Halloween enchants us with its mystical atmosphere and myriad of symbols, but have you ever stopped to ponder the origins of these iconic emblems? In this series, we’ll explore the histories and meanings behind 47 distinct Halloween symbols.
From the ubiquitous Jack O’ Lantern to lesser-known talismans, each symbol carries a rich narrative that adds layers of intrigue to this bewitching holiday. Prepare to delve deep into the fascinating stories that have shaped Halloween into the mesmerizing spectacle it is today, as we uncover the symbolism that gives the holiday its unique allure!
1. Jack O’ Lanterns
Every October, Jack O’ Lanterns are synonymous with Halloween, thanks to Irish immigrants who introduced vegetable carving to the U.S.
The name originates from an Irish tale about Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil and was denied entry to both Heaven and Hell. Given a lit coal, he roamed eternity with it in a carved turnip, inspiring “Jack O’ Lanterns.”
Originally, Halloween—also known as All Hallow’s Eve—marked a time when the barrier between the living and dead was thin. Carved turnips were used in Ireland to repel evil spirits.
This practice migrated to the U.S., where pumpkins, being larger and easier to carve, replaced turnips. Over time, the tradition evolved beyond its spiritual origins.
While the ghosts of today’s Halloween are often portrayed as spooky and eerie, in ancient Celtic times, they were much friendlier.
This is because All Hallows’ Eve, the holiday from which Halloween comes and upon which it is based, supposedly made it possible for the deceased to walk the earth – including dear friends and family.
Yes, the Celts believed that they could be visited by the spirits of their deceased loved ones, so they would actually set extra places at the dinner table or leave treats for them to find.
Yet there were sinister spirits lurking, too – and that is no doubt where the spooky and eerie ghost tradition at Halloween comes from.
The ancient Celts would try to ward off unfriendly ghosts with the aforementioned Jack O’ Lanterns.
Today we have ghost hunters and mediums all year round, yet there is still something entirely spooky about the connection ghosts have to Halloween.
When you think of Halloween, one image that comes to mind is Dracula, swirling his cape around himself and poof – taking off into the night air in the guise of a bat.
Actually, the vampire/bat connection only came about in the 19th century with the publication of Dracula. But bats have been associated with Halloween for much longer than that.
The Celtic festival of Samhain, which was held on the same night as Halloween is today, typically featured large bonfires, whose light attracted insects.
The insects, then, attracted bats, who swooped down and away to feast on their prey – unwittingly creeping out the Samhain celebrants.
It was thought that the bats were spirits coming back to earth and up to no good.
Bats were also thought to be witch’s “familiars,” or companion animals, and if a bat flew into your home on Halloween, well – you were in for a spooky night.
4. Black Cats
For centuries, black cats have been associated with superstition and bad luck, a reputation they have rather unfairly earned since ancient Celtic times, as well as Medieval times.
The Celts believed that very bad people could be turned into cats – and those cursed by Black Magic would be turned into black cats.
Black cats were cemented as part of Halloween symbolism, though, after the Salem witch frenzy in the U.S. in the 17th century.
Black cats were thought to be witch’s familiars – their companions for evil, as well as the embodiment of the witches themselves, having supposedly turned into black cats.
Because witches have come to be so closely associated with Halloween – which will be explored further in the next section – so, too, did black cats.
Today, though, free from the superstition of the ages before us, many shelters run specials on black cats, with reduced or free adoption fees.
Witches are intrinsically linked to Halloween, though they have been written about and reported on for millennia.
For centuries, when a woman operated outside of “normal” women’s behavior – that is, meekly, humbly, and subserviently to men – she could be branded a witch and tortured or killed.
Religious fervor in the Medieval, Renaissance, and even early Modern periods focused heavily on avoiding the influence of the devil – under whom witches were supposedly directly influenced.
Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, was perceived to be when the spirits of the dead – including spirits who meant ill will – could visit those living
Witches, meanwhile, were believed to be able to summon evil spirits; so the two traditions enmeshed, and witches, plus their black cat familiars, became symbolic of Halloween.
6. Witch’s Broom
What would a witch be without her trusty broom to fly off into the night?
The close association of witches with brooms is thought to have come about due to an old pagan custom where farmers would essentially dance with their brooms to encourage crop growth.
The idea of a “broomstick dance” then bled into “common accounts of witches flying through the night” on their way to do evil.
Naturally, as witches came to be associated with Halloween, so too did the custom that they carry brooms and fly through the air on them.
Back in the Medieval and Early Modern days, cooking (in houses without a designated kitchen) was done over an open fire, in big pots.
The cauldron, as a symbol for Halloween, is also closely associated with witches.
Naturally, it was assumed that witches were brewing more than soup or stew in their cauldrons – they were whipping up recipes for evil potions, including ones that gave them the ability to fly.
Samhain, that Celtic ritual that saw out the harvest and welcomed the coming of winter, was in some ways absorbed by the Catholic faith.
Of course, we now have Halloween, or All Hallows’ Day, when the worlds of the living and the dead are closer than ever, and you might expect more than just spirits to visit you.
Some believe that the actual skeletons of the dead – including and especially their skulls – may call on the living.
There is also the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), held between November 1 and 2, where brightly colored and festive sugar skulls are prominent.
Tombstones are inexplicably linked to Halloween because of their association with death – a major theme for the holiday.
From where else would the dead rise again but a graveyard, and what would the skeletons have to push over and aside? That’s right, the tombstones.
These days, tombstones are very much a part of Halloween décor, with some people setting up makeshift graveyards in their front yards using foam tombstones.
10. Full Moon
The full moon at Halloween – which is a pretty rare occurrence, with the last one happening in 2020 – has its roots in Celtic superstition.
The Celtic tradition of Samhain held that the spirits of the dead were able to come back to earth among the living, and those who wandered did so under the light of the full moon.
11. Candy Corn
Because of Halloween’s close associations with Celtic end-of-harvest season festivities, candy corn has come to represent the holiday more than any other sweet.
The three colors, white, orange, and yellow, represent the colors of fall and the harvest, while the shape represents the corn crop.
Did you know that candy corn actually didn’t start out as a fall-themed treat? First released in the 1880s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that candy corn came to be associated with Halloween.
12. Spiders and Spider Webs
Spiders came to be associated with Halloween due to their connection with that other infamous Halloween symbol, witches.
Thanks to their creepy bodies and creepier movements (not a fan of spiders here!), spiders were thought to be familiars of witches.
Their webs – while beautiful – are often found in dilapidated, creepy locations, like abandoned buildings, whose overall creepiness factor lends itself to the spirits of Halloween.
13. Haunted Houses
Because of Halloween’s association with the time of year when the line between the living and the dead is so thin, it stands to reason that spirits would come out to visit – and not always nice ones!
While some houses put out Jack O’ Lanterns to keep the harmful ghosts at bay, those that didn’t were doomed to be haunted.
The actual concept of the “haunted house” can be traced back to the original Madame Tussaud’s “Chamber of Horrors” in the early 1800s.
But it wasn’t until Disney opened their ride, the Haunted Mansion, that haunted houses became a permanent fixture in people’s minds and a commercial and residential tradition at Halloween.
Scarecrows have become ubiquitous during Halloween thanks to the role they played during and at the end of the harvest season (shades of Samhain again).
They were put up to scare away people (and crows) while crops ripened, then could be burned during the end-of-season festivities.
Today, there is no greater Halloween prank than the old “dress up like a scarecrow, sit on a porch immobile, and then scare the bejeebus out of unassuming trick-or-treaters”!
Owls have been linked to the celebrations that served as a precursor to Halloween since the Medieval period.
Their distinctive hooting struck fear into many people at a time when the dead were supposedly able to rise up and walk among the living.
