Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think

Aimee Heidelberg - October 9, 2023

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Thanksgiving maskers, c. 1910-1915. Library of Congress, public domain.

Thanksgiving Masks were a Hot Commodity

While Thanksgiving maskers often painted their faces, commercially produced masks hit the market in the late 1800s. German manufacturers made a huge variety of prefabricated papier mache Thanksgiving masks. Meanwhile, American factories churned out lighter, breathable masks made of painted cotton gauze. A November 21, 1897, article in the Inter Ocean news from Chicago, Illinois confirms Thanksgiving’s grip on costuming and masks. The opening line in the article boldly claims, “Thanksgiving time is the busiest season of the year for the manufacturers of and dealers in masks and false faces. The fantastical costume parade, and the old custom of masking and dressing up for amusement Thanksgiving Day keep up from year to year in many parts of the country so that the quantity of false faces sold at this season is enormous.”

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Thanksgiving masks, from an 1897 promotional article. Chicago Inter Ocean (n.a., 21 Nov 1897, public domain).

Thanksgiving Masks Haven’t Changed Much

Thanksgiving (pardon, Halloween) masks haven’t changed much in the 126 years since the article. The writer extolls the popular masks of the time, including animals, birds, comically false noses, feet, ears, and other body parts. And some of the most popular sales were “Masks of prominent men and the foremost political leaders,” not unlike something customers find in pop-up Halloween shops. These costumes were linen or cotton coveralls with painted buckram or cardboard masks. Companies like the Dennison Manufacturing Company would create costumes with inexpensive materials like paper or scraps they had left over from the production of other textiles.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Children dressed in Thanksgiving costumes. simpleinsomnia (2016, CC BY 2.0).

Thanksgiving Masks with a Heaping Serving of Racism

But it appears these late 1800s and early 1900s masks weren’t just funny faces and animals. Today, mask manufacturers understand the problematic nature of making masks and costumes that take racial stereotypes and turn it into a Halloween costume. This has been the subject of debate for decades. But in the period of Thanksgiving masking, depicting “styles of faces characteristic of every nation of the earth, with greatly exaggerated facial peculiarities” was commonplace. Early manufactured, mass produced costumes made their way into the marketplace by 1910. This wasn’t limited to masks; it wasn’t considered shocking to paint someone’s face to portray another culture, as seen in the picture above. Today it is considered shocking and wrong, but in the late 1800s, it was nothing out of the social norm.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Creepy masks make the holiday special. simpleinsomnia via flickr (2016, CC 2.0)

Halloween Costumes Weren’t as Popular as Halloween Pranks

Halloween became a big holiday in the early 1900s. While Thanksgiving cornered the market on putting on costumes to go door-to-door for treats, Halloween was still a wild party time. The parties and festivities were just more contained than the free-roaming trick or treating. Adults celebrated along with the children, indulging in grand costume parties with snacks and food galore. Halloween pranks were part of the fun, more so than any form of masking, guising, or mumming. But, as these things often do, it got wildly out of hand. Halloween became a night of chaos. Mailboxes were destroyed, fences torn apart, windows smashed, and vandalism galore. In Des Moines, Iowa, police logged around 500 calls about vandalism and damage.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Masked children on porch. simpleinsomnia via Flickr (CC2.0).

Halloween Demonic Possession?

It’s not that the pranksters were bad people. They just got caught up in the spirit of turn-of-the-century hijinks that they may otherwise have avoided. Psychologists have been discussing deindividuation associated with Halloween. Deindivuation makes people feel less responsible for their actions when they are participating in group behaviors. But Halloween heightens this recklessness. Despite the decades-long effort to stem pranks, vandalism, and other petty criminal behavior related to celebrating Halloween, it still happens. Add in the anonymity of wearing a mask or a full costume, and studies find costumed children are more likely to misbehave than children not wearing costumes. While not possessed by demons, these youth are possessed with spirited hijinks hidden behind a homemade mask.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Anoka, Minnesota water tower. Professor Batty (2006, CC 2.0)

