On Halloween, people shed reality for a day and mark the holiday with costumes, decorations and parties. Creepy legends and characters have evolved based on real, terrifying events. And a Halloween tradition of confronting the dead has led to legions of ghost stories—and hoaxes.
A Fear of Vampires Spawned by Consumption
During the 19th century, the spread of tuberculosis, or consumption, claimed the lives of entire families in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont and other parts of New England.
Before physicians were able to explain how infectious diseases were spread, hopeless villagers believed that some of those who perished from consumption preyed upon their living family members. This spurred a grim practice of digging up the dead and burning their internal organs
Why Witches Fly on Brooms
The evil green-skinned witch flying on her magic broomstick may be a Halloween icon—and a well-worn stereotype. But the actual history behind how witches came to be associated with such an everyday household object is anything but dull.
The earliest known image of witches on brooms dates to 1451, when two illustrations appeared in the French poet Martin Le Franc’s manuscript Le Champion des Dames (The Defender of Ladies).
The association between witches and brooms may have roots in a pagan fertility ritual, in which rural farmers would leap and dance astride poles, pitchforks or brooms in the light of the full moon to encourage the growth of their crops. This “broomstick dance” became confused with common accounts of witches flying through the night on their way to orgies and other illicit meetings.
Why Haunted Houses Opened During the Great Depression
In the period leading up to the Great Depression, Halloween had become a time when young men could blow off steam—and cause mischief. Sometimes they went too far. In 1933, parents were outraged when hundreds of teenage boys flipped over cars, sawed off telephone poles and engaged in other acts of vandalism across the country. People began to refer to that year’s holiday as “Black Halloween,” similarly to the way they referred to the stock market crash four years earlier as “Black Tuesday.”
Rather than banning the holiday, as some demanded, many communities began organizing Halloween activities—and haunted houses—to keep restless would-be pranksters occupied.
The Great Depression Origins of Halloween Haunted Houses
The Great Depression was a time of great economic and social change that affected many parts of American life—including Halloween. Parents, concerned about their sons running amok on All Hallows’ Eve, organized “haunted houses” or “trails” to keep them off the streets.
Halloween had long been a night of revelry for adults and children, seen as a positive outlet for young men to blow off steam. This ranged from stealing neighbors’ gates off their hinges to stealing dead bodies. In 1879, about 200 boys in Kentucky stopped a train by laying a fake stuffed ‘body’ across the railroad tracks. In 1900, medical students at the University of Michigan stole a headless corpse from the anatomy lab and propped it up against the building’s front doors.
“This is the only evening on which a boy can feel free to play pranks outdoors without danger of being ‘pinched,’ and it is his delight to scare passing pedestrians, ring door-bells, and carry off the neighbors’ gates,” espoused one boys’ craft guide. According to the guide, even if a boy had to fetch the gate he stole out of the tree he left it in, “the punishment is nothing compared with the sports the pranks have furnished him.”
There were plenty of people who didn’t see this as harmless fun before the Great Depression. However, the economic disaster exacerbated young men’s Halloween antics, leading to increased public concern and anger. In 1933, parents were outraged when hundreds of teenage boys flipped over cars, sawed off telephone poles and engaged in other acts of vandalism across the country. People began to refer to that year’s holiday as “Black Halloween,” similarly to the way they referred to the stock market crash four years earlier as “Black Tuesday.”
Some cities considered banning Halloween altogether. Yet in many communities, the response was to organize Halloween activities for young people so that they didn’t run amok. They started to organize trick-or-treating, parties, costume parades—and yes—haunted houses to keep them busy.
“Hang old fur, strips of raw liver on walls, where one feels his way to dark steps,” advised a 1937 party pamphlet on how to create a “trail of terror.” “Weird moans and howls come from dark corners, damp sponges and hair nets hung from the ceiling touch his face… Doorways are blockaded so that guests must crawl through a long dark tunnel.”
Haunted or spooky public attractions already had some precedent in Europe. Starting in the 1800s, Marie Tussaud’s wax museum in London featured a “Chamber of Horrors” with decapitated figures from the French Revolution. In 1915, a British amusement ride manufacturer created an early haunted house, complete with dim lights, shaking floors and demonic screams.
These early American haunted houses were small, non-profit affairs held in residential neighborhoods. In later decades, larger organizations began to host their own haunted houses as fundraisers or commercial attractions. The most famous and influential one was Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in 1969, which had an extremely high production value for its day.
Since then, America’s haunted attractions have become more and more elaborate. American Haunts estimates there are over 1,200 haunted attractions that charge admission fees now. But as in the Great Depression, there are still plenty of small-scale haunts in American neighborhoods that parents put on for free—using their own homes, yards and imaginations.
Jack-o-Lanterns and the Legend of ‘Stingy Jack’
An Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack” is believed to have led to the tradition of carving scary faces into gourds. According to the legend, Jack tricks the Devil into paying for his drink and then traps him in the form of a coin. The Devil eventually takes revenge and Stingy Jack ends up roaming Earth for eternity without a place in heaven or hell. Jack does, however, have a lighted coal, which he places inside a carved turnip, creating the original Jack-o-lantern.
Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Ghost’ in the White House
For years, presidents, first ladies, guests, and members of the White House staff have claimed to have either seen Abraham Lincoln or felt his presence. Grace Coolidge, wife of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, was the first person to report having seen the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. She said he stood at a window of the Oval Office, hands clasped behind his back, gazing out over the Potomac, perhaps still seeing the bloody battlefields beyond.
