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The Great Depression Origins of Halloween Haunted Houses

October 31, 2018 in History

By Becky Little

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 dead 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.

Halloween: Primal Fear: Why We Like To Be Scared (TV-PG; 1:59)

“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.

A crowd of boys pushing through a crowd at a Halloween party in the 1930s.

“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 …read more


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