Halloween Facts: Costumes, History, Urban Legends, More

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 27, 2008
Get the facts on Halloween history, today's most popular costumes, record-breaking pumpkins, and more in National Geographic News's Halloween roundup.


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).

The night before Samhain—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.

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.

Christian Influence

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

In all, U.S. Halloween spending is predicted to reach $5.77 billion, despite the current financial crisis, the U.S. National Retail Federation says.

"Our survey found that consumers will be spending about what they did last year, actually a little bit more," NRF spokesperson Kathy Grannis said. "This is a great way to forget about 401(k)'s and home values."

What Average American Will Spend on Halloween

• Costumes: $24.17
• Candy: $20.39
• Decorations: $18.25
• Greeting Cards: $3.73
• TOTAL: $66.54

(Source: 2008 National Retail Federation survey.)

Top Halloween Costumes 2008

NRF also surveyed Americans on their 2008 Halloween costumes. That includes adults too, 52 million of whom are planning to dress for Halloween—a growing trend.

Classic costumes are showing staying power, but TV and the movies are inspiring imitation.

"Costumes like Batman and Hannah Montana are a direct result of what's going on in Hollywood and with pop culture," Grannis said.

Five Most Popular Adults' Costumes

1. Witch (14.9 percent)
2. Pirate (4.4 percent)
3. Vampire (3.3 percent)
4. Cat (2.5 percent)
5 (tie). Fairy or Nurse (1.7 percent)

Five Most Popular Children's Costumes

1. Princess (10.5 percent)
2. Witch (3.9 percent)
3. Hannah Montana (3.7 percent)
4. Spider-Man (3.5 percent)
5. Pirate (3.3 percent)

Hallmark Holiday

Americans give about 35 million Halloween greeting cards a year, with the most popular variety being grandparent-to-grandchild, according to Deidre Parks, a spokesperson for Missouri-based Hallmark Cards.

"The first Halloween cards that we can detect in the U.S. were produced in 1908," Parks said.

Sugar Rush

There are some 36 million potential trick-or-treaters (children aged 5 to 13) in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2007 the average American consumed 24.5 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 more than 90 percent of U.S. pumpkins.

Across the U.S., farms grew 1.1 billion pounds of the fruit in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Total value: about $117 million.

The current world record for biggest pumpkin was set in 2007 by a 1,689-pound (766-kilogram) monster grown in Rhode Island.

About 90 percent of a pumpkin's weight is from water. A champion pumpkin can add 40 pounds a day and grow to roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. (See "Giant Pumpkins 'Go Heavy' This Halloween.")


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, are thought to sacrifice black cats on Halloween.

But experts say 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.

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

Best, of the University of Delaware, 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.


Green Halloween

Healthier Halloween Candy

Safe Halloween Costumes and Makeup

"Fair Trade" Halloween Candy

Halloween Discoveries

Vampire Moth Discovered -- Evolution at Work (With Video)

African Spider Craves Human Blood, Scientists Find

Halloween Shines Light on Witchcraft Today

Ritual Cat Sacrifices a Halloween Myth, Experts Say

Giant Pumpkins "Go Heavy" This Halloween

Halloween Interactive

Salem Witch Trials: Confess!

Halloween Photos

PHOTOS: Crypts and Catacombs

PHOTOS: Eerie Animals

PHOTOS: Dogs in Halloween Costumes

PHOTOS: Creepy Animals for Halloween

Halloween: For Kids Only!

Halloween Quiz Game

Slime Punch Recipe for Halloween

Halloween E-Cards

Halloween Crafts: Eco-Bag for Trick-or-Treating

Cheap Halloween Costume Idea: Cat Up a Tree

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