Communities Celebrate Halloween as a Crime Deterrent

Anoka, Minnesota is credited with having the first community-wide Halloween celebration in 1920. But it wasn’t because of the community’s good spirit. Halloween pranks were common in the community, as they were everywhere. Communities were quickly growing tired of spending All Saint’s Day cleaning up from the Halloween vandals. The day after Halloween in 1919, Anoka residents woke to see what sort of pranks Halloween and wrought. It was bad. Outhouses were pushed on their sides. Windows had been soaped over. Wagons had been lifted on top of roofs. Residents found their cows meandering in the downtown. Some cows even ended up roaming in the halls of the Anoka County jail. And it was getting deadly for some chickens being thrown off the roofs of buildings. Anoka property owners found their patience for pranks had run thin. To distract from the mayhem, they leaned into it.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Thanksgiving maskers scrambling for pennies. Library of Congress, public domain.

Celebrating Halloween without Loose Cows

Anoka officials created a Halloween event to distract the mischief-makers. The celebration was the brainchild of local businessman George Green. Green figured the destruction left in the wake of Halloween pranks would be decreased if the pranksters had something, anything else to do. Anoka’s storefronts were decorated with spooky-fun Halloween décor. There was a large parade through the community, candy and pennies for children, and residents could show off their artistic skills in a costume contest. It didn’t stop pranks and vandalism completely, but it put Anoka on the map. The community is called the “Halloween Capitol of the World,” despite the millions of dollars the people of Salem, Massachusetts see during their October festival, Haunted Happenings. While Salem’s celebration is bigger, Anoka’s was first, and in 2003, Congress, in a proclamation authored by Representative Mark Kennedy (R-MN), recognized Anoka as the Halloween Capital of the World.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Man dressed in baby costume. simpleinsomnia via Flickr (CC2.0)

Halloween Costumes Help Take Destruction Out of Halloween

Despite the efforts of places like Anoka and others who tried to reclaim Halloween from the vandals, the pranks continued. By the mid-1940s, the holiday was synonymous with destruction and vandalism, all under the cover of costumes. Though the wholesome, fun party atmosphere was still in full swing, the property destruction took some glimmer from the celebrations. To combat the rise of Halloween as a night of destruction and expensive property damage, officials and concerned citizens took control of the narrative. They presented Halloween as a costume holiday mainly for children, sanitizing the “scary” out of the festivities. In the 1930s, Trick-or-treating replaced Halloween pranks, shifting the fun of guising from Thanksgiving. Costumes, too, were declared the realm of children; adults, who had enjoyed a dressed-up romp, were no longer encouraged to participate. In the 1930s and 40s, costumes not only became more child-focused, but they became a marketer’s dream.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Child dressed as Frankenstein’s Monster. simpleinsomnia (2015, CC2.0)

Halloween Identity

Instead of the handmade masks and makeshift clothing that has yielded some truly unintentionally scary Halloween pictures, manufacturers saw a chance to make a few dollars from children, who were whole-heartedly embracing this shift to Halloween trick-or-treating. Costumes evolved from terrifying mutations of demons and spirits and more about stepping into another life. People fascinated with the swashbuckling pirate lifestyle could become a pirate for a night. A kid watching Boris Karloff play Frankenstein (1931) on screen could become the monster for a night. As science fiction grew in popularity, so did alien and spaceman costumes. People with wanderlust might dress as a train-hopping hobo for an evening, A child might become a princess, a cowboy, a police office, a fairy, a king, an elephant, even a raincloud if they wanted. If they could read about it in books or see it on a movie screen, they could become it.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Child dressed as Popeye the Sailor Man. simpleinsomnia via Flickr (C 2.0)

Halloween goes Commercial

By the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, popular culture entered the costuming realm. Halloween costumes became big business, with companies like HalCo and A.S. Fishbach obtaining the licenses for popular characters of the time. Bannatyne says Popeye and Olive Oyle, Little Orphan Annie, and Mickey Mouse were particular favorites. Another company, Ben Cooper, not only had a sense of what was popular, but what would become popular. They had the foresight to secure the license to develop a Snow White costume from an up-and-coming Walt Disney studio. HalCo, Fishbach, and Cooper had the foresight to understand that children not only wanted to watch their favorite heroes and villains, but to be them, if only for one evening.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Witch costumes (back row) as part of a costume group at St. James Presbyterian Church in Queensland (1912, publc domain).

