Modern Day Halloween

The devastation of the Second World War left very few resources and less enthusiasm for Halloween celebrations in most of Europe for several years. Pre-war customs were slowly resumed, primarily in the British Isles, after 1960, but did not change significantly in the following decades. The evolving story of Halloween, then, took place primarily in America.

As we discussed in part 4, the celebration of Halloween became more about community and parties than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. Especially after the end of World War II, parents were encouraged to take anything frightening or grotesque out of Halloween celebrations with the result that Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones in the second half of the 20th century.

Halloween became the time in the United States when neighbors would organize parties, bake creative treats (like the amazing pumpkin cake pictured above) and the guests were expected to show up in the Halloween costume of their choice. The result was that the manufacturing of ready-made costumes became a major industry worth billions of dollars each year.

Costumes for children continued to be available as ghosts, goblins and other scary things, but there was a move toward others that reflected things that children enjoyed, such as characters from popular TV shows (such as Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek), comics (Batman, Spiderman) and movies (Mickey and Minnie Mouse).

Adult costumes in the 50’s and early 60’s, unfortunately, frequently reflected the virulent racism prevalent in the US in those years such as blackface to portray African Americans, turbans and other symbols of Egypt and India, and co-called “Indian” costumes that demeaned Native Americans. Fundamentally one could perhaps say that Americans chose costumes that portrayed what they were afraid of.

Beginning in the 1970’s, masks of current and former US presidents became popular as Americans became more cynical about their government and saw many politicians as the modern equivalent of “evil spirits.”

Other figures that were association with highly charged current events, such as O.J. Simpson after the murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend, were also made into masks.

Halloween mask of former president Donald Trump
Halloween mask of former president Richard Nixon

Other popular culture trends also became the basis for Halloween costumes. The “pill” and its impact on women’s sense of choice in expressing their sexuality in the 60’s led to commercially successful “sexy” costumes for women. Popular TV shows and movies led to costumes based on those characters such as C-3PO, Darth Vader and Princess Leia from Star Wars and the endearing alien in E.T.

The practice of elaborate home decorations for Halloween became widespread. They would frequently incorporating elements of the autumn season, such as pumpkins, corn husks and scarecrows, as well as elements corresponding to the themes of death, evil and mythical monsters.

At Halloween, yards, public spaces and some houses may be decorated with traditionally macabre symbols including witches, skeletons, ghosts, cobwebs and headstones.

Scary Halloween movies became big box office hits, such as the 1978 film “Halloween” in which a young boy murders his 17-year old sister and is sentenced to jail. He escapes as a teen on Halloween night and returns to his old home looking for a new victim. It inspired many other films such as “Scream”, “Nightmare on Elm Street”, and “Friday the 13th“. Others were based on made-up stories that convinced a lot of people that they were true such as “The Exorcist”, “The Amityville Horror” and “The Conjuring”.

The boundless creativity of the Americans when it comes to the possibility of turning an idea into money was evident in 1969 when Disneyland opened its Haunted Mansion, offering several floors of opportunity to be shocked, scared and delighted at every turn for both kids and adults. The success led to copycat alternatives such as Knott’s Scary Farm and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Florida. By the late 1990’s, similar theme parks had been opened in Singapore, Japan and France. This played a major role in renewing the participation in Halloween celebrations and festivities in Europe and throughout the world.

The Haunted Mansion in Disneyland

All of this leads to some rather obvious questions: why do we enjoy being “scared” so much? What exactly makes a story scary? We’ll take up these questions in our final installment, “What Scares Us and Why?”