Owls are nocturnal – meaning they’re awake and hunting at night – as well as able to turn their heads 300 degrees around, a creepy sight, especially by moonlight.
The concept of zombies actually comes to us from Haitian and West African traditions, but it’s not difficult to see why the connection was made to Halloween.
With the separation of the living and the dead supposedly at its thinnest and spirits walking the earth during Halloween, it’s not a far leap to actual dead bodies reanimating and walking.
17. Monsters (Like Frankenstein, Dracula)
Monsters fit neatly into the Halloween theme because they are inherently spooky, scary, and creepy.
Many come from literature – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula come to mind – while others come from folklore that has existed for centuries.
This website has a terrific breakdown of the types of monsters and what the fear they elicit from us means.
Candles’ association with Halloween can be traced to the Celtic festival of Samhain when people would light candles to lead the spirits of their loved ones back home.
Today, candles are often used in horror films, both period and modern, when the electricity has inexplicably gone out, and something super creepy is about to happen!
Much like skulls, skeletons’ connection to Halloween has to do with its ancient precursor, Samhain, when spirits were said to walk the earth and rejoin the living for one night.
But they are also just kind of spooky – the wide grin of the skull, the clacking of the bones as the skeleton lurches forward. It’s all very on-brand for Halloween.
But while skeletons symbolize death, mourning, and even the morbid – they also remind us to hold our departed loved ones closely in our hearts and memories.
20. Vampire Fangs
When Dracula became synonymous with Halloween (it’s still one of the most popular costumes), so too did his vampiric fangs.
Sharp, pointed teeth aren’t a new concept – the symbolism of fangs for Hindu deities is well documented.
But Dracula, and all vampires’, association with Halloween has turned insertable fangs into one of the most popular costume accessories out there.
Pumpkins have been symbolic of Halloween since the colonial period, thanks to the traditions brought to the United States by Celtic immigrants.
In celebration of Samhain, the Scots and Irish would carve out faces into turnips to try and scare away the undesirable spirits who would walk the earth on All Hallows’ Eve.
When they brought their traditions to the U.S., the turnip was replaced by the pumpkin – because it was bigger and its skin was less tough, making it much easier to carve.
22. Ravens or Crows
Birds have long been seen as harbingers of doom or luck, and ravens and crows have unfortunately fallen on the doom side.
However, it wasn’t until Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Raven” that these glossy black birds came to be associated with Halloween during the Victorian period.
Described as “ghastly grim,” the raven is associated with madness and the supernatural, meaning they fit the theme of Halloween perfectly.
Mummies have existed for thousands of years, the most famous of which come from Egypt and the tombs underneath the pyramids.
So how did mummies come to be “wrapped up” in the Halloween tradition?
For starters, it likely had something to do with Bram Stoker’s – yes, the same guy who wrote Dracula – story The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which features a supernatural mummy.
Then there’s the idea that on All Hallows’ Eve, the dead can join the living – it’s not a huge stretch to imagine a mummy reincarnated and wreaking havoc, especially on Halloween.
The myth of men who turn into wolves during a full moon is as old as time – well, almost, as the first stories of werewolves can be traced to the Greek and Roman empires.
Yet the connection between werewolves and Halloween is much more recent, a product of 20th-century Hollywood more than anything.
Thanks to Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man, werewolves became popular figures of the public’s imagination, and their scary, blood-thirsty behavior aligns perfectly with Halloween.
Bonfires are yet another Halloween tradition that comes to us through the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain.
To mark the end of the harvest season, the Celts would light huge bonfires to “light the way” for the spirits seeking to rejoin their families and then head on to the afterlife.
26. Candy Apples
Apples have been part of the fall tradition for centuries, as they formed the focus of the Roman festival of Pomona (whose name is derived from the Latin word for apple, “pomum”).
This harvest festival naturally bled into other, later harvest festivals, like Samhain, many of which occurred around late October.