Spirit Photography Claims to Capture Ghosts on Film
In the post-Civil War era, when many Americans were reeling from loss, a photographer named William Mumler claimed to capture ghosts on film. While taking self-portraits for practice, one of Mumler’s prints came back with an unexplainable aberration. Although he was “quite alone in the room” when the shot was taken, there appeared to be a figure at his side, a girl who was “made of light.”
Mumler showed the photo to a spiritualist friend who told him the girl in the image was almost certainly a ghost. Mumler then began a swift business in so-called spirit photography.
Irving Writes ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ After Fleeing Yellow Fever
Washington Irving’s 1820 tale of a headless horseman who terrorizes the real-life village of Sleepy Hollow is considered one of America’s first ghost stories—and one of its scariest. Irving may have drawn inspiration for his story while a teenager in Tarrytown, New York. He moved to the area in 1798 to flee a yellow fever outbreak in New York City.
Irving’s story takes place in the New York village of Sleepy Hollow. A lanky newcomer and schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, is chased by a headless horseman. In the tale, Irving weaves together actual locations and family names, and a little bit of Revolutionary War history with pure imagination and fantasy.
Origin of the Story
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow resurfaces every year around Halloween. Washington Irving’s 1820 tale of a headless horseman who terrorizes the real-life village of Sleepy Hollow is considered one of America’s first ghost stories—and one of its scariest.
But Irving didn’t invent the idea of a headless rider. Tales of headless horsemen can be traced to the Middle Ages, including stories from the Brothers Grimm and the Dutch and Irish legend of the “Dullahan” or “Gan Ceann,” a Grim Reaper-like rider who carries his head.
Elizabeth Bradley, a historian at Historic Hudson Valley, says a likely source for Irving’s horseman can be found in Sir Walter Scott’s 1796 The Chase, which is a translation of the German poem The Wild Huntsman by Gottfried Bürger and likely based on Norse mythology.
“Irving had just met and become friends with Scott in 1817 so it’s very likely he was influenced by his new mentor’s work,” she says, “The poem is about a wicked hunter who is doomed to be hunted forever by the devil and the ‘dogs of hell’ as punishment for his crimes.”
According to the New York Historical Society, others believe Irving was inspired by “an actual Hessian soldier who was decapitated by a cannonball during the Battle of White Plains, around Halloween 1776.”
Irving’s story takes place in the New York village of Sleepy Hollow, in Westchester County. In it, lanky newcomer and schoolmaster Ichabod Crane courts Katrina van Tassel, a young heiress who is also being pursued by the Dutchman Brom Bones. After being rebuffed by Katrina at a party at the van Tassel farm where ghost stories are shared, Ichabod is chased by a headless horseman (who may or may not be his rival) who hurls a pumpkin at the man, throwing Ichabod from his horse. The schoolmaster vanishes.
Irving may have drawn inspiration for his story while a teenager in the Tarrytown region. He moved to the area in 1798 to flee a yellow fever outbreak in New York City, according to the New York Historical Society.
He “would have been introduced to local ghost stories and lore at an impressionable age,” Bradley says.“He cleverly weaves together factual locations—the Old Dutch Church and churchyard, ‘Major Andre’s Tree,’ some actual family names, including van Tassel and Ichabod Crane—and a little bit of Revolutionary War history with pure imagination and fantasy,” Bradley says. “It’s a melting pot of a story, and thus totally American.”
Franz Potter, a professor at National University who specializes in Gothic studies, says the headless horseman, as a supernatural entity, represents a past that never dies, but always haunts the living.
“The headless horseman supposedly seeks revenge—and a head—which he thinks was unfairly taken from him,” Potter says. “This injustice demands that he continually search for a substitute. The horseman, like the past, still seeks answers, still seeks retribution, and can’t rest. We are haunted by the past which stalks us so that we never forget it.”
As for folklore mixing with history when it comes to the character of Ichabod Crane, The New York Times reports an actual Col. Ichabod B. Crane was a contemporary of Irving who enlisted in the Marines in 1809, serving 45 years. But there’s no evidence that the two ever met, according to the newspaper.
America’s first ghost story, Bradley says, has endured because it accommodates the changing American imagination.
“It inspires people because it reminds them that there are still some American mysteries, some half-truths that may never be fully known—and that’s the whole point,” she says. “The ‘Legend’ lends itself to any interpretation, and it continues to fascinate and terrify us in the best possible way.”
Horror Movies Inspired by ‘Real’ Stories
On November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. murdered his entire family in their sleep. One year later, the Lutz family purchased the house in Amityville, New York where the horror took place. George and Kathy Lutz then claimed they experienced shocking paranormal phenomena in the house: green slime oozing from the walls, a creature with red eyes and multiple family members levitating in their beds.
The claims appeared in Jay Anson’s 1977 book, The Amityville Horror, which inspired the 1979 movie of the same title, which inspired many more movies.
Why Mary Shelley Carried Her Dead Husband’s Heart
Frankenstein author, Mary Shelley, is world renowned for her terrifying fiction, but few know that she had a dark secret of her own. Shelley’s husband, Percy, drowned at the young age of 29 when his boat was caught in a storm in July 1822.
Percy’s body and those of his fellow sailors were found 10 days later. Percy Shelley and the others were cremated, but Shelley’s heart did not burn (perhaps due to a bout of tuberculosis earlier in this life). Mary Shelley eventually took ownership of her late husband’s heart and is said to have carried it around in a silk bag.