The upcoming presidential election may be stressing us out, but it’s also boosting Halloween high jinks.
This year, it’s likely there will be plenty of Donald Trumps and Hillary Clintons trick-or-treating. And you may see a few bad hombres, baskets of deplorables, or Ken Bones out on the street, too.
National Retail Federation spokesperson Ana Smith says just 1.8 percent of adults surveyed wore political costumes in 2008, and the number was almost nil in 2012. But “this year, it's up to 4.1 percent,” she says.
“So I think they are having a little bit of fun with this presidential election and making fun of the candidates a little bit.”
We’ve been wearing Halloween costumes for nearly two millennia. To help you celebrate, we've summoned up that history, as well as a number of fun-size facts.
Halloween Special: Real-Life Zombies In a spooky coup, a parasitic worm hijacks a snail's brain and makes the snail sacrifice itself to a hungry bird. Carl Zimmer, a contributor to National Geographic's Phenomena science salon and author of the book Parasite Rex, explains how the snail's death helps the parasite perpetuate its sneaky species.
Archaeologists are still unearthing Halloween's roots at Celtic spiritual centers like the Hill of Ward (originally known as Tlachtga) in County Meath, Ireland. The holiday is descended most directly from the celebration of Samhain (SAH-win), the Celtic New Year observed between the sunsets of October 31 and November 1.
On Samhain eve, at the death of another year, spirits (not to mention fairies, demons, and other creatures) were believed to walk the Earth, traveling to the afterlife on a night when doorways between our world and the spirit world were thrown open.
Tradition holds that bonfires were also kindled at major sites like Tlachtga, where evidence of large-scale burning has indeed been found. These fires may have been used for sacrifices, or to symbolize the sun, since Tlachtga was known as one of the sun’s goddesses.
Celts also began the Halloween tradition of wearing costumes, according to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The Celts donned animal skin to hide themselves from spirits, or they wore masks and blackened their faces to impersonate ancestors who had preceded them to the spirit world.
Revelers disguised as spirits are also believed to have gone from house to house engaging in silly acts in exchange for food and drink. These acts were possibly inspired by an earlier custom of leaving food and drink outdoors as offerings to supernatural beings. This likely inspired today's trick-or-treat traditions.
The National Retail Federation expects 16 percent of consumers to dress their dogs for Halloween this year.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON DECROW, AP IMAGES
Putting the Christ Back Into—Halloween?
Christian leaders later transformed Samhain as they co-opted pagan holidays. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 All Saints' Day, or All Hallows' Day.
The church didn't attempt to do away with the celebrations, however. The night before Samhain continued to be observed with bonfires, costumes, and parades, but it was all rebranded with a new name: All Hallows' Eve, which later became "Halloween."
Halloween Arrives in America
European immigrants brought Halloween to the United States, where different Old World traditions mingled in America's cultural stew. The celebration gained steam with the explosion of Irish immigration to the United States in the 1800s.
It was only a matter of time before politicians got into the act. Anoka, Minnesota, may be home to the United States' oldest official Halloween celebration. In 1920, the city began staging a parade and bonfire to mark the day.
The celebration may have had another purpose, too. Anoka historians say townsfolk wanted to curb Halloween pranks that loosed cows on Main Street and upended outhouses, so the official celebration might’ve arisen in an attempt to promote good, clean fun.
Urban Legends, Poisoned Candy, and Killer Clowns
One of the most persistent urban legends claims that people hand out candy tainted by poisons, needles, or razor blades.
University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best, who conducts extensive research on tainted Halloween candy, says he's been unable to find even one substantiated report of a child dying or being seriously injured from eating trick-or-treat candy.
“Somebody gets a candy bar and sticks a nail through it and puts a picture up on their Facebook page saying, Hey, this is the treat that I got,” Best says. “And then eventually it gets debunked.”
Though these scares inevitably turn out to be hoaxes, Best notes, some years do bring new twists. In recent years, Colorado's legalization of marijuana caused some unfounded concern. “There was a fear that people would pass out edible marijuana and cause children to overdose,” he says, “which, among other things, completely ignores how much edible marijuana costs.”
In 2016, a rash of creepy clown sightings has trick-or-treaters on edge. But, as with other scares, it’s lacking in hard evidence.
Anoka, Minnesota, started holding Halloween parades in 1920. The tradition was one of the first civic celebrations of Halloween, and local historians believe it was an attempt to deter unofficial celebrations that sometimes led to cows being let loose or outhouses being toppled.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ELIZABETH FLORES, ALAMY
“It reminds me of 1982 when the Tylenol poisonings occurred in September, and that led to a lot of speculation that there would surely be a lot of poisoned candy,” Best says. “There may be some clown stuff this year just because of the timing.” (Read about why clowns creep us out.)
But even creepy clowns aren't new, Best notes. “One of the things that surprised me is that this has actually happened before. It's just that this one, also, is amped up by social media,” he says. “There have been periodic clown scares not just in the U.S. but in European countries.”
The Business of Halloween
What began as a religious and spiritual observance is now very big business.
According to the National Retail Federation's long-running consumer survey of American Halloween habits, 171 million U.S. consumers plan to celebrate Halloween activities in 2016, and they'll open their wallets in the process. This year, seven out of every 10 Americans will hand out candy, while half will decorate their homes or dress in costumes. Total spending on decorations, costumes, and candy is estimated to reach $8.4 billion in 2016. That’s an average of $82.93 per household, and it’s nearly twice as much as the 2005 average, which was $48.
Outside of the election, popular culture—superhero movies in particular—are inspiring the most interest in costumes. The most popular costumes for people ages 18 to 34 include characters from recent DC movies (Batman, Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, the Joker) and Marvel movies (Deadpool, Spider-Man).
For kids, costumes inspired by Disney movies (Frozen, especially) and Star Wars are among the most popular.
Many four-legged family members also wear costumes. Sixteen percent of consumers will costume their pets this Halloween—whether the pets like it or not. Perennial favorites—pumpkins, hot dogs, and bumblebees—again top the list of planned Halloween pet costumes.
Far from the pumpkin's native roots of Central America, chilly Illinois produces most of the United States' pumpkins.
Illinois produced some 318 million pounds of pumpkins in 2015, followed by California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. Together, the nation's major pumpkin-producing states harvested almost 40,000 acres of pumpkins in 2015, a haul worth about $90 million.
More Than Costumes?
For almost half of all Americans, ghosts aren't just part of Halloween fun—they're real. Forty-two percent of Americans believe in ghosts, according to a Harris Poll of 2,250 adults surveyed in November 2013. The same poll reports that 26 percent of those adults believe in witches.
A 2009 Pew Research poll reported that nearly 1 in 5 Americans, some 18 percent, said they have actually seen or felt the presence of a ghost.
Now that’s a scary thought.