Drew Coffin

The History of Halloween & Its Uniquely Spooky Brand

It’s that time of year again. There’s that crisp feeling in the air, the leaves are starting to turn, and the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead is weakening. At least, that’s part of the lore surrounding Halloween. And the Halloween history doesn’t stop there. From jack-o-lanterns to costumed trick-or-treating, Halloween is chock-full of weird traditions. So, in the spirit of the season, here’s a handful of Halloween history lessons.

A quick aside, I’m a designer, not a scholar. And I’m not in college anymore, so I can’t be bothered to cite all my Internet sources. Thankfully, in the age of “do your own research,” this is a pretty harmless topic to fact check on your own. If you feel like I missed anything, or you have your own fun fact or tidbit on Halloween history, let me know and I’ll slip a king size candy bar into your trick-or-treat bag when you come knocking this October 31.


The Origins of Halloween

Let’s start with the origins of Halloween. What’s this business about the boundary between the living and the dead weakening? Halloween was likely influenced by both early pagan and Christian holidays.

On the pagan side of things, Halloween holds much in common with the Gaelic festival Samhain, marking the end of harvest season and the beginning of the “darker half” of the year. Like many equinox celebrations, Samhain carries strong ties to life and death. It was believed that during this time, the boundaries between our world and the world of the spirits thinned, ancient burial mounds opened up, and spirits, fairies, and ancestors could more easily cross into our world.

Christianity, meanwhile, brought the influence of All Saints' Day (or Allhallowtide, or Hallowtide, or Allsaintstide, or Hallowmas season — come on, Christians, just pick one!) to our modern Halloween. This was a time to remember the recently deceased and commemorate saints and martyrs. Originally held on various dates sometime in the spring, this celebration was moved to November 1 in the 10th century by Pope Gregory IV (possibly to coincide with Samhain). With All Saints’ Day moved to November 1, October 31 became All Hallow’s Eve. All Hallow’s Eve eventually gave us the name for Halloween from the combination of “Hallow” and the contraction “E’en” from the Scottish word “Even,” meaning “Eve.” Hallow + E’en = Halloween.

It’s likely the Christian backing that led to the proliferation of Halloween as a popular Western holiday. The connection to souls or spirits in both Samhain and Allhallowtide may have provided the overlap needed for the two celebrations to blend into the amalgam Halloween that we know today.


Jack-O-Lanterns

So it’s Halloween, spooks and spirits have slipped in from the other side and are roaming the mortal world, and you want to keep them out of your house (exorcisms aren’t cheap, after all). Well, look no further than the trusty jack-o-lantern! Borrowing from the Samhain tradition, jack-o-lanterns were traditionally used to ward off spirits. And on the Christian side of things, jack-o-lanterns may have been used to represent the souls stuck in purgatory.

Speaking of purgatory, it’s also possible that your jack-o-lantern serves as an ode to the ill-fated Jack from one or more renditions of the “will-o’-the-wisp” folklore — a wisp being a torch, a will being a flame, and a will-o’-the-wisp being a ghostly light seen by travelers hovering in the mist out over a bog. New vocabulary aside, these folktales tell of a crafty man who tricks Satan into agreeing not to collect his soul upon death. Unfortunately for poor Jack, he also wasn’t able to get into heaven, so now, he’s stuck wandering the land with his gourd-based lantern for all time. But you’re most likely to spot him when that pesky liminal spirit boundary is weakest, right around Halloween.

(For you science nerds out there, the actual will-o’-the-wisp phenomenon is likely the result of a form of bioluminescence or chemiluminescence caused by oxidation and organic decay, but that’s not a very spooky story to tell around a campfire.)


The cheery, gap-toothed smile of the traditional jack-o-lantern is sure to protect you from wayward spirits. 

Trick-or-Treating

Okay, so there’s spirits flying around, we’ve lit some candles to scare them away, or guide them home, or... something. But why did I dress up as a sexy hamburger and go to my neighbors’ houses asking for candy?

Well, the sexy hamburger part is probably just bad judgement, but the door-to-door treat collecting is rooted in some interesting history — specifically, the practices of “mumming” and “souling.” Mumming, or “guising,” was part of Samhain festivities as early as the 16th century. It involved dressing up and going door to door, asking for treats. This may have originated from an older tradition of impersonating dead friends and relatives and receiving offerings on their behalf.

Souling, a very similar Christian tradition that took place on Allhallowtide, may date back to the 15th century. Souling involved children going door to door and asking for treats in exchange for prayers for the deceased. As compensation, children would receive “soul cakes,” pastries marked with crosses (hot cross buns anybody?).

While souling, participants would dress in — yep! — costumes. Likely as a tribute to saints and spirits, though another possible reason for dressing up was to avoid retribution from spirits trapped in purgatory and wandering the earth with All Hallow’s Eve as their last chance to exact revenge before departing to the other side of the supernatural rift.

As for the “trick” in “trick-or-treat,” it’s a threat of mischief upon the homeowner if a child’s demand for treats isn’t met. As if they deserve anything for trying to barter candy for prayers after you’ve had a death in the family! But the joke's on them — I don’t negotiate with terrorists.


Halloween Parties

Not that you needed a reason, but one proposed theory on the roots of modern Halloween parties is the Danse Macabre. Medieval European Christians, particularly in France, believed that once a year on All Hallow’s Eve, the dead rose from the churchyard graves for a “hideous carnival” known as the Danse Macabre (it definitely looked exactly like this, except in a church graveyard instead of a parking lot).

And while that sounds fun and all, the Danse Macabre was actually supposed to serve as a reminder of the fragility of life and how we’re all going to die, regardless of our station in life. So, actually, kind of a bummer. Maybe don’t bring that up at your next Halloween party.


Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

Why All the History?

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “This is cool and all, but what does the history of Halloween have to do with design?” This sort of background starts to explain contemporary Halloween iconography and why we decorate with cut-outs of skeletons, ghosts, and zombies.

But I think the more interesting and relevant piece to focus on here is the idea of alignment — the idea that, at least in the case of a brand, all of the pieces of the brand work together in a complementary and holistic way to create a cohesive identity. And that includes origins and history, and often requires research and synthesis.

What would it look like to rebrand Halloween given its rich history, variety of influences, and cultural significance today? Is Halloween an “aligned brand” or does it have an identity problem? Obviously, holidays are different from brands, and it would take a lot of work to tackle a “rebrand” of this scale, but I definitely see some parallels here. Designing a good brand identity requires alignment, and that requires a deep understanding of a brand’s history and reason for existing in the first place.

In closing, I’d also like to offer a quick thank you to Halloween for holding the line against retail’s ceaseless push to stock store shelves with Christmas decorations the day after back-to-school sales end. It seems like Thanksgiving finally gave up the fight a few years ago. So thanks, Halloween, even if it means a few evil spirits slip over onto our side of the supernatural divide...