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Halloween & Haunted Houses: How it All Started

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Halloween & Haunted Houses: How it All Started
9 min. read

Image: Razvan Ionut Dragomirescu / Shutterstock.com

With Halloween just around the corner, you may be wondering, how did it all start? What’s up with haunted houses? Why do some of us like them so much while others can’t even bear to think about them? We’ve all heard that Halloween is about remembering the dead, pagan rituals, spooky ghost stories, candy and parties. But, there must be more to it, right?   

To find out, we reached out to a few people who have actually studied Halloween and haunted houses: Dr. Phillips Stevens, Jr., Associate Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at University at Buffalo, and Dr. Hans Peter Broedel, Chair of the Department of History and American Indian Studies at the University of North Dakota. They gave us their take on what hauntings and haunted houses are, and what Halloween is all about.

Let’s dive in: books, movies, campfire stories told by that one friend who simply can’t enjoy the outdoors quietly… they all tell us about the ghosts, ghouls and demons living among us or coming to get us.

But, how did the idea of ghosts and hauntings really begin?

Phillips Stevens, Jr.
Associate Professor of Anthropology Emeritus
University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences

“Beliefs in ghosts – spirits of the dead who linger around their native areas after death – are universal. It is widely believed that ghosts are unhappy; they are “betwixt and between,” no longer living but not in the realm of the dead, either.

Why they are here instead of in heaven or wherever is the final resting place of souls, varies. Maybe some unfinished business in human society; some unrequited wrong done to them, some score to settle; or, very widely, an incomplete funeral or no funeral at all. A funeral is necessary, and many cultures prescribe many stages to a funeral, to assist the soul in making the transition, losing its human taint and becoming acceptable to the other world. This belief is one of the explanations for why the relatives of Malaysia Flight 370 were (and are today) so devastated by the disappearance of that airplane in the Indian Ocean in 2014. Not only the loss of their loved ones, but the inability to give them proper funerals, condemning their souls to a sort of limbo is hard on their relatives.

There are many reasons ghosts are unhappy. Ghosts are generally not evil, with very few exceptions; ghosts are unhappy, and that makes them potentially dangerous to the living. Ghosts hang around the fringes of society, and emerge at night, to re-occupy the places they frequented as humans. That’s “haunting.”

Who first thought to monetize fear in this context?

Because ghosts are people, too, some of them might still be stuck on the places they lived in, and this may be one of the reasons they sometimes come back to “haunt” their previous homes – a bit scary, but fair (and quite interesting, I might add).

Although these phenomena go way back, people’s fascination with the spooky and unknown actually started being explored quite late. It was the artists – the poets, writers, painters and early sculptors – who started toying with this other, more mysterious dimension of the human existence.

In fact, the first large project was documented in Europe two centuries ago. The original idea of exploring hauntings and merging the grotesque with the famous belongs to Madame Tussaud, whose collection of waxworks inspired by the horrors she witnessed during the French Revolution took 19th-century England by surprise. Her success was so great that her museums can now be found in large cities all over the world.

How did haunted attractions become so popular in American culture?

Disney started it. In 1969, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion finally opened its gates nearly two decades after Walt Disney first approved the project. It was a masterpiece, using astonishing new technologies and effects.

These technologies brought in more than 82,000 people in a single day shortly after its debut. Hence, the inauguration of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion is regarded by many as the dawn of the haunted attraction industry.

Why do haunted attractions still scare us even though we know we’re safe? Why do we like to be scared?

It’s all about the anticipation of getting startled or scared. Haunted attractions represent a pact between organizers and participants; they involve the complete suspension of disbelief, thus creating an immersive experience. Outside reality disappears and you enter defense mode, expecting to be scared at any moment. When you’re hypervigilant and in a highly anxious state, your amygdala (the part of your brain linked to both fear and pleasure responses) is activated. Because you’re in this state, any fast, loud or unexpected external stimuli trigger your startle reflexes much easier than usual. Basically, the more you prepare for a haunted house, the less prepared you actually are.

What are the origins of the Halloween holiday in the U.S. and the trick-or-treating tradition?

