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How Halloween has changed in the past 100 years

How people celebrate Halloween has shifted according to technology, the size of cities, and attitudes about celebrating a holiday as a community.
The origin of Halloween was religious, a day designated by the ancient Irish for celebrating and communicating with visiting spirits.

Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve, is a holiday that has come to be celebrated by people dressing up in all manner of costumes, carving pumpkins, and satiating sugar cravings.

But the holiday also represents the start of the new year for Wiccans, who believe it to be the time of year when boundaries between the real and supernatural worlds are thinnest. For this reason, Halloween is also believed to be the most potent time for fortune-telling and making significant prophecies about the coming future. 

Halloween has changed drastically since its Druidic origins in Ireland, the original home of this mystical holiday. How people celebrate Halloween has shifted according to technology, the size of cities, and attitudes about celebrating a holiday as a community.

The origin of Halloween was religious, a day designated by the ancient Irish for celebrating and communicating with visiting spirits. It changed shape when Catholic and Christian churches attempted to convert these people to their faiths. Modern celebrations of Halloween have incorporated aspects of these and other traditions.

It's now a day of lighting candles in pumpkins (and turnips) to keep ghosts away, but also perhaps gathering treats from decorated cars in a church parking lot. A child would be more likely to mention a talking skeleton than a sacred bonfire when discussing the origin of Halloween.

Stacker compiled a list of ways that Halloween has changed over the last 100 years, from how we celebrate it on the day to the costumes we wear trick-or-treating. We've included events, inventions, and trends that changed the ways that Halloween was celebrated over time. Many of these traditions were phased out over time. But just like fake blood in a carpet, every bit of Halloween's history left an impression we can see traces of today.

Celebrations close to the Earth

Halloween gained popularity in the United States in the 1840s by way of a massive Irish immigration to escape the Irish Potato Famine. The Pagan roots of the celebration may be what led to it being popular with farm communities and people looking to connect with the land as the seasons turned. Natural elements often showed up in costumes of this time.

Pranks leading the way

In past generations, Halloween was integrated closely with mischief—namely, pranks. Throwing cabbages and stealing garden gates were among the most popular shenanigans. Nowadays, well-known pranks like egging houses or hanging toilet paper from tree branches can result in hefty fines.

Rise in Halloween parties

As Halloween gained popularity stateside, unique methods of celebration began cropping up. Parties by the 1930s were standard fare in Halloween festivities and by the 1950s, Halloween parties were mostly held at homes instead of in downtown centers: a byproduct of the baby boom at the time and the holiday being increasingly focused on children.

Transition from homemade to store-bought treats

If you were trick-or-treating in the 1940s or before, you would likely receive a popcorn ball, nuts, fruit, or money. Manufactured (and pre-wrapped) candy didn't fully take off in the United States until the 1970s. Why? Parents were worried about the potential tampering of handmade treats.

Decline in fortune-telling

Halloween's origins run deep in superstition, with fortune-telling starting traditions like bobbing for apples. Oftentimes, predicting the future included rituals to reveal the name of a person's future spouse. Today, you're more likely to find your fortune in a loaf of Barm Brack (traditional Irish Halloween bread) than a game at a Halloween party.

The introduction of Halloween's favorite pumpkin

Irish immigrants who introduced Halloween to America chose to carve pumpkins instead of their traditional turnips, echoing the legend of a cursed man who navigated his way with a light in a turnip. It wasn't until the 1960s that America would see the Howden pumpkin, a pumpkin bred especially for Halloween carving. Its shallow flesh and sturdy stem make it perfect for carving—but not ideal for eating.

Secularization of Halloween

Halloween was originally a religious holiday for Druids, and is still celebrated as such by Wiccans. The surrounding days were also claimed as Catholic holidays centered on honouring the dead. But pushes in America to take away "evil" elements of Halloween made the holiday more about candy than evil spirits.

The rise of Halloween music

1962 was the year of "The Monster Mash," a novelty song about the spontaneous party in a mad scientist's lab. The resurgence in Halloween parties vaulted the popularity of songs like "Haunted House" and the oft-covered "I Put a Spell on You."

Increased Halloween spending

The days of paper and crepe costumes and homemade treats are largely behind us. Americans projected to spend more than $10.6 billion on this year's holiday, according to the National Retail Federation's annual survey. 

Rise of manufactured costumes

Until the 1920s, most Halloween costumes were handmade by the costume wearer or their family. This all changed in the 1920s with the advent of manufactured costumes from companies like Ben Cooper, Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company, and H. Halpern Company. Ben Cooper, in particular, gained Halloween popularity through the production of officially licensed costumes of popular characters.

The decline of 'soul cakes'

The signature offerings for Halloween before candy were homemade soul cakes. They were tied closely to the Catholic roots of Halloween, and were symbolically given in exchange for prayers. These days, soul cakes are few and far between—although they're still baked on Halloween in certain parts of Europe.

Increased trick-or-treating safety concerns

In 1982, a rash of poisoning deaths were tied to Tylenol pill bottles suspected of post-manufacturing tampering. The case was never solved, which inspired a wave of fear around trick-or-treating to the point where some towns in American banned it completely. Parents since have worried about razor blades, cyanide, and cannabis in Halloween candy—though most incidents of tampered candy are reported to be hoaxes.

