Every October, as Halloween approaches, we’re surrounded by the same familiar imagery. Everywhere we look, there’s the flickering glow of a ghoulish jack-o’-lantern, a room covered in spooky cobwebs, and people wearing bloody fangs or witches’ hats. But where did these associations come from, and what do they mean? Read on for a quick primer on the origins of classic Halloween images and symbols.
Skeletons and ghosts have roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, from which the modern-day Halloween is derived. The festival took place on the night of October 31, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the cold, dark winter. It was, in essence, a festival of the dead. The Celts believed that on this night, the boundary between the realms of the living and dead became blurred — the dead returned as ghosts and they could walk amongst the living.
This “day of the dead” association still remains strong today. That’s why symbols of death — like graveyards and haunted houses — are so ubiquitous around Halloween. Skeletons and ghosts too are eerily symbolic reminders of the otherworld, death, and human mortality.
Believe it or not, the original jack-o’-lantern wasn’t a pumpkin — it was a turnip.
According to Irish folklore, a fellow nicknamed “Stingy Jack” played a trick on the devil and was condemned to forever wander the earth without a resting place. Armed with only a glowing ember from the devil to light the way, Jack put it into a carved-out turnip and made a makeshift lantern. The Irish called him “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack O’Lantern” for short.
On All Hallow’s Eve (now known as Halloween), people in Ireland and Scotland would carve scary faces into turnips and potatoes and place embers inside of them, in hope of warding off evil spirits and Stingy Jack. European immigrants adapted this tradition when they traveled to the United States, soon discovering that pumpkins made for perfect jack-o’-lanterns. Nowadays, they are a familiar sight on windowsills and doorsteps every Halloween.
Even ancient civilizations had legends and folklore about supernatural, demonic, blood-drinking entities — primitive vampires, if you will. But Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic horror novel Dracula really brought the modern version of vampires to life. These creatures are synonymous with horror and the undead because they are often described to be revenants — human corpses that return from the grave to torment the living. Their connection to death and the supernatural make them a fitting symbol for Halloween.
Bats have long been associated with mystery, evil, death, and the supernatural. They’re only active at night, plus they live in caves (which evokes the underworld). Vampires are also often said to transform into bats, a connection popularized by Stoker’s novel and the many Dracula films.
One theory for the link between bats and Halloween has to do with the festival of Samhain. When the Celts celebrated the end of the harvest on October 31, they would light bonfires to keep evil spirits at bay. This practice would attract insects and, in turn, bats.
If you see a witch at Halloween, chances are you’ll probably see a black cat nearby.
The connection between black cats, witches, and evil goes way back. In medieval Europe, it was common belief that the devil could turn himself into a black cat. During the witch hunts, accused witches were frequently found to have black cats as companions. Since the cats were well-concealed and unnoticed in the dark, they seemed like perfect partners for witches, and people believed they were “familiars” (demons that could help witches with dark magic).
The color black is often associated with death, bad luck, mystery, and evil, so it’s no surprise that black cats have become objects of superstition. With their glowing, orb-like eyes and pitch black fur, they add a spooky flair to Halloween imagery.
Spiders and Cobwebs
The spider is a powerful and ancient mythical symbol. Because they can spin webs, they are associated with magic and the supernatural in many folk stories. They can also be linked to danger, fear, ensnarement, and deception (think of the phrase “spin a web of deceit”). Cobwebs are a natural accompaniment to Halloween —their presence instantly evokes a creepy feeling that something has been dead or abandoned for a long time.
We all recognize her — she has a pointy hat, a wart on her hooked nose, and she’s often seen riding her broomstick past a full moon. Perhaps the most quintessential Halloween symbol of all is the witch.
The iconic image of a witch as we see it today is a caricature, but it is still closely associated with evil and misfortune. In fact, the greeting card industry added witches to Halloween cards in the late 1800s, thinking they would be a good visual representation for the ghoulish holiday.
In the Middle Ages, witchcraft was associated with devil worship and black magic, and it was widely feared throughout Europe. During the witch hunts that took place later in Europe and America, mass hysteria spread as thousands of women were accused of witchcraft and sorcery and subsequently killed. Witches are literary figures too; they were portrayed as wicked, ugly hags in Shakespearean plays and many European folk tales.
Halloween’s iconic images are centuries-old, and they’re laden with powerful meaning. Many of these symbols connect to our worries around human mortality, danger, and fear itself. Together, the images are rooted in rich history and folklore, and they add important meaning to our cultural traditions.