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Photo of a 'coven of witches' line up for a Halloween portrait dressed in festive witch's hats and improvised costumes, ca.1910, United States.

A coven of costumed "witches" line up for a Halloween portrait around 1910.

Photograph by Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

Brian Handwerk

National Geographic

Published October 29, 2013

Halloween 2013 should be less scary in the United States than last year's holiday, when the monstrous Hurricane Sandy savaged parts of the U.S. Northeast.

Despite the storm, 2012 featured record participation and spending that, even with a small 2013 downturn, show Halloween's steady growth as a prominent date on the American social calendar.

"I think it's interesting how even with changes to the economy, Halloween has become that much more important to consumers over the past decade," said Pam Goodfellow of Prosper Technologies, which conducts the long-running National Retail Federation's Halloween Top Costumes Survey.

"Back in 2005 the average American spent about $48 on Halloween, and this year it is $75, so it has increased quite a bit even with budget concerns and people watching what they spend. It's certainly a holiday that people gravitate to." (See "Halloween Costume Pictures: Spooky Styles a Century Ago.")

Today's mix of parties, pranks, and profit is a far cry from Halloween's ancient origins. Over the centuries the celebration has seen a lot of changes, and we've summed them up here for you—along with the latest facts and figures for 2013, including most popular costumes, record-breaking pumpkins, and more.

Pagan Progenitor

Halloween's origins date back more than 2,000 years. On what we consider November 1, Europe's Celtic peoples celebrated their New Year's Day, called Samhain (SAH-win).

On Samhain eve—what we know as Halloween—spirits were thought to walk the Earth as they traveled to the afterlife. Fairies, demons, and other creatures were also said to be abroad. (See pictures of crypts and catacombs.)

Celtic Costumes

In addition to sacrificing animals to the gods and gathering around bonfires, Celts often wore costumes—probably animal skins—to confuse spirits, perhaps to avoid being possessed, according to the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress.

By wearing masks or blackening their faces, Celts are also thought to have impersonated dead ancestors.

Young men may have dressed as women and vice versa, marking a temporary breakdown of normal social divisions.

In an early form of trick-or-treating, Celts costumed as spirits are believed to have gone from house to house engaging in silly acts in exchange for food and drink—a practice inspired perhaps by an earlier custom of leaving food and drink outdoors as offerings to supernatural beings. (Beyond Halloween 2013: more on the first Halloween costumes.)

Christian Influence on Halloween

Samhain was later transformed as Christian leaders co-opted pagan holidays. In the seventh century Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 All Saints' Day, or All Hallows' Day.

The night before Samhain continued to be observed with bonfires, costumes, and parades, though under a new name: All Hallows' Eve—later "Halloween."

Halloween Arrives in America

European immigrants brought Halloween to the United States, and the celebration really gathered steam in the 1800s, when Irish-American immigration exploded.

Anoka, Minnesota, may be home to the United States' oldest official Halloween celebration. Beginning in 1920, the city began staging a parade and bonfire.

Anoka historians say townsfolk wanted to curb Halloween pranks that loosed cows on Main Street and upended outhouses.

Business of Halloween 2013

Halloween is always big business, but according to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) long-running consumer survey of American Halloween habits, cooler fall weather and a tepid economy may put a slight chill on this year's celebrations. Almost 158 million consumers will take part in Halloween activities this year, down a bit from 2012's 170 million people, which was the high mark in the decade since the survey began.

The average person will spend a bit less this year too, the survey found: a total of $75.03 on decorations, costumes, and candy, down from $79.82 last year. Total expenditures for the holiday should reach $6.9 billion, similar to the 2011 levels but down from a spike to some $8 billion last year.

One in four Americans surveyed said the state of the economy had an impact on their Halloween plans, but NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement that sluggish financials won't stop the season's spooky fun. "Still one of the most beloved and anticipated consumer holidays, Halloween will be far from a bust this year," he noted.

Costumes consume the biggest part of the United States' Halloween dollars ($28.65 per person), followed closely by candy and decorations. Nearly $2 billion worth of fake cobwebs, plastic bats, lights, and other purchases make Halloween second only to Christmas in terms of how much Americans spend to decorate their homes.

How an Average American Will Spend $75 on Halloween in 2013

• Halloween costumes: $27.85

• Halloween candy: $22.37

• Decorations: $20.99

• Greeting cards: $3.82

When it comes to costumes, the NRF survey found that about 44 percent of Americans will be dressing up. This year about one-third of all costumed celebrants will find inspiration for their alter egos online, while another third will visit retail costume shops.