And then Samhain became an important precursor for Halloween.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century, however, when a candymaker was experimenting with apples and a candy coating, that candy apples both became popular and associated with Halloween.
Ghouls are different from ghosts in that they’re tangible monsters with a taste for human flesh.
There is a long Arabic tradition of ghouls, who tricked their human victims into following them, then consuming them once they had them all alone.
Once celebrating Halloween became a thing, it’s not difficult to see how these stories connected with the ghastly holiday, inspiring costumes, and creepy tales around a fire.
Fog is super creepy on a warm summer morning, let alone a cool October night!
Its connection to Halloween can most likely be linked to spooky stories – fog features heavily in Gothic literature – as well as more modern-day Hollywood films.
For example, fog “takes on a miasmatic presence in the ways it encircles terror, the supernatural, and death” in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
And nearly every scary movie since the beginning of time has featured dense fog through which creepy figures are viewed.
Cobwebs are considered older than spiderwebs – they’ve been sitting around for years, centuries even, creeping up an attic or a basement or a haunted house.
It’s that length of time that cobwebs suggest – something dead, isolated, or hidden for years upon years – that ups the spooky factor and makes them a perfect symbol for Halloween.
Potions are associated with Halloween through their connection to witches and cauldrons.
Because everyone had cauldrons in the Medieval and Early Modern periods – they were used for cooking – naturally, witches were assumed to be whipping up all sorts of potions in theirs.
This included anything from a poison that could cause harm or death to another person or a spell that could imbue the witches with the gift of flight (preferably on a broomstick).
31. Crystal Balls
Crystal balls are another symbol for Halloween that comes to us through their association with witches.
Wise women, fortune tellers, and dabblers in the occult have long been linked to the use of crystal balls, at least as early as the Roman Empire.
Their connotations of clairvoyance, mediumship, and scrying, revealing secrets, and seeing into the future, make them a popular Halloween decoration today.
32. Magic Wands
Like crystal balls, magic wands are associated with witches, though they are also thought to be used by wizards, fairies, and warlocks.
They were thought to concentrate magic to a single point, giving the user supernatural powers.
Rats are symbolic of Halloween through their association with witches, whom Medieval people believed could summon the rodents.
They were thought to be familiars of Satan himself. Certainly, though they did not know it, rats brought the deaths of millions of Europeans as they carried fleas infected with the Bubonic Plague.
For people who celebrated Samhain, it’s natural to fear graveyards as the place where evil spirits could emerge (along with friendlier ones).
It’s the place where, in the popular imagination, zombies, ghouls, and perhaps even vampires, all of which have strong connections to Halloween, rise from the dead.
If graveyards are creepy, that which the body is placed inside and which is lowered into the ground is creepier still.
Coffins’ strong association with Halloween, however, comes from the popular image of Dracula, who sleeps in his coffin during the day, only to rise at night to feast on the blood of humans.
According to the traditions of Samhain, the precursor for Halloween, the spirits of the dead can walk among the living, which for those who lost beloved family and friends, can be a comfort.
However, the thinness of the veil between dead and living also leaves an opportunity for demons from hell to claw their way up to earth and wreak havoc.
And how did people avoid and confuse those demons from attaching to their families?
They dressed up, sometimes as the evil demons they were trying to escape!
This guising, with clothes and masks, is where the Halloween tradition of dressing up comes from.
Shadows can be spooky and scary, especially when there is only one source of light on a darkened road or in an abandoned building.
Also, how creepy is it when you imagine your shadow moving – while you yourself stand still?
Shadows also symbolize Halloween by indicating the darker side of a person – the side that prefers to remain in darkness or the side that might even be harboring evil.
39. Witch’s Hat
There are lots of stories behind where the symbolic witch’s hat came from, but one thing is certain: it is linked to black magic and worshipping of the devil, just as witches are.
However, the pointy-tipped hat became popular with the advent of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and Halloween-goers dressing up as witches haven’t looked back since.
