Halloween is a secular festival, which occurs annually on October 31st. It is neither a religious festival nor a government-recognized holiday where shops and offices are closed. It is primarily a North American event but has spread to other English-speaking countries, and a bit beyond. Activities usually happen at night and involve the playful as well as the scary. Depending on the type of Halloween you want, you could have a leisurely excuse to eat candy and dress up like a pirate or a chilling night out in haunted houses, watching horror films until dawn.
It should not be confused with the Day of the Dead festival which has different traditions and extends into early November.
The name is a contraction of "All Hallows Eve", from a Christian superstition (some centuries back) that all the ghosts and other strange things would come out on the eve before All Saints Day on November 1. Some claim its origins go back to pre-Christian, Celtic or Gallic harvest traditions such as Samhain (saw-hayn). Until displaced, Cornwall also had it's own Allantide traditions. However, only a very small minority of Christians or neo-Pagans consider Halloween a religious occasion today; it has become an almost purely secular event (occasionally, Christians will boycott it altogether or hold alternative festivals at a church).
Costumes play a big role. Originally people would dress up as various scary things that would allegedly be abroad that night—ghosts, werewolves, stereotypic witches (pointy hat, black dress, perhaps warts), and so on—but now the range of costumes is far wider. For example, in 2016 Canada's Prime Minister and his wife dressed as Han Solo and Leia from Star Wars. Children typically get most excited about portraying their favorite superheroes or princesses while adults may make extremely elaborate and costly get-ups.
Part of the tradition is "trick or treat", or as Tom Lehrer put it, "Small groups of armed children race from house to house demanding protection money." The kids dress up and knock on doors around their neighborhood saying, "Trick or treat!" when a resident answers and are given candy or other treats. Some households will leave a bowl of candy outside with a sign reading "Please take one" that is always ignored. If some household fails to provide a treat, they may get a trick such as writing on their windows with soap or a tree full of toilet paper. In some areas, supervised "trick or treat" events are organised by local community groups.
Many homes only give candy to small children (not teens or adults); the occasional good-natured neighbor will hand out a healthier alternative like apples or floss. There are many urban legends about poisoned candy or apples with razor blades in them — and a few hoaxes concocted by the supposed victims or a family member. None of the rare documented product tampering incidents (a California dentist distributing laxatives on Hallow'een 1959, a grouchy old lady handing teens steel wool, dog biscuits and ant poison in 1964 in New York - all clearly labelled as such - and one Minneapolis man criminally charged for hiding needles in Snickers bars in 2000) have caused death or permanent harm to a stranger. Nonetheless, the Hallow'een witch with the poisoned apple is all part of the legend.
Costumes are also common for adults. Some people wear a costume to work that day, and costume parties—both in homes and in bars—are common in the evening. Some charitable organizations have costume balls as fund-raising events. This is the one day out of the year where you can go anywhere dressed as a clown, hobo, or monster without anyone batting an eye. In the United States, except for very formal events, you can walk around dressed as goofy as you please.
Quite a few bars host events for Halloween, or at least have specials on drinks like 'zombies' or 'witches brew'. They may encourage staff or patrons to come in costume, and some offer prizes—anything from a free drink up—for the best costumes. This is especially common for bars that cater to some group that is inclined to unconventional clothing, such as hippie types, 'Goths', cosplay aficionados, or drag queens.
Some cinemas schedule a horror movie, or even a small festival of them, for Halloween. The Rocky Horror Picture Show and classics like Dracula or Frankenstein are common choices. If you enjoy the genre, it is worth checking local listings wherever you are in late October.
Some places are reputed to be haunted and these are likely to have special events for Halloween. Many tourist areas also have "ghost walks", tours that emphasize allegedly haunted attractions; see our region and city articles for details.
A farm which operates hay rides and corn mazes during the high season may switch to a seasonal format (such as setting up a Haunted Barn) during the weeks leading up to Hallow'een. Some of these programmes (such as "Knott's Scary Farm" at Knott's Berry Farm in California or "Haunting Season" at Saunders Farm near Ottawa) have been run annually for decades, becoming more elaborate every year. On a smaller scale, some attractions have created haunted houses with actors disguised as various ghoulish creatures to frighten the faint of heart.
There are also Hallow'een parties – which are most often costume parties.
Many chains of restaurants or resorts have special events for Halloween:
- Universal Studios stage Halloween Horror Nights in various places—for 2018, in Hollywood, Orlando, Singapore and Japan. These typically run from mid-September to October 31. Costumes, masks and children under 13 are not allowed.
- The Disney Company also has resorts around the world and has Halloween events at some of them.
- Hard Rock Cafe has Halloween events at several of its locations.
