Halloween or Hollyween? How Pop Culture Changed the Holiday

It’s that time of the year! Haunted houses, Pumpkin Spice lattes, trick-or-treating, and more. Even though it’s looking like the spooky holiday is going to be virtual this year, there is one thing that does not require quarantine — Halloween costumes!

We don’t often think too deep about our costumes. We just put on our Batman suit and go. But what if I told you that the costumes we wear today are nothing like they were 2000 years ago? With the rise of pop culture, trends, and memes, Halloween costumes have changed drastically. Why is that so? Well in order to fully understand, let’s first take a look into the story behind Halloween and the soon to be the long-lasting tradition.

Celts surrounding a bonfire during Samhain

Halloween is based on the pagan festival, Samhain. The festival was celebrated by ancient Celts who lived in Ireland, parts of France, and the United Kingdom. Samhain represented the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark, harsh winter season that was to come. For some Celts, this was very special since it served as an important time for the deceased. Gaels — a subgroup of Celts — believed that during this period ghouls, creatures and other supernatural beings would return to Earth. This would allow people to reconnect with loved ones who have passed on. Sacrifices of animals were made and bonfires were lit to keep away evil spirits and please good ones. Some people would leave out offerings for the spirits too in hopes that it was a loved one crossing their path. On the other hand, some people were very cautious and dressed up to disguise as evil spirits. They did so in hopes that they could trick them into thinking that they were their own kind and prevent being harmed. People would even prank one another and blame it on the creatures, especially the fairies, for fun. This tradition continued for many years, eventually sparking interest in Christians.

Altarpiece called Maestà (also known as Maestà of Duccio) painted by Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna in the 14th century. The work captures the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus surrounded by saints and angels

In 609 AD Pope Boniface IV — with the attempt to spread Christianity and put a Christian spin on Samhain — made a decision that would change Samhain forever. On May 13th, the Pantheon was dedicated as a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all other martyrs. This day was declared as All Martyr’s Day. A couple of centuries later this celebration was moved from its original May 13th date to November 1st by Pope Gregory III, which just so happens to be the last day of Samhain. All Saint’s Day (or All Hallow’s Day) was born and instead of only honoring Martyrs, all Saints who have passed away and gone to heaven were commemorated as well. Originally named Hallowe’en, the word Halloween actually derives from All Hallow’s Eve which takes place just a day before All Saint’s Day. It is not exactly clear why the day was moved so close to Samhain but it is speculated that in doing so, Christians hoped that it would help convert more people to Christianity. Christians eventually adopted some of the same traditions that were carried out on Samhain and the holiday as we know it began.

Most of the costumes before the 1900s were homemade. There is very little information on exactly what was used to create the costumes but those worn by the Celts were said to have been made with animal skin. Masks were popular during that time since they concealed the wearer’s identity from the spirits. It has even been noted that cross-dressing was a popular part of the holiday as a means of hope for marriage and a fun way to go door-to-door for sweets.

The Victorian Era strived further away from the original concept of costumes. Instead of dressing up to protect oneself from harm, costumes were used more as a means of fun. With the rise of gothic literature and art, costumes had darker themes to them. You could see people dressing up as bats, skeletons, and witches. They also started to become more ethnicity-based as the interest in culture peaked, especially when it came to Egypt. 

With Halloween being such a European celebration, when did costumes start to gain so much attention in the United States? Due to a mass European migration to America during the 19th and 20th centuries, the spread of Halloween and its costume traditions grew even larger. Citizens loved the idea of disguising themselves and being anything that they wanted to be.

The 1920s sparked a change in Halloween costumes. The holiday started to become more commercialized as manufacturers proved much success from selling their costumes. Companies like the Dennison Manufacturing co. who made boxes, labels, and tags entered the Halloween world by producing disposable paper costumes. The costumes, made from Crepe paper, consisted of a paper mask and apron that were printed with different designs on them. We start to see costumes stride away from simple themes such as ghosts and witches and lean more towards pop culture. Some of the biggest costume manufacturers during this time were Collegeville Costumes and Ben Cooper, Inc. Halco (also known as J. Halpern company) was another costume company said to have been one of their biggest competitors too though not much information is provided. Founded in 1946 by Julius Halpern, this company was seen as Ben Cooper, Inc’s largest competitor, since the two competed over costume licenses. Halco, licensing popular cartoon characters such as Popeye and Olive Oyl, ended up partnering with Terrytoons while Collegeville Costumes had the Warner Brothers. The costumes created by the companies came in a box and consisted of a mask and smock. The mask was made out of plastic and had a rubber band attached to it which was used to secure the mask around one’s head. The smock was sleeveless and made out of rayon or vinyl.

Collegeville Costumes (previously named Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company) was once one of the biggest costume manufacturers ever. In 1923 this family-owned business who previously sold flags turned to costumes with the rising emergence of Halloween. Their switch was inspired by a client who requested several clown outfits for a vendor. They used leftover pieces from their flags to create the costumes. Thus beginning the legacy that is still carried on to this day.

Like Collegeville Costumes, Ben Cooper, Inc was a family-owned business. Founded in 1937 by brothers Ben and Nat Cooper, this Brooklyn based company is highly credited for the introduction of pop culture to Halloween. From the 1930s to the 1940s, the company’s main goal was Disney. They began to license as many Disney characters as possible ranging from Mickey Mouse to Cinderella and even Star Wars characters. They did not just stop at Disney either. They went on to license television shows, comic books, and even musical artists. Much of their success was from their genius strategy of purchasing the license to many works before they came out. The most known was Snow White whose release was a major success. It was estimated that Ben Cooper, Inc “owned about 70 to 80 percent of the Halloween costume market by the 1960s.” Even though they are now owned by Rubie’s Costumes Co., Ben Cooper, Inc’s ethical business practices and genuine love and passion for Halloween is why they are one of the most successful Halloween costume manufacturers in the world.

The 1950s sought help from these booming Halloween companies and babies, to gear the holiday more towards children. Plus the Golden Age of television led to pop culture taