Halloween has been around—in one form or another—for thousands of years. But there are still some things about it you might not know. Check out these spooky, strange, and surprising Halloween facts!
1. Trick or Treating is fairly new—and it’s a lot more literal than you might think.
Trick or treating is central Halloween celebrations today, but it hasn’t always been that way. Prior to the 1940s, trick or treating was rare—and prior to the 30s it was non-existent. So what changed?
Well, back in the good ol’ days, Halloween was a night for tricking, not treating. That is, youngsters spent the evening pulling pranks on unsuspecting homes. These pranks ranged from classics like “throwing rotten vegetables at your house” to “rigging a wooden spool to tap on your window.” And yes, that second one is real. They were called tick tacks, and they were incredibly popular. Halloween’s association with pranks was so strong at the time that children’s craft books offered instructions for creating tools to terrorize adults with: “…methods for constructing bean blowers, goblin figures, and several varieties of the notorious tick tack.”
Unfortunately, pranking became too popular, and everyone knows what happens when everyone’s getting in on the fun: pranks start to escalate. Tick tacks took a back seat to vandalism, and bean blowers to arson. Flipping cars, sawing down telephone poles, and breaking windows were en vogue, and it was so bad that the celebration of 1933 was dubbed ‘Black Halloween.’
For some reason, parents didn’t just keep their children inside on Halloween, and instead the entire nation banded together to try and occupy the destructive little tykes on the spookiest night of the year. Many different methods were attempted: pageants and school plays, poetry recitals, and other such high minded activities were suggested. Shockingly, these educational options didn’t take off. What did? Knocking on doors and candy extortion. Soon, Halloween had adopted costumes, common in some other door-to-door holiday customs around the world, and the signature threat—er, phrase: “Trick or treat!”
2. Imagine the Headless Horseman wearing a turnip for a head.
Well, if trick or treating is a modern invention, surely that quintessential Halloween symbol, the pumpkin, has ancient roots. Right?
Sorry, but no. Actually, the pumpkin jack o’ lantern has only been around since the time of the Civil War. But don’t despair—jack o’ lanterns have been around for a very long time. They just weren’t carved out of pumpkins. The story is sufficiently spooky, however. Jack o’ lanterns are inspired by an old folk tale, present in many different forms throughout Europe.
The main character in the Irish version is Stingy Jack, who’s a clever but lazy fellow who tricks Satan into getting trapped in an apple tree. He releases Satan after extracting a promise: not to take Jack’s soul. Well, when Jackie boy’s judgment day rolls around, he’s in a pickle. He won’t go to hell, thanks to the promise, but he wasn’t good enough for St. Peter to open the pearly gates for him either. He’s stuck in between, doomed to wander the mortal plane in darkness.
Ever the whiner, Jack complains to Satan about the gloomy infinite night. Satan gives Jack an ember from Hell to light his way. Well, hell born embers are not for carrying in your bare hand, even if you’re a ghost stuck in limbo, so Jack improvised. He hollowed out his favorite vegetable to hold the light: a turnip. Old timers believe that Jack of the Lantern is still wandering on the darkest of nights, his flickering, er, turnip held out before him.
3. Bobbing for apples is a spell to get laid
Okay, not exactly, but close enough. Unlike some of these other poseur traditions, this one goes way, way back. We’re talking Roman-era ancient here. Apples were a symbol of Pomona, a Celtic fertility goddess. Cutting them in half horizontally reveals a pentagram-like pattern of five seeds.
The Celts were all about pentagrams being a holy symbol, and combining that with the fact that apples represented the fertility goddess, the fruit could be used to predict marriages.
Of course, our Victorian era friends were not too enthusiastic about the pentagram, or Pomona for that matter, but who doesn’t like a good fortune telling at a Halloween party? So, instead of just reading the seeds like a sane—well, a saner—person, they decided to have a contest where they nearly drowned themselves trying to get ahold of an apple. The winner would be the next one to tie the knot. And for gals who smuggled their bobbed-for-apple home that evening could put it under their pillow; the magic apple would grant her dreams of her future lover. Va-va-va-voom.
The less soggy version of the game has been around just about as long, presumably because some people refused to stick their heads in a bucket full of water in the middle of a party. The rules are the same, but instead of being in water, the apples are suspended from a string. They’re also nearly impossible to bite this way, but you do save your dignity and your hairstyle, at least.
