How They Became Scary: A History of Halloween Icons

By August 22, 2013 In the News No Comments
Carved Pumpkins on Porch

We all know that vampires were inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That witches have been conjuring spells since medieval times. Mummies, of course, are Pharaohs from ancient Egypt that are back from the dead. We all know the stories behind these common Halloween creatures. But the origins of icons such as the black cat, the scarecrow, and the Jack O’lantern are still a mystery.

We see these creatures every year in the form of Halloween costumes, but nobody knows why they are a part of the holiday. With Halloween right around the corner, let’s take a trip through history and discover the story behind these famous Halloween icons.

The Black Cat

Black cat on pumpkin

It’s a tale of father and son. In the England during the late 1500s, in the town of Lincolnshire, a father and son were walking through a field late one night and crossed paths with a black cat. They were startled by the sight of this little feline and began throwing rocks at it until it ran way injured. Allegedly, the cat ran into the house of a woman neighbor who people believed was a witch.

The next morning the same father and son were walking through town and happened to see this woman walking down the street. They noticed that she had a limp and an injured leg. Considering that everyone already thought she was a witch, they immediately assumed that the woman was the same cat they saw in the field last night. Word quickly spread and all of England soon knew that the witches of Lincolnshire had the power to turn into black cats.

The association between black cats and witches was brought to America by the Pilgrims. They were a devoutly religious people and very superstitious. They believed that since witches could turn into cats that they were a sign of the devil and therefore evil. They would shriek in terror at the mire sight of a black cat.

This superstition officially became a part of American culture at the end of the 17th century, during the Salem Witch Trials. People of the town believed that many witches turned into black cats to escape persecution. So they began slaughtering them in droves. After that the black cat forever became synonymous with witches.

Now you know whenever you see a little witch running through the neighborhood trick-or-treating, you can bet that a black cat isn’t too far behind.

The Scarecrow

scarecrows in a field

Since Halloween always falls on October 31st we happen to celebrate this holiday every year during the fall harvest. With over 2.2 million farms in this country, October has always been a month for farmers to sell off the crops they’ve grown over the summer. Scarecrows are one farmer’s most valuable tools. They scare rodents and birds away from their crops so they don’t eat them. Since we celebrate Halloween during a time when the farmer’s crops are at their most ripe, you’ll never go through a Halloween season without seeing a scarecrow.

The first scarecrows were used in ancient Egypt over three thousand years ago. Farmers would plant large wooden planks that looked like people in the Nile River to scare fish into their traps. Often trading with the Greeks, they too adopted this custom and from there the use of the scarecrow spread through out ancient Europe.

During medieval times, Europeans gave scarecrows supernatural qualities. In Italy they decorated their scarecrows with skulls because not only would they scare off birds, but they believed it would scare off disease as well.  In Germany, farmers would make wooden witches and stick them in the fields so that they could absorb evil spirits and allow spring to come again after winter.

Naturally, this farming tradition trickled over into the United States starting with the Pilgrims and developing with the mass immigration of Europeans. Immigrants from Germany who settled in Pennsylvania used to make human looking scarecrows and since they were meant to scare animals they referred to them as a bootzamon aka boogeyman.

So with its history of being a prop to scary away animals, it only seemed natural to adopt this classic farming tool into the spooky festivities of the Halloween season.

The Jack O’lantern

Carved Pumpkins on Porch

Let’s take a trip to ancient Ireland, where Halloween was born.

The holiday was known as Samhain. Later known as All Hollow’s Eve, at the end of the fall harvest the early Gaels believed that when winter was approaching the dead would rise from the grave and interact with them. This wasn’t a scary time because they believed that the ghosts who would visit them were family members who passed away.

One of the traditions of Samhain was for children to carve faces into turnips. They were considered presents for these spirits. It was these small turnips that would soon evolve into what is known today as the Jack O’lantern.

When the Irish immigrated to America during the 1800s, they brought along this tradition of carving turnings. However, they soon discovered the pumpkins were more abundant in the US than turnips and that they were much easier to carve.
When Americans first began celebrating Halloween they took this tradition and added it to their own festivities. They didn’t have a name for these small carved pumpkins, so they decided to call it a Jack O’lantern as a sign for respect to its country of origin, Ireland.

Back to the present day

Welcome back! So now you know a little bit more about where some of our Halloween traditions got their start. You know the reason why people run the other way when they see a black cat. You know why scarecrows make you shake in your boots. And you now know why you’ll always see glowing Jack o’lanterns on everyone’s porch when All Hollow’s Eve draws near.

Have a happy Halloween!

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