The history of the things that haunt us at Halloween
As with many Western holidays, Halloween is associated with several traditions whose history has been long forgotten. Last year, the Sil looked back at some of these traditions in our first iteration of Spooky Facts. This year we’ve returned to examine the history of some haunting Halloween traditions.
The origin of haunted houses as we know it comes from the Great Depression. At the time, Halloween in the United States had become known as a holiday where youth concocted elaborate pranks.
In 1933 when the pranks escalated to include property damage, vandalism and harassment, parents came together to find ways of distracting their kids. Along with trick-or-treating, parents created haunted houses in their basements and had their children go from house to house to experience different scary settings.
The beginning of the haunted house industry however came about when Walt Disney opened the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland California in 1969 and Walt Disney World in 1971. Much more impressive than the basement haunted houses, the mansion featured a ballroom sequence of dancing ghouls in its Grand Hall, a seance room with a talking crystal ball and a graveyard full of grim grinning ghosts singing about spooking the living. From here, alongside the horror movie industry, the professional haunted house industry continued to grow.
Did you think of a ghost? Have you ever wondered why we associate this sound with ghosts? One of the first times that the word was found in text was in the 1560s poetic thriller Here Begynneth A Treatyse Of The Smyth Whych That Forged Hym A New Dame where it used more as a statement of one’s presence than a way to startle.
It was only later that the word was associated with fright. In 1738, the word appeared in Gilbert Crokatt’s Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d and this and an 1808 text noted that the word was used to scare children in North Scotland. By the 1820s, the word was known as the exclamation of real ghosts and those dressed up as ghosts. Another early example of ghosts saying “boo” was in the 1963 play Punch and Judy.
Why this sound? It is likely meant to imitate the mooing of a cow, but how and why this evolved into a word with ghostly connotation is unknown.
As long as there have been ghosts, there have been stories about them. There are ancient ghost stories from Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India, Scotland and many more places. Ancient Roman writings tell tales of ghosts who frequently showed up and rattled chains. Early ghost sightings include the first reported poltergeist (a ghost that causes physical disturbances) in 856 A.D. and the sightings of Anne Boleyn’s ghost after her 1536 death.
With his 1765 novel Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole was credited with inventing the gothic novel and legitimizing the horror story as a literary form. Following this, gothic horror novels such as Frankenstein (1818), A Christmas Carol (1843) and Dracula (1897) were released.
In the Victorian era (1837-1901), ghost stories became increasingly popular. One of the potential reasons for this is that the industrial revolution led many people to migrate to big cities and move into houses with servants who, much like ghosts, were expected to move around the house without being seen or heard.
The Victorians also used gas lamps, the carbon monoxide from which could have caused hallucinations. Another factor could have been the introduction of the telegraph. The ability for messages to be transmitted across oceans using Morse code made it much less of a leap to believe a dead person was tapping out Morse code to you.
The Victorians told their ghost stories on long, cold and dark Christmas nights. However, because it was based on the supernatural, the Puritans frowned upon this tradition and it didn’t gain the same traction in America.
Nonetheless, Christmas issues of American magazines still carried ghost stories until as late as 1915. Eventually, as Americans took on the originally Scottish holiday of Halloween, they emphasized the scary elements and integrated ghost stories into the celebrations.
Ghost stories have gone on to take many forms, laying the foundation for the Halloween movies and horror films that we know and love today.