4. The only one putting razors in your candy is Mom (or Dad).
Okay, this fact is a little less fun. As a little kid, you were told over and over that you should only take pre-wrapped candy, in case it was poisoned/smuggling razor blades/etc. And lots of us have grown up to be parents who blithely parrot this BS to our own kids and scare the bejesus out of them. I mean, honestly, the idea of biting into a razor blade is terrifying, although the process of hiding it in even a caramel apple effectively seems difficult at best. Who wouldn’t notice a razor blade?
No one. Because it has never happened.
That didn’t stop the media from reporting dozens of unsubstantiated cases of candy tampering over the decades. Every time something—anything—happened involving kids, candy, and Halloween, it was linked to the “history” of candy-tampering. But the few cases when children were actually poisoned over the holiday turned out to have been poisoned by their own parents.
In the case of Timothy O’Bryan, his father tried to get away with the murder of his eight year old son by claiming that the cyanide laced pixie sticks that killed him came from his trick or treat run. He even gave poisoned candy to his daughter and her friends to deflect suspicion.
Another little boy, five year old Kevin Toston, died after four days in a coma. The police dutifully analyzed his Halloween candy, because after all, maniacs are always poisoning that stuff. Turns out it was sprinkled with heroin. The story spread like wildfire. What didn’t spread like wildfire was the conclusion of the investigation: Little Kevin had gotten into his uncle’s heroin stash, and the family tried to cover it up by putting some of the deadly stuff in his Halloween candy.
5. Halloween is second only to Christmas as the Speediest holiday of the year.
Yep, that’s right: Halloween is the second highest grossing holiday of the year. Part of the reason for that is the fact that the vast majority of the population participates. 93% of kids participate in trick or treating, and that’s out of 41 million children. It costs quite a bit to pile up enough sugar fuel for all of the little devils, vampires, and superheroes that are going to come a’knocking. And just about that many kids are planning their costumes a month in advance, too… and those cost money as well.
And that doesn’t even factor in the money adults will spend on their own costumes and entertainment—over a billion in costumes alone, and several hundred million just for pet costumes. And the season is only getting spendier, with more suburbanites catering to the idea of a “Halloween season” and decorating their yards and houses with spooky lights and other ornaments.
It’s something of a surprise, because with no gifts and no big family meals or obligatory get-togethers, Halloween seems relatively low key. But Easter, another candy-centric holiday doesn’t even come close, and Valentine ’s Day isn’t in the running at all.
It’s no mistake, however, that Halloween has turned into such a money maker. Just as the greeting card lobby blew up the importance of Valentine’s Day, another lobby had a hand in making sure Halloween would make bank…
6. The candy lobby warped time to make more money.
So, back in 2007, daylight savings time got a makeover: it would end one week later than it had in previous years, meaning that the clocks wouldn’t be falling back until November 4th. Ostensibly, the whole purpose of daylight savings time is to conserve energy and save money.
You’d expect a lot of lobbies, however, to be all about extending daylight savings time, because that extra hour or so of light gives people more time to go out and about and run errands, and shop. What you might not have expected was just how ravenous the candy lobby has been in pursuit of this goal. While they finally managed to get it passed by Congress in ’07, they’d been campaigning for over twenty years.
There was a hearing in 1986 to change the law, and the candy lobbiests snuck in and left candy pumpkins on every Congressman’s seat. Well, apparently the Congressmen held out for more, because they didn’t pass it that year, but the candy lobby wore them down and here we are today.
7. Halloween accounts for a quarter of all candy sales in the US
No wonder the candy industry is so hot to keep Halloween hopping! It didn’t always used to be that way, though. Even when trick or treating took off, candy wasn’t the go to treat for decades. While the custom of trick or treating started in the 1930s and picked up steam in the 1940s, it took a bit longer for it to become the candy orgy it is today. Back then, just about anything went as far as a Halloween treat—nuts, cookies, small toys, cakes, and even spare change were handed out.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, when trick or treating had become ubiquitous in the US that candy became the preferred hand out. There were just too many kids, so grown ups started looking for a small, inexpensive fun treat. Candy makers were more than happy to provide. Mass marketing was born in the 50s, and they took advantage of it. Still, there was the odd hold out here and there—a Rice Krispy treat, a popcorn ball. By the 1970s, however, stranger danger and the aforementioned fear of treat tampering took over, and prepackaged sweets took over completely. The most purchased Halloween candy is still candy corn—not a bad run for a treat invented in 1880. The favorite treat to receive? Chocolate of any variety.
And that’s how the candy industry became so dependent on Halloween. October 28th is the Black Friday of candy buying, with 10% of sales occurring that day.