sr

    The practice of going door to door for candy came from Hiawatha Kansas.

  1. Colleen K. Lawrence's Avatar Colleen K. Lawrence

    I love Halloween! This is a very special time for me and my 7 yr old granddaughter. We have been going trick-or-treating from the time she moved in with me 6 years ago. We start months in advance deciding what we could do and be next year. And myself being 60 will continue as long as I am able and as long as my granddaughter is willing to spend this me.

  1. Jennifer Cash McGeoghegan's Avatar Jennifer Cash McGeoghegan

    Oíche Shamhna!

    Samhain (Sow en) because pronunciation matters.. Is the first Winter festival and is of Irish origin. There are still active traditions in the folk practice to this day. Most of the Irish are or identify as Christian. Even in pre history there was no "evil" in the celebration of this season. Samhain is the name if the month of November in Gaeilge (Irish). The themes going back to the earliest written records are harvest, ancestors, divination, and preparations for winter. It was a time for gathering the community and sharing in the final bounty before the long darkness. Often the herds were culled to feed families through the winter. The fires were bone fires (bonfire) because the ash helped enrich the soil. In earlier days it was the men who dressed up and went door to door singing and providing treats. The children were kept home and stories and music were made around the family hearth. Often a candle was left in a window for traveling ancestral spirits and a dumb/silent supper was left. This is the offering of an empty place at the table with a portion of the family meal. Left for ancestors who were not there in the flesh, but often prayed to for assistance and protection. Games were played like apple bobbing. I am an Irish pagan and I am also a historian and anthropologist. I would be more than happy to answer questions about the traditions and folklore around this celebration.

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