Creepy Halloween Tales & Traditions


Halloween’s focus on horror and make believe has spawned creepy legends, ghost stories—and hoaxes.

On Halloween, people shed reality for a day and mark the holiday with costumes, decorations and parties. Creepy legends and characters have evolved based on real, terrifying events. And a Halloween tradition of confronting the dead has led to legions of ghost stories—and hoaxes.

Why Haunted Houses Opened During the Great Depression

In the period leading up to the Great Depression, Halloween had become a time when young men could blow off steam—and cause mischief. Sometimes they went too far. In 1933, parents were outraged when hundreds of teenage boys flipped over cars, sawed off telephone poles and engaged in other acts of vandalism across the country. People began to refer to that year’s holiday as “Black Halloween,” similarly to the way they referred to the stock market crash four years earlier as “Black Tuesday.”

Rather than banning the holiday, as some demanded, many communities began organizing Halloween activities—and haunted houses—to keep restless would-be pranksters occupied.

Read more about Great Depression-era Halloween pranks here.

Jack-o-Lanterns and the Legend of ‘Stingy Jack’


An Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack” is believed to have led to the tradition of carving scary faces into gourds. According to the legend, Jack tricks the Devil into paying for his drink and then traps him in the form of a coin. The Devil eventually takes revenge and Stingy Jack ends up roaming Earth for eternity without a place in heaven or hell. Jack does, however, have a lighted coal, which he places inside a carved turnip, creating the original Jack-o-lantern.

Read more about the origins of Jack-o-lanterns here.

Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Ghost’ in the White House

PUBLIC BROADCASTING SYSTEM (PBS): The Ghost of Abraham Lincoln

For years, presidents, first ladies, guests, and members of the White House staff have claimed to have either seen Abraham Lincoln or felt his presence. Grace Coolidge, wife of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, was the first person to report having seen the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. She said he stood at a window of the Oval Office, hands clasped behind his back, gazing out over the Potomac, perhaps still seeing the bloody battlefields beyond.

Read more accounts of Lincoln’s ghost sightings here.

Irving Writes ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ After Fleeing Yellow Fever

SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE: A yellow fever epidemic may have planted the seeds of inspiration for Washington Irving’s iconic tale of the a headless horseman. 

Washington Irving’s 1820 tale of a headless horseman who terrorizes the real-life village of Sleepy Hollow is considered one of America’s first ghost stories—and one of its scariest. Irving may have drawn inspiration for his story while a teenager in Tarrytown, New York. He moved to the area in 1798 to flee a yellow fever outbreak in New York City.

Irving’s story takes place in the New York village of Sleepy Hollow. A lanky newcomer and schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, is chased by a headless horseman. In the tale, Irving weaves together actual locations and family names, and a little bit of Revolutionary War history with pure imagination and fantasy.

Read more about the origins of the famous Halloween story here.


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