Creepy / Death / Occult / Society & Culture / Vintage

It’s Not Dead Yet: Add Some Spook to Halloween (or Can We End the Cutesy Crap for Once?)

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Image: Marina Avila on

A few weeks ago I posted about Halloween costumes for girls, and how few options there are for girls to be strong, messy, capable characters for Halloween. That post got quite a bit feedback, mainly with even more ideas for costumes.

I got to thinking this week, as Halloween is just a couple of weeks away, and since every store I visit is packed with candy, that the whole idea of tricks has gone out of the window while treats get shoveled our of bowls. Martha Stewart is dressed like a fairy princess on the cover of her magazine. Cooking periodicals are covered in adorable cupcakes and marshmallow ghosts. Where has the creepy factor gone? Halloween wasn’t always this damn cute.

The way we “do” Halloween is based on consumer culture of the 1950s, and the fact that some kids were getting hurt or doing damage around the holiday. A quick breeze through the history of the holiday via the History Channel and Wikipedia (I know, I know. I teach college English, and these aren’t the best, but they do match up with other research I’ve done, so hold your horses.) shows that on Mischief Night, the night before Halloween, kids would throw eggs at houses, play ding-dong-ditch, but in some cases set fires to property and spray paint walls. Most towns found it was better to keep kids contained and happy with candy to avoid tricks.

What about before Baby Boomers and WWII? What did the parents of that generation do? I’ve asked my grandmother about what she did in the Depression for Halloween out in the farms of western Ohio. She didn’t recall costumes or candy, but she and her siblings would get a sack of feed corn, and after dark, throw handfuls of the pebble-like seeds at people’s windows and porches. That would probably scare the crap out of me if I were sitting quietly listening to the radio or reading a book.

There’s also a note in all my research about boys making a spool and winding string around it, then finding a window. They could then make tapping noise on the window, freaking out whoever was home. I’d imagine that smart boys would go so far as to use long string so they could manipulate it from a second story window after bedtime.

Samira Kawash in her article “Gangsters, Pranksters, and the Invention of Trick-or-Treating 1930-1960,” available online in the Journal of Play, goes through some interesting connections and details.  She finds a relationship between the gangster era culture in movies and the emergence of Tricks for Treats.

“Accounts of Halloween in the 1930s make clear that the gangster pose was not merely a metaphor; and trick-or-treating, no idle proposition. A Reno resident complained of being besieged by a group of six or eight boys and girls. When the adults were unable to answer the doorbell, the children consulted among themselves: ‘If they don’t open up, let’s give them the works.’ They emptied the garbage can, strewed its contents around the yard, and dragged the can down the road.”

Going back even further, fortune telling was a part of the Halloween revelry. Apples, mirrors and other items were used to tell the future, especially of lovers and marriage. There are a bunch of fun directions for these on, including a recipe for Barnbrack Cake, in which small non-edible items are baked in and whoever gets each token in his or her slice gets a message about prosperity and romance.



In the mid to late 1800s ladies could order books that gave directions for fortune telling and dream interpretation. I thought the ad for one in the book “The American Housewife and Kitchen Directory” was interesting.



I even found a cover image of the book that would arrive after receipt of the $1.25.

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By the 1930s, you might pick up a postcard like this at your local dry goods store. It’s even easier to tell fortunes since I’ts just checking off a list.



However, I think the biggest trick of all is some of the terrifying costumes people would wear. There are a bunch of links floating around, but by far the best I found was on I’ll give you a teaser of a couple of the 20+ photos they’ve collected.



Can you imagine opening your door to one of these creatures? Or having a small child stand outside your sliding glass door while wearing a freakish papier mache mask? How about driving down the road, only to turn and see a toddler with a terrifying clown mask on? Why not get your own kids to freak out some friends and neighbors? Come on! You might get a viral video out of it!

This year, add some tricks to your Halloween, so long as they are harmless. Try those apple fortune tricks before you cut the fruit up to float slices in an appletini. Fill your kids up on fiber before they hit the streets. Got teenagers? Wait until they are sleeping and tap against their windows then run away. Do it more than once. Do it wearing a scary mask and stay at the window when they come peeking.

Maybe that’s too far. However, it will make for really interesting stories when your kids are adults.


Kristin LaTour’s life is like a small Victorian boarding house of familiar guests. Some may only visit occasionally; some never leave, and all are welcome. Find out more at her website.

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