On the night of October 31, many Americans celebrate the traditions of Halloween by dressing in costumes and telling tales of witches and ghosts. Children go from house to house—to “trick or treat”—collecting candy along the way. Communities also hold parades and parties.
…I heard a rustle in the hall. It sounded like the swish of a taffeta skirt. I looked up at the door and saw the figure of a woman go past. She had on a black taffeta dress and I didn’t see any head. I called out, “Who’s there?” Of course, nobody answered…. Just as the figure reached the door of the living room, it disappeared.
[Ghost Story]. Mrs. Laura M., interviewee; Dorothy West, interviewer; New York City, November 18, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
Halloween, also known as All Hallow’s Eve, originated as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, meaning “summer’s end.” The autumnal holiday, rooted in Christian and pagan festivals—with elements of magic and mystery, celebrated the link between seasonal and life cycles. (Winter was then a time associated with death.)
Halloween is now celebrated worldwide and reflects the assimilation of various cultures. In the twenty-first century, it has become a secular, and hugely commercial holiday.
- Read about Halloween traditions and celebrations through newspaper articles found in Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Start with the articles highlighted in the special topic feature on Halloween.
- Writing about his nineteenth-century boyhood in Minnesota, Frank G. O’Brien recalls Halloween in a sketch, Old Time Halloween Doings, as a night when “the leaders of the fun took matters into their own hands and the whole town was at their mercy.” In addition to switching signs between the town doctor and the local undertaker, pranksters thought nothing of causing major inconveniences. This Halloween story is included in O’Brien’s book, Minnesota Pioneer Sketches: From the Personal Recollections and Observations of a Pioneer Resident, 1904, featured in Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910
- Listen to “Ghost Story” told by Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, in the collection, Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.
- American folklore is rich with spirits, ghosts, and witches. Search on witch and ghost in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 to read tales of alleged witches and accounts of spirit sightings.
- Listen to fiddler Henry Reed play “Witch of the Wave Reel.” A search on the term witch in Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection will surface a transcription of this tune as well as its audio playback.
- Sing a spooky song. Search the collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885 on the terms witch and ghost to find musical selections such as “Denny Malone’s Ghost” by M. H. McChesney, 1871, and “Witches Flight” by H. M. Russell, 1878.
- Search the collection American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 to find theatrical skits, such as A Novelty Comedy Sketch Entitled Spooks (1912) by Bayone Whipple and Walter Huston.
- Watch movies of magic and madness. Search the online collections in the motion picture format to view early films with the themes of magic and ghosts. See, for example, Uncle Josh in a Spooky Hotel and Hooligan Assists the Magician from the collection Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies and Dud Leaves Home from Origins of American Animation.
- Search on Halloween or witch in the pictorial collections to view a variety of photos and illustrations.
- Read “Grace Sherwood—The One Virginia Witch” External an article from the June, 1884 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine External, and available online in Making of America External hosted by the Cornell University Library.