Halloween started as Samhain, a pagan Celtic New Year’s observance, a transition between life-giving summer light and harvests, and death-bringing winter dark and cold. The Celts believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred on this night, and that ghosts walked the earth. People built huge bonfires to keep back the dark, wore costumes of animal heads and skins to disguise themselves, and left out food as further distraction and appeasement. The Druids, priests of Celtic culture, made living sacrifices, and predictions of the future.
The Romans later made their contribution, incorporating Feralia rituals that involved the passing of the dead, and offerings to Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees (this is where bobbing for apples is thought to have come from).
The Catholic church made its mark too, first calling the festival All Saint’s Day, then later All Soul’s Day; by then the costumes represented saints, angels, and devils. At some point the day became known as All-hallow’s Mass, with the night before being All-hallow’s Eve. Many of the older superstitions and rituals that remained still had to do with predicting the future – often concerning a future spouse.
Irish immigrants brought these traditions to the U.S. in the 19th century, wearing costumes, and going house to house asking for food or money. By the 1920s, Halloween had become a secular holiday without any of its older superstitions or religious overtones. Today, Halloween has become the second-biggest commercial event in the States — second only to Christmas – with Americans spending over $6 billion on, well, all sorts of things.
Imagine a Bronze-Age Celtic Druid in the flickering light of a bonfire, hands bloody from Samhain sacrifice, trying to peer into the future. He probably would have understood the Creepy Clowns, but what would he have made of the Sexy Nurses and Pirates?
These vintage images are an interesting midpoint in that arc: pre-commercial, post-pagan, many ridiculous, but some with just enough of the ancient darkness peeking through to make us pause.
You be the judge: which of them would fool a real ghost?