Blood is deeply entrenched in Halloween culture, from fake blood splatter window clings to “blood” capsules you can bite on and have run down the sides of your mouth.
Obviously, its relation to Halloween is death or maiming, being bitten by a vampire or attacked by a zombie.
What most people don’t realize when they use blood as a prop at Halloween is that they are tapping into people’s very real fear of death, mortality, and pain.
Eyeballs have very creepy overtones, especially when they’re separated from the eye socket!
When you think about zombies, for example, a favorite Halloween ghoul, you might imagine one with the eyeball hanging out and hanging on by a thread.
But even when they’re attached to it, like, say, in a painting – it can still very much feel like you’re being watched and your every movement is being followed.
Today, there are eyeball candies which get passed out at Halloween, as well as the ever-popular “dip your hand in the bowl full of eyeballs” – actually just peeled grapes.
42. Creepy Dolls
Maybe it’s the uncanny valley of it all or the empty, 100-yard stares, but dolls are perfectly symbolic of Halloween.
When placed in the right setting, they are creepy as all get-out, and that has only been furthered by Hollywood with films like Child’s Play and Annabelle.
Even just one baby doll can be scary to encounter in a dark room, but a whole collection? Get me out of there!
43. Black Magic Books
Wherever there are witches, there are black magic books, so it stands to reason that these “evil” tomes have become symbolic of Halloween.
I put “evil” in quotation marks because many women who were accused of witchcraft were actually folk healers, and if they were literate, they wrote down their recipes for medicine.
But, as public opinion soured against any of these women, their books could be taken up as evidence of their witchcraft and misconstrued.
Today, we see movies like Hocus Pocus, which takes place on Halloween night and features a Salem witch who calls out, “Boooook!” to her black magic tome – and it floats right over!
44. Tarot Cards
Because tarot cards are a form of divination, dealing closely with the occult, the supernatural, and the spiritual world, they have become associated with Halloween.
Created in Italy in the 15th century, tarot cards do not have their basis in more ancient civilizations; in fact, the first instance of tarot being read for divination was in the 18th century!
Still, the imagery of the Romani woman, dressed in colorful garb, with a thick accent as she explains her recipient’s past, present, and future, is strong enough to inspire many a Halloween costume.
Gargoyles are grotesque creatures (originally dragons) that were carved into the sides of cathedrals as a way of redirecting water from the roof.
The earliest depiction of a gargoyle on a Catholic church is around 1200 A.D., but today gargoyles are associated with Halloween due to their fantastical ugliness.
They may have been meant to originally represent evil or sin or to serve as protectors against both – which makes them the perfect decoration or costume for Halloween.
46. Freakish Clowns
If you don’t like clowns, chances are good that you really don’t like them at all.
The concept of the clown was originally someone who served a socio-religious purpose – pointing out what fools all of us humans are through their exaggerated actions.
Perhaps it is the face paint (who is really under there?) or the nonsensically bright hair, but many people today experience coulrophobia, the fear of clowns.
And certain media has played on that fear, turning a bit of lighthearted fun into an evil or freakish clown.
Just look at Stephen King’s It, where a beast from space feeds on children by luring them to their dooms in the guise of Pennywise, the dancing clown.
Particularly after the latest It film was released, Halloween stores were quick to put out Pennywise-inspired costumes from the movie.
Trick-or-treating is another Halloween tradition that we can trace back to Samhain, the Celtic harvest festival.
Because people would leave out treats for the spirits of their loved ones to enjoy and then also dress up in masks and costumes to avoid the evil spirits, the two traditions eventually merged.
It therefore became common for children to dress up, perform a little song or skit outside of someone’s home, and then be given treats as a reward.
And that eventually led to the trick-or-treating activity we participate in today on Halloween.
As it happens, the first modern-day trick-or-treating in North America on record occurred in 1911; and the first instance of kids saying “Trick or treat!” was recorded in 1917.