Rise of latex masks

Through the 1950s and 1960s, plastic masks with elastic bands were the norm for Halloween. They were cheap to produce and could resemble any character a child wanted to be. The game changed when vacuum-formed latex masks came on the market.

The rise of trunk-or-treating

Emerging in the 1990s, trunk-or-treat events emerged as a safer alternative to trick-or-treating. Children gather candy from the opened trunks of cars parked together in a designated parking lot. The practice can inspire creative car decorations and has been nicknamed "Halloween tailgating."

The rise of haunted houses

The first haunted houses open to the public opened in 1915, but their Halloween heyday arrived during the Great Depression. People built primitive haunted houses that wound through basements and spooked local children. They were a great attraction for local children—and a great alternative to destructive pranks.

Fake blood becomes a costume option

The hyper-realistic fake blood we think of from movies like "The Shining" came about in the 1960s, invented by pharmacist John Tinegate. Nicknamed Kensington Gore, it launched re-formulations of fake blood that would appease audiences of horror movies in colour. Today, most fake blood (including the kind you might buy from the Halloween store) is made with corn syrup.

Trick-or-treating stops—and is revived

Thanks to sugar rationing in America, Halloween candy all but disappeared during World War II. Communities celebrated the holiday how they could. After the war, cartoons like "Peanuts" reintroduced the idea of trick-or-treating to American children.

Emergence of Halloween charities

Charity balls are an elegant Halloween event in many regions of the United States. UNICEF introduced the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF program in 1950 to promote their message of "children helping children" on a more local level (and provide a candy-free activity for children). Spirit Halloween stores initiated the Spirit of Children charity for children's hospitals in 2006.

Costume restrictions in public schools

The 2010s saw an uptick in schools banning students from wearing certain costumes to school, often on the basis of sensitivity or the separation of church and state. 2016's creepy clown sightings led schools across America to bar students from dressing as clowns for Halloween.

The rise of Halloween-themed TV specials

When "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" debuted in 1966, the broadcasters probably had no idea they were starting a trend. The tradition has continued with annual airings of "Hocus Pocus" and "Halloweentown" by television networks. "The Simpsons" made a name for itself with the annual Treehouse of Horror Halloween specials.

Adult costumes

Dressing up as a salacious version of a cat, a ketchup bottle, or even Mr. Rogers feels like a very modern shift. The tradition actually began in the 1970s with the LGBTQ+ community in New York City. Greenwich Village's annual Halloween Parade was the birthplace of the tradition, where it then went on to be absorbed by the general Halloween culture.

Rise of Halloween theme park events

Knott's Berry Farm in 1973 decorated the theme park for temporary Halloween events and experiences. Knott's Scary Farm would go on to inspire other seasonal theme park events. Six Flags puts on Fright Fest annually, and Disneyland decorates the Haunted Mansion every year in true nightmare fashion.

High participation in candy distribution

People may remember houses in their neighborhoods growing up that didn't celebrate Halloween, opting to shut off outside lights to signal that treats would be found elsewhere. But those houses have become rarer with time. In 2020, the National Retail Federation projects that 62% of American consumers plan to hand out candy.

Increase in dressing up pets

Why not let Fido and Fluffy join in on Halloween fun? Dressing up pets in costumes may date back to 327 B.C. in China, but doing it for Halloween has only become more popular with time. Americans spend half a billion dollars to dress their pets in Halloween costumes, according to the Canine Journal, and 20% of pet owners are planning on dressing their furry friends up in 2021—an increase from 18% in 2020.

'The Nightmare Before Christmas' rewrites Halloween origins

The release of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" in 1993 introduced a new reason behind the season. No longer was this a holiday celebrating fall and treats (the religious meanings long out of favor). Children growing up in the 1990s now thought of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, initiating Halloween every year from Halloween Town.

Banning Halloween from public schools

The late 2010s saw a wave of schools outright banning Halloween costumes and celebrations from school grounds, sometimes opting for "harvest" celebrations instead. The most frequent reasons for the bans were safety, the fear of scaring children, or general exclusivity. 

Resurgence of homemade costumes

Homemade costumes have seen a recent resurgence in popularity, likely thanks to the growth of Pinterest, Ravelry, and niche communities centered around crafting. Social media and popular parenting blogs may also be a contributing factor.

Push for politically correct costumes

The conversation around Halloween has shifted in recent years to costumes that did not offend. Schools have instituted guidelines and warnings to students, while criticism from some social commenters claims the holiday has become too political.

Increased awareness of Dia de Los Muertos

Perhaps thanks to a growing Hispanic population in the United States (and films like "Coco" and "The Book of Life"), there's been a rising awareness of the Mexican holiday of Dia de Los Muertos. Taking place on Nov. 1 and 2 of every year, this festival honoring deceased loved ones is often celebrated in tandem with Halloween.

Rise of superhero costumes

The National Retail Foundation reported in 2019 that for the first time in 16 years, superheroes beat out princesses for the most desired children's Halloween costume. This year, the Foundation projects the most popular costume to be Spider-Man—the runner-up is a princess, and in third place is a witch.