On Halloween, people shed reality for a day and mark the holiday with costumes, decorations and parties. Creepy legends and characters have evolved based on real, terrifying events. And a Halloween tradition of confronting the dead has led to legions of ghost stories—and hoaxes.
Read about Halloween traditions and legends:
A Fear of Vampires Spawned by Consumption
Illustration of a family member dying from consumption in the 19th century.
Duncan 1890/Getty Images
During the 19th century, the spread of tuberculosis, or consumption, claimed the lives of entire families in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont and other parts of New England.
Before physicians were able to explain how infectious diseases were spread, hopeless villagers believed that some of those who perished from consumption preyed upon their living family members. This spurred a grim practice of digging up the dead and burning their internal organs.
Read more about the 19th-century exhumations here.
Why Witches Fly on BroomsThe evil green-skinned witch flying on her magic broomstick may be a Halloween icon—and a well-worn stereotype. But the actual history behind how witches came to be associated with such an everyday household object is anything but dull.
The earliest known image of witches on brooms dates to 1451, when two illustrations appeared in the French poet Martin Le Franc’s manuscript Le Champion des Dames (The Defender of Ladies).
The association between witches and brooms may have roots in a pagan fertility ritual, in which rural farmers would leap and dance astride poles, pitchforks or brooms in the light of the full moon to encourage the growth of their crops. This “broomstick dance" became confused with common accounts of witches flying through the night on their way to orgies and other illicit meetings.
Read more about the legend behind witches flying on brooms here.
Why Haunted Houses Opened During the Great Depression
In the period leading up to the Great Depression, Halloween had become a time when young men could blow off steam—and cause mischief. Sometimes they went too far. In 1933, parents were outraged when hundreds of teenage boys flipped over cars, sawed off telephone poles and engaged in other acts of vandalism across the country. People began to refer to that year’s holiday as “Black Halloween,” similarly to the way they referred to the stock market crash four years earlier as “Black Tuesday.”
Rather than banning the holiday, as some demanded, many communities began organizing Halloween activities—and haunted houses—to keep restless would-be pranksters occupied.
Read more about Great Depression-era Halloween pranks here.
Jack-o-Lanterns and the Legend of 'Stingy Jack'
An Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack” is believed to have led to the tradition of carving scary faces into gourds. According to the legend, Jack tricks the Devil into paying for his drink and then traps him in the form of a coin. The Devil eventually takes revenge and Stingy Jack ends up roaming Earth for eternity without a place in heaven or hell. Jack does, however, have a lighted coal, which he places inside a carved turnip, creating the original Jack-o-lantern.
Read more about the origins of Jack-o-lanterns here