They Did the Monster Mash: Halloween History and Traditions through the years.


            Every year when October arrives, Halloween decorations and other preparations appear everywhere. Pumpkins pop up everywhere, from fall decorations, and Reese’s peanut butter cups change their shapes. Movies become spookier, black cat statuettes and spider webs take their place in windows, and costumes take over the shelves of stories. That’s how you know that Halloween is here. As one of the longest continuously celebrated holidays, Halloween has a long history, and has evolved over centuries and continents. With the dark and ominous energy that exists in Flannery’s stories, her work fits perfectly for Halloween. So, let’s explore the history of Halloween, and the ways Flannery celebrated it. 

            Halloween is its origins in Celtic traditions and Druidic religions from across Ireland, with most scholars linking the modern Halloween to the celebration of the holiday Samhain. Samhain was one of the two main holidays in these cultures, which celebrated the two seasons of the year, Beltane which was the celebration of spring and summer, and then Samhain which was the celebration of fall and winter. Traditional Samhain celebrations were meant to appease the spirits, through masked performances, offerings and sacrifices, and had other elements such as divination using things such as apples, chestnuts, and cabbages.[1] As Druidic and Celtic religions faded in favor of other religions, these traditions transformed to fit parts of these new dominant religions. For example, the addition of the Jack-O-Lantern, originally a carved turnip, was meant to keep away a spirit who could not go to either Heaven or Hell because of a deal he made with the devil. This tradition would move over and become pumpkins as immigrants moved over to the Americas.  “Immigrants brought other traditions with them as well, including some that were dying out in the Old World.”[2]Traditions like divination became little party games meant to discover the initials of the person playing the game would marry. 

Halloween postcard from 1908. This references the tradition of using divination to find a husband. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Hallow’een greeting.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 20, 2022.

            The Victorian era saw Halloween as an adult celebration, doing things like the aforementioned divination for information about spouses, parties with dancing or drinking, and seances where the people participating attempted to speak to the other side. However, most of that was going out of style by the time Flannery was born in 1925. In the 1920s and 1930s Halloween became more focused on children, with parties giving them little activities to do, and children, especially young boys, began turning energy into pulling pranks. “In the 1920s, Halloween pranking spread into the rapidly expanding major urban areas, and became out-and-out vandalism…In 1933, during the height of America’s Great Depression, destructive Halloween prank-playing was so virulent that many cities dubbed that year’s celebration ‘Black Halloween’”.[3] As the 1920s brought about the Great Depression parties themselves began to change, and this also brought about the change of parties.  “Thanks to the Depression, however, money in the late 1920s and early ‘30s was scarce, and parties weren’t cheap. One solution was for neighbors to pool resources and create the ‘house-to-house party’ in which groups of children were led from one house to the next, each home hosting a different themed activity.”[4] With this we can see the birth of Trick-or-Treat, as the themed activities would become little treats, which would become candy. Costuming also was becoming more common, but most of the costumes people would wear would still be homemade. And of course, Flannery’s childhood also saw the invention of fan-favorite Halloween candies. Reese’s cups were invented in 1928 and the Kit Kat was invented in 1937. Other beloved treats like Hershey’s Chocolate bars were first sold in the 1900s, and Candy Corn which was first made and sold in the 1890s. 

Photograph of Flannery O’Connor in a group of children dressed up as Mickey and Minnie Mouse for Halloween. Early to mid 1930s. 2019.1.101, gift of Louise Florencourt

            The 1940s and 1950s brought about the final changes that brought the holiday to how we really know it now. Halloween was also seen almost exclusively as a children’s holiday at this point as well. In one of her letters from Iowa Flannery herself notes this “Tonight they are having the party- Halloween party- for the convalescent children next door.”[5] It is important to note that she specifies that the party is for children, as if she as an adult would never think of participating in the holiday. Trick-or-treating was the main point of Halloween, and advertising quickly adjusting to it, with rapidly increasing ads for candy because, “Candy companies didn’t really begin to target Halloween heavily until trick or treat.”[6] It is also notable that candy itself grew in popularity for the Halloween season because, “adults found it far easier to hand out individually wrapped sweets that the apples, nuts, popcorn balls, and homemade candies that had been given out in earlier days. Despite the perennial popularity of candy corn, chocolate soon became the preferred sugary treat.”[7] Costumes were increasingly made in stores, and overall consumerism continued to grow. A new class of Halloween based media also started being created. Books such as Robert Bright’s Georgie’s Halloween, special episodes of sitcoms like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and the Beverly Hillbillies, and songs like “The Monster Mash” were all created in the 1950s and 60s, and became the framework of media that would continue to be created for Halloween.[8] This media made Halloween more of a children’s holiday, though adult parties were still happening.

Image of women wearing Halloween costumes, 1956. Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Costumed women show off their Halloween attire, 1956.” 1956-09-28. October 20, 2022.

            As mentioned earlier Flannery most likely did not celebrate Halloween after she became an adult. Though we do have pictures of her in costumes as a child, it was likely she didn’t feel that it was an adult’s holiday. It was also not likely that she felt that the holiday was against her religion. Halloween was seen as a secular holiday, almost completely separated from its pagan origins. It is only in the last thirty years that Halloween’s pagan roots have been connected back to traditions, which were once actively avoiding anything that may reference its connections to the dead or spirits. 

A photograph of students at Wilson College students at a Halloween party in 1954. “Halloween Party.” 1954. Image/tif.

            In modern American, Halloween is a massive holiday. Commercially it rivals the amount of spending that takes places over the Christmas season. “Thus, a new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.”[9] We continue to trick-or-treat, and we continue to wear purchased costumes, but parties for adults have become more popular. Modern Halloween is an all-ages celebration with haunted houses and scary movies, along with trick-or-treat and school events. Halloween is nearly universally loved. I know this year I plan on enjoying a scary movie on my couch, maybe even Wise Blood, the adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel, or just something Southern Gothic in general. So, enjoy the season, and I hope you do something that would make Flannery O’Connor smile. 

[1] “Samhain – Rituals & Traditions,”, accessed 10/18/2022,

[2] Lisa Morton, Trick or Treat (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 66.

[3] Ibid, 75. 

[4] Ibid, 77-8.

[5] Flannery O’Connor, Dear Regina, ed. Monica Miller (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022) 32.

[6] Lisa Morton, Trick or Treat, 84. 

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 180, 182-3, 196.

[9] editors, “Halloween 2022,”, last modified October 3rd 2022,

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