Halloween History Week with your Friendly Neighborhood History Geek!
Famous Halloween Characters and the tradition of dressing in costume
Dracula. Frankenstein. Mummies. Ghosts. Spiders. Clowns. Black cats. Pumpkins. Witches. We’ve all seen them…as costumes most commonly worn by trick-ot-treaters throughout the years. These are probably among the most traditional of the Halloween costumes and Halloween decorations you see. These creepy characters and creepy crawly creatures are Halloween staples and have been throughout history and were especially common as costumes when trick-or-treating we are most familiar with today (not the early 1900s vandalism-style trick-or-treating) was first resurrected and popularized from the 1950s onward
Many characters, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Headless Horseman were characters from popular 19th century literature. Other costumes we see are based on actual characters from history; i.e George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth I. Mummies, ghosts, goblins, witches, and demons are characters from lore that has been passed down through the ages. And of course, nobody has to ask why spiders and clowns are popular on Halloween.
The first Halloween costumes were animals, and this tradition was started by the Celts for their Samhain festival (See Tuesday’s entry). They put on these costumes to disguise themselves from evil spirits that they believed roamed the earth on October 31st. The tradition continued throughout the centuries and when the Irish came to America in the mid 1800’s, they brought the costume tradition with them.
Masquerade balls were very common among the wealthy and upper middle class, and Victorian society (1830s-1900) which was obsessed with death at the time used Halloween as another event to hold masquerade balls. Other costume ideas were introduced; characters from stories, imaginary creatures, and even terrifying creatures were common for people to dress as. Witches, black cats, and even the devil were costumes commonly seen for Halloween masquerade balls, and some nicer, less morbid costumes included dressing as Renaissance-era royalty, fairies, or beautiful creatures like swans and peacocks. Clowns and mimes, while they were around since ancient times, weren’t popularized until the 1800s when their appearance changed with the introduction of creepy clown makeup at the start of that century, and circuses and clown shows became entertainment for the common man instead of being reserved only to entertain royalty and their guests.
Dracula was a character in Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name, and his name was taken from that of the historical 15th century Romanian leader Vlad the Impaler. Vlad’s father, who was involved with a Christian defense group known as The Order of the Dragon, went by the name ‘Dracul’ which meant ‘dragon.’ The name Dracul was given to him by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. When his son Vlad came into power, he went by the name ‘ Vlad Dracula’ which meant son of the dragon. He was also called Vlad the Impaler because he would impale his enemies and leave them outside his castle walls as a warning to all who tempted to cross him. Bram Stoker used the name ‘Dracula’ and associated with vampires in his 1897 novel.
Frankenstein was a character in Mary Shelley’s novel of the same name, which was also called “Modern Prometheus.” Most people think of Frankenstein as the name of the huge green monster, but actually that monster’s name is just “Frankenstein’s Monster.” Victor Frankenstein was the character who created the monster.
Black cats, most often associated with witches, have always been popular on Halloween. Black cats were believed to be witches in disguise and are, sadly, one of the most common animals to be used in sacrifice rituals, right along with the most holy of animals which is the dove, and the most evil of animals which is the serpent. Superstition about witches have been around since biblical times and bible scriptures mention witchcraft as being a sin. The most historical event involving witches took place right here on American soil, during the Salem Witch hysteria in Salem Massachusetts in the 1600s, when several school-aged girls came forward and pointed fingers at townspeople, accusing them to be witches. Paranoid and superstitious, the people of the town executed these accused witches and 18 women and one man were killed. Another famous witch story is the Bell Witch legend of Tennessee. In the early 1800s, 1817 to be exact, a farmer by the name of John Bell Sr. and his family came under attack by an unseen presence in their house. They attributed the attacks to one Kate Batts, their strange and reclusive neighbor whom everyone including the Bell family believed was a witch, and Ms. Batts claimed responsibility for the attacks. Later investigations of the Bell Witch claimed that the reason for these attacks was due to a neurological disorder that John Bell Sr. had. Still, the case of The Bell Witch that sparked so much intrigue in the early 1800s inspired many books, and later on, movies, and TV shows that are loosely based on it, such as The Blair Witch Project and An American Haunting.
Today, costumes are probably one of the funnest parts of Halloween for a kid, aside from the candy. Modern times, literature, movies, and TV shows have introduced hundreds more versions of costumes that kids can choose from and it gives kids the opportunity to be someone else for a day, whether they want to be a scary pirate or a pretty princess.
What are you going to be this year?