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8 Creepy Halloween Tales & Traditions

October 30, 2019 in History

By History.com Editors

Halloween’s focus on horror and make believe has spawned creepy legends, ghost stories—and hoaxes.

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.

Read about Halloween traditions and legends below:

A Fear of Vampires Spawned by Consumption

Illustration of a family member dying from consumption in the 19th century.

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.

Read more about the 19th-century exhumations here.

Why Haunted Houses Opened During the Great Depression

Halloween night mischief inspired communities to open haunted houses 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.

Read more about Great Depression-era Halloween pranks here.

Jack-o-Lanterns and the Legend of ‘Stingy Jack’

The original Jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips.

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.

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