Hans Peter Broedel
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of History and American Indian Studies
University of North Dakota

“Halloween originated, as its name, “All Hallows Eve” suggests, in association with All Souls Day, the Catholic feast day commemorating the souls of the dead in Purgatory. Although these souls are in torment due to their sins, their eventual salvation can be expedited through the intervention of the living, whose good works done in their name and memory will earn them time off of their sentence. All Souls Day was thus a day for remembering the dead through prayers, charitable gifts, masses, and so forth. The dead would occasionally appear around this time in the form of ghosts to inform the living about their postmortem status and request appropriate action. This association between the returning dead and All Souls is found everywhere in Europe and this probably accounts for why Halloween and ghosts go together, not just some dim memory of pagan Celtic legend as is sometimes believed.

It was a tradition in Ireland and in parts of the British Isles for children to go around the town or village from door to door, offering to pray for a household’s dead in return for gifts of small cakes (called “soul cakes” for that reason); older children might alternatively be given a glass of something warm and alcoholic. It appears that some of the more inventive youth came up with the idea of encouraging more generous donations through impersonating the souls of the dead by carrying candles through graveyards, dressing in spooky costumes, and making spooky noises. Folks would (in theory) assume that the masked children were departed spirits asking for assistance and so would be more prone to provide good treats for roving bands of children.

This is basically how “trick or treating” began, and, as you can see, this is an almost entirely Christian and Catholic tradition, and owes little, if anything, to alleged Celtic paganism, and even less to the devil. After the Reformation, because Purgatory was not a “thing” for Protestants, the custom was suppressed in most places, but it survived in Catholic Ireland and in some of the other more conservative areas in Britain. Some Halloween customs, immigrants coming from these parts – especially Ireland – carried along with jack-o-lanterns and so forth to the Americas, where they evolved into Halloween.

Exactly how this happened is not easy to say, and the earliest references to children going door-to-door asking for treats and dressing in costume (which may not at first have been linked together) date from the early 20th century. As you might expect, Protestants familiar with the history of the tradition opposed it as “Popery,” but with memories fading, the whole thing became more acceptable. Early Halloween customs also coincided neatly with the Victorian “cult of children”. In any event, by the late 1940s, Halloween was increasingly resembling what it is these days, although much more of a holiday exclusive to children.”

Is Halloween in danger of losing its identity due to over-commercialization? Why?

“The holiday consists of an assemblage of customs and traditions taken from diverse communities and built up over the years; in the U.S., this process has been largely driven by adults wanting to provide fun for their children and by children themselves. Much of what we might call “commercialization” has been driven precisely by these concerns. For example, while children originally might have expected to receive homemade treats, in the wake of the largely bogus “razor-blades in apples” scares, we have now turned almost entirely to antiseptic, carefully packaged, store-bought candies specifically manufactured as “treats.”

I really think that what seems to be changing – and I say this as a 60-something kind of guy – is that Halloween has become so much fun, so much of an Autumn childhood ritual, that younger folks are quite reasonably reluctant to abandon it to the very young. So, on the one hand, we see young adults going door-to-door, blithely asking for treats that they could very easily just buy for themselves, and we see others investing in elaborate Halloween parties, costumes and yard displays. In my opinion, we are witnessing the creation and elaboration of a distinctive Halloween identity rather than any sort of loss. Good evidence for this might be that “American Halloween” has been a very successful export, making inroads into places such as Germany – where Halloween traditions were largely unknown – or rudely elbowing out of the way any existing, semi-parallel traditions, such as Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night in Great Britain.”

 

Halloween has come a long way from its humble beginnings as the day when we remember the dead. Thinking about those who left this world and honoring their memory is one of humanity’s major stepping stones, with burial rituals and traditions helping to establish modern society as we know it. But, nowadays, these ancient practices have veered toward a lighter, more fun and entertaining way of celebrating.

Homes reclaimed by previous owners (now in ghost form), furniture moving on its own and talking mirrors are the elements that come to mind now when we think about Halloween. The more kid-friendly, commercial, modern Halloween is all about children going trick-or-treating; people dressing up as their favorite superhero for a party; and having fun telling ghost stories around a campfire.

Plus, Instagram and Pinterest bring the most ingenious, cutest or downright craziest Halloween costumes and decoration ideas right to our fingertips. So, it’s no wonder that this holiday is becoming more popular and moving further away from its gloomier origin.

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