Fueled by the presidential election, last year's holiday saw a bit of a spike in current events-related costumes. This year traditional costumes will rule the day. More than five million U.S. adults plan to masquerade as a Halloween witch.

"It's the kind of basic costumes you'd tend to think of—the witch for adults, the princess for kids," said Pam Goodfellow, who helped to conduct the NRF survey.

"We did see a bit of a surge in superheroes this year, and zombies continue to be strong as more of a pop culture reference to what's on TV right now."

Ten Most Popular Adults' Halloween 2013 Costumes

1. Witch

2. Batman character

3. Vampire

4. Zombie

5. Pirate

6. Action/super hero

7. Superman

8. Dracula

9. Cat

10. Scary costume/mask

Ten Most Popular Children's Halloween 2013 Costumes

1. Princess

2. Animal

3. Batman character

4. Action/super hero

5. Spider-Man

6. Witch

7. Zombie

8. Disney princess

9. Superman

10. Fairy

(Get trick-or-treat ideas that support National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)

Halloween costumes aren't just for people—many U.S. pets get into the act as well. Twenty-two million people also plan to dress their furry best friends as pumpkins, devils, hot dogs, witches, superheroes, and in either cat or dog costumes—presumably for the opposite species. The total bill for these pampered pet costumes comes to $330 million. (See pictures of spooky species discovered in 2011.)

"I think it's become part of the experience of going out and celebrating Halloween," Goodfellow said.

"When we were doing research, we were visiting Halloween stores and websites and seeing pet costumes sold out. With more people dressing up in costumes, maybe the dog or the cat can also be a kind of accessory, so if you're Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, the dog can be Toto."

Hallmark Halloween

Americans give about 20 million Halloween greeting cards a year, according to Hallmark's website.

"The first Halloween cards that we can detect in the U.S. were produced in 1908," Deidre Parks, a spokesperson for Hallmark, told National Geographic News in 2008.

Halloween Sugar Rush

There are some 41 million potential trick-or-treaters (children aged 5 to 14) in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2009 the average American consumed 24.3 pounds (11 kilograms) of candy, much of it during the Halloween season, according to census data.

Great Pumpkins

Far from the pumpkin's native Central America, chilly Illinois produces most of the United States' pumpkins.

Illinois produced some 556 million pounds (252 million kilograms) of pumpkins in 2012, while California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania each produced at least a hundred million pounds (45 million kilograms), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Together the nation's major pumpkin-producing states harvested almost 48,000 acres of pumpkins in 2012, worth about $149 million.

In October 2012, the world's heaviest pumpkin was crowned at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts. Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island, presented the judges with a 2,009-pound (911-kilogram) behemoth, which now holds the Guinness World Record.

About 90 percent of a pumpkin's weight is from water. While growing, a champion pumpkin can add 40 pounds (18 kilograms) a day and reach the approximate size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Do You Believe in Magic?

More than a third of Americans say they believe in ghosts, according to an AP-Ipsos poll conducted before Halloween 2007. Twenty-three percent claimed to have seen a ghost or sensed one's presence.

About one in five people believe that spells or witchcraft are real, according to the poll. (Learn more about modern witchcraft.)

Halloween Urban Legends

Some Halloween spook stories just won't die—even if there's little substance behind the scare.

For example, satanic cults—far more common in fiction than in fact—have been said to sacrifice black cats on Halloween.

But experts say that there is little evidence for such fears, and that the few isolated incidents involving abused black cats were the work of disturbed—often adolescent—loners.

Candy tainted by poisons, needles, or razor blades is another Halloween hobgoblin.

But sociologist Joel Best said in 2010 that dangerous-candy rumors might be manifestations of fears and anxieties about the future. In a world where so many threats—terrorism, crashing stock markets—seem uncontrollable, it may be comforting for parents to focus on preventable calamities, such as a child biting into a spiked apple, said Best, of the University of Delaware.

Best conducted a study of alleged tainted Halloween candy incidents.

"I have been unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating," he wrote.

9 comments
Bernard Jomari Razote
Bernard Jomari Razote

I think it's great, though we don't really celebrate Trick-or-Treats here in the Philippines.

Rosana Wi Repa
Rosana Wi Repa

Not into black magic or any scary costumes.  My mokos seem to love it and 1x time I walked around with them and they got heaps of lollies. My preference Matariki, everything is based on consumerism and materialistic type celebration.  Lets be kind to mother earth & all its creatures.  

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