Other events include:
- Halloween events by the National Trust: 1–31 October 2018. The National Trust has organised a number of Halloween events for families, and a few for those adults that can cope with a darker tale! Venue admission charges may apply in addition to those for events. Booking is essential for specific events (see link), but recommended in any event.
- Halloween events from English Heritage: 1–31 October 2018. At various locations, explore the mysterious and macabre side of some of England's most historic properties. Not only are there family events at selected locations, but some age-restricted 'After Dark' events for braver adults. Booking is essential for specfic events (use the link to find events near you), but recommended in any event.
- Village Halloween Parade: 31 October 2018 New York City. Between 7pm and 11pm in Greenwich Village, the costumed come out to parade down Sixth Avenue (from Spring Street to 16th.)! Free to watch, but streets on the Parade route can get crowded, and you should definitely use public transport. Organisers have a history of imposing a zero tolerance policy on alcohol. If you want to join the parade, see the link to find line-up details.
- Little 5 Points Halloween Festival and Parade: 20 October 2018 Atlanta. A street arts festival in the Little 5 Points neighborhood of Atlanta. With a costume Parade at 4pm-6pm down Euclid Ave and Moreland Ave. (date needs updating)
- New Orleans Halloween Parade: 20 October 2018 New Orleans. Main Costume parade at 6:30, with associated events. (date needs updating)
- West Hollywood Halloween Parade: 31 October 2018 Los Angeles. Santa Monica Boulevard between Doheny Drive and La Cienega Boulevard plays host to one of the larger loud and proud West Coast Halloween events, with street stalls, music stages. 6–11pm, Free, but this event is not suitable for children or pets. There is an alcohol free policy in the carnival streets and immediate vicinity, but many bars and clubs in the wider neighbourhood will be running their own parties.
Like every other holiday and season, Hallow'een has been commercialised and monetised by various vendors. Among the most common items sold are:
- Costumes. While it's possible (with a little skill and imagination) to make an original Hallow'een costume, many take the easy way out – buying a pre-made, mass-produced garment from a mainline discount store, a bricks-and-mortar costume shop or an online mail order vendor. If you go this route, it's still necessary to choose your costume well in advance (verifying well in advance that the costume fits and no accessories are missing) as the inevitable annual rush of last-minute orders means that you may find a limited selection still on store shelves by Oct 30 and that last-minute e-commerce order might not arrive before the big day at all. Most retailers impose a cut-off date for orders to avoid Hallow'een costume parcels arriving in early November and a restrictive return policy to prevent buyers from purchasing seasonal items and returning them after the season is over.
- Candy. If you're travelling, you won't be at home to hand out goodies to trick-or-treaters, but otherwise expect to be pressured to buy large quantities of small, individually-packaged sugary junk food items to shell out on Hallow'een.
If you intend to party on Hallow'een, you may end up purchasing event tickets. All of the usual warnings about event scams and counterfeit or bogus tickets apply to seasonal events.
- You've carefully hollowed out a pumpkin and carved the face of a jack-o-lantern; now what to do with all the leftover bits? The obvious would be to bake a pumpkin pie but a quick search for "pumpkin recipes" finds a multitude of options to use pumpkin (as a squash) in bread, tarts and a range of other baked goods.
- You'll also likely see plenty of leftover seasonal candy at marked down prices in dollar or discount stores the day after Hallow'een is over.
Stay safe and respect
Halloween is about having a good time and some safe (stage managed) scares. Real scares such as injuries, accidents or crimes are in no way conducive to this, and pushing someone too far can have physical and legal consequences. Organized events will typically have rules, and these should be adhered to.
Trick-or-treating is typically a harmless activity and fun for all concerned, but some parental supervision is required. Some kids might gorge on candy and become hyperactive from an overdose of sugar, and for others the loot must be carefully checked to ensure they do not eat something that they are allergic to. There are occasional incidents where older kids bully younger ones to steal their candy. As always, accepting gifts from strangers comes with some risk, so it's worth inspecting any treats you get before ingesting them. As trick-or-treaters are on the street soon after dark, there's also a possible risk of being struck by a motorcar, which can be minimised by being visible and choosing a costume that does not obstruct the eyes or vision.
Owing to concerns about anti-social acts carried out under the guise of so-called Halloween "pranks" in past years, you may encounter a reluctance amongst some stores and retailers to sell certain items in bulk around Halloween. Examples of items that have been restricted include laser pointers, paint, household chemicals, spray cans, flour, and eggs. Detroit has a pattern of imposing curfews on teens and restrictions on the sale of petrol in portable containers on the nights leading to Hallow'een, deploying large numbers of volunteers to report arson and suspicious activity to police.
And yes, you could be the recipient of a pranking yourself — these are rarely serious but can definitely ruin your good time.