Beware, O Ye Witches (because there’s so many of them)

Whether child or adult, or even some pets, one of the most consistently popular Halloween costumes has been a witch. Even as popular culture costumes increased in popularity, the ‘witch’ has sustained its popularity for over 100 years. Just about any outfit, whether scary or sexy, cute or repulsive, transformed into a witch costume by adding a tall, conical hat. While the popularity of the film Wizard of Oz (1939) cemented the image of a witch as a green-skinned, hook-nosed hag wearing a tattered black garment, variations of witch costumes appear throughout the history of costume photography. The National Retail Federation, who keeps detailed statistics on Halloween revenue, said 10.7% of adults planning to dress up for Halloween in 2018 planned to be a witch. The next highest response, the vampire, only received 3.7% of the vote.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931). Public domain.

Enter, Vampires!

Since the 1930s, one of the most popular costumes, along with ‘witch,’ is the vampire, a trend that continues to this day. While vampires have their roots in eastern European folk legend, these shape-shifting bloodsuckers became popular culture darlings in the 1890s, when Bram Stoker published his novel Dracula. Bela Lugosi shaped the image of Dracula as a monster-in-a-man-suit when he donned the fangs to play Dracula in a 1931’s highly popular movie. Lugosi’s Dracula was a handsome sophisticate, donning a tuxedo and flowing cape, using his charm and cunning to dominate his victims. Vampire costumes since then have been less pale-skinned and pointy-earned beasts like Nosferatu and more sophisticated, tuxedoed, deadly glamor icon.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Children in rabbit and cowboy masks. simpleinsomnia via Flickr (CC 2.0).

Costume Powerhouse, Ben Cooper

In the 1950s and 60s, televisions became regular household appliances and comic books stacked up in bedrooms everywhere. This expansion of popular culture added new characters to the roster of manufactured Halloween costumes. Opening the door to trick-or-treaters meant being greeted not only by vampires, zombies, and werewolves, but by superheroes, villains, and any number of TV cartoon characters. The Ben Cooper costume company was able to quickly secure the character license and rapidly develop costumes to appease the young consumers in time for Halloween. Animals like rabbits, monkeys, tigers, and bears found their way onto doorsteps all over the country. Costume producers like Cooper hit on the cultural hotspots, understood the need to diversify their characters, and created an empire by producing inexpensive Halloween options for kids and busy parents who could not spend the time making their own elaborate costume.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Pop culture Halloween masks. Rizzuto Angelo, Library of Congress (1964, public domain).

How Ben Cooper Built a Halloween Empire

These mass-produced costumes were not only able to keep up with the most popular characters of the time, but they were affordable. Cooper sold their sought-after costumes for $3 (around $12 today). The costumes were nothing more than plastic masks and (essentially) plastic or cheap fabric bags with logos and pictures printed on them, but kids didn’t’ care. They still got to disguise themselves as whatever they wanted. This isn’t to say the scary, death-related costumes went away. There was no shortage of ghosts, movie monsters, demons, devils, skeletons and other spooky souls. And these, too, became mass-market costuming realm.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
1977 C3PO costume, able to fit over a warm coat. Tim1965 (2010, CC 3.0)

Cold-Weather Friendly Costumes

After a period of Halloween being treated as a children’s event, the 1960s brought the party back to include adults. But there was a difference in how the two groups celebrated the holiday. Children wanted ‘full coverage,’ with their manufactured masks and plastic or fabric cover-all printed with their favorite characters. These cover-alls allowed the costumes to be worn over the coats and sweaters parents forced their children to wear while trick-or-treating in colder climates and could be worn over lighter fabrics in warmer regions. The one-size fits all coverall allowed kids to be a character, even if a jacket was required. There was no limit to how children could show their fandom. But the adults preferred to immerse themselves in the character, not just declare their fan status.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Halloween 1977 costume party. Steve Mays (CC 2.0)

Adults Want to Immerse in the Costume Experience

As the children ventured out bundled in their costume-covered winter gear, adults opted for an immersive experience in their choice of costume. Since chilly weather trick-or-treating wasn’t typically part of the adult scene, they could be in full dress for their costumes. But the main difference is adults preferred to go without masks. Instead, they showed their faces, painted to resemble their costume subject. They capped the look off with coiffures, hats, or other costume head gear. Adults wore full-immersion costumes that let them adopt a whole new identity for the evening. It was a night to be as outrageous, sexy, flamboyant, or campy as they wanted with no repercussions.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Ben Cooper Co. Tinkerbell costume set from the 1950s. Tim1965 (2010, CC 3.0)

Halloween Costumes Reflect Pop Culture

Costumes represented a parade of popular culture hits. Kids could disguise themselves as Spider Man, Tinkerbell, Wilma Flintstone, Flipper, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, a witch, and as time went on, Star Wars characters, E.T., Flipper, even a Rubik’s Cube (with eyeholes and a painted-on smile). Some of the costumes depicted actual people (albeit a warped-looking, cartoon version of them). Children might dress as the Beatles, Elvis, or the Fonz from Happy Days. The costume company made a few questionable choices, particularly when building costumes based on adult-level popular culture. There were years children could find costumes of Joanie Loves Chachi, Laverne and Shirley, or even Jaws and Alien, which peeved some parents. Alien was a dark science fiction horror movie and Jaws was about a killer shark. But Ben Cooper, Inc. were one of the biggest manufacturer of Halloween costumes and could afford a few misfires.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Children dressed up for Halloween in 1980. Ryan Leighty (CC BY 2.0).

Halloween Costumes: Sales Take a Bitter Pill

Parents in the 1980s firmly warned their children not to accept candy from strangers. Some parents inspected candy piece-by-piece for evidence of tampering, in part due to urban legends. But fears spiked in 1982 when seven people died after consuming cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Unlike the case of Timothy O’Bryan, whose father killed him with a cyanide-laced Pixy Stix for life insurance money, The Tylenol Cyanide Killer remains uncaught. Around Halloween, parents were leery about their children going out trick-or-treating. Costume sales took a hit as the old urban legend seemingly became a reality, but it didn’t take long for them to bounce back and enter a new market. Adults hosted Halloween parties instead of taking children trick-or-treating where they might receive a razorblade laced apple. To keep the festive atmosphere, adults started dressing up in their own costumes.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Burning man should only ever be a festival. Burning Man 2016. Carnaval.com Studios (2016, CC 2.0)

Halloween Costumes, Frighteningly Flammable

Nothing ruins a trick-or-treat party faster than a costume going up in flames while it is being worn. Halloween tradition includes jack-o-lanterns lit from candlelight inside its hollowed-out core. But children aren’t known for self-preservation skills and abundance of caution. Trick-or-treating came with the constant threat of a costume coming too close to a jack-o-lantern flame, igniting and burning a child. Parents were growing increasingly worried about costume safety in the 1980s and 90s. They didn’t want their child’s costume suddenly turning into a flaming horror show. Safety-concious parents rejected costumes that could come in contact with open flame and move toward costumes less likely to catch fire. Likewise, parents were also encouraged to use glow sticks or flashlights in the jack-o-lanterns to avoid burning a trick-or-treater. But the Ben Cooper, Inc. style masks were also the target of suspicion.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think


Halloween Costumes and the Potential for Injury

Fire wasn’t the only hazard that came in a Ben Cooper box. The eye holes on masks were not large and were prone to slipping. With only a thin elastic cord to hold it on, they shifted around a lot, blocking eyesight with a slight turn of the head. Children walking along the road at night with restricted vision was a hazard; one shift of their mask could create a misstep sending them into traffic. Parents were encouraged to use makeup instead, painting children’s faces to preserve their full range of vision rather than wearing a mask that could go askew and block their vision. The Kooky Spooks inflatable costumes like the one pictured here allowed a normal range of vision while still indulging in plastic poncho fun. Costumes were poised for another evolution, shifting into a period of realism, where the costume allowed its wearer to become the character.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Spirit Halloween, Farmington, CT, in former Sports Authority store. Mike Mozart (2016, CC 2.0).

Halloween Costumes Evolve from Plastic to Prominence

For centuries, costumes were made at home. In the mid-1900s, the HalCo and Ben Cooper designs dominated shelves of drug stores. But costuming would soon turn into a mega-industry. In 1983, a discount women’s dress shop owner in California noticed his sales declining, but in October, the costume shop across the road couldn’t keep up with demand. After the costume shop moved, owner Joseph Marver set up his own seasonal costume shop and told Vox.com, “It was the best October we ever had.” He repeated the trick in other empty mall store spaces, selling $100,000 worth of costume pieces in a month. From there, the model of seasonally leasing empty retail space and hiring temporary workers inspired other retailers to follow suit. Halloween Express followed the Spirit Halloween model. These pop-up Halloween stores are responsible for about 35% of the Halloween market, according to the National Retail Federation.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Inside of a Spirit Halloween. Phillip Pessar (2023, CC 2.0)

The Spirit (and Profit) of Halloween

From twelve-foot skeletons in the yard, to projection mapping light displays on their houses, Halloween has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Halloween festivals such as the Haunted Happenings in Salem, Massachusetts attracts almost a million visitors in the month of October, with tourism spending generating around $30 million for the community, and $2.5 million in tax revenue. The National Retail Federation expects Halloween spending in the United States to reach $12.2 billion in 2023, exceeding even pre-pandemic levels. Costumes are a big part of that income. The National Retail Federation estimated 69% of consumers participated in Halloween celebrations in 2022, generating $10.7 billion. Spirit Halloween, a costume, accessory, and decoration retailer, built a business model of seasonally moving into vacant stores. An estimated $400 million each year comes from their seasonal sales.

Halloween Costumes Have a Stranger History Than You Think
Dog in Calypso costume. Petful (2012, CC 2.0).

Halloween Costumes are Hard to Tell from the Real Thing

Halloween costumes have evolved from Samhain animal skins and homemade concoctions by people with questionable artistic skills. Who cares if their homemade bunny mask looks like it has mutated into something from a horror movie? Fun aside, Halloween costumes evolved into a widely marketed product, meant to appease today’s discerning consumers. Costumes have become almost indistinguishable from the original costumes seen on stage and screen. While inexpensive options are available in stores and online, Halloween costumes have become less like Ben Cooper’s plastic garb and more like gowns will full hoop skirts, superhero costumes with muscle padding built in, and Inflatable costumes that allow people to become dinosaurs, unicorns, or alien abductees. Even pets are getting into the Halloween costume spirit. These options are more costly but allow the wearer to fully immerse themselves in the character, and become whoever they want to be, for one wild day.

Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Cultural appropriation, a perennial issue on Halloween. Leila Fadel, NPR, 29 October 2019.

From pagan spirits to Wonder Woman: A brief history of the Halloween costume. Marianna Cerini, CNN.com, 25 October 2020.

Halloween pop-up stores, explained. Gaby Del Valle, Vox.com, 29 October 2018.

Halloween timeline: How the holiday has changed over the centuries. History.com editors, History.com, 12 September 2023.

How Anoka, Minnesota, became the Halloween Capital of the World. Hannah McDonald, Mental Floss, 29 October 2019.

How Ben Cooper changed Halloween forever. Charles Moss, Slate.com, 31 October 2013.

Masking and mumming for the holidays, Thanksgiving style! Stephen Winick, Library of Congress Blogs, 25 November 2020.

Salem nets more than $250K during Haunted Happenings. Ethan Forman, The Salem News, 15 November 2014.

Soul cakes and the origins of Trick or Treating. Alex Ryan Thompson, Clemson College of Agriculture, Ecology, and Life Science, 31 October 2022.

The history of Halloween costumes. Emma Fraser, SyFy, 18 September 2019.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse. Bethany Biron, Insider.com, 21 October 2022.

What makes this Minnesota town the Halloween Capital of the World? Jennifer Nalewicki, Smithsonian Magazine, 25 October 2019.

When Halloween was all tricks and no treats. Lesley Bannatyne, Smithsonian magazine, 27 October 2017.

Why do we celebrate Halloween? The dark origins of the holiday. Caroline Picard and Lizz Schumer, Good Housekeeping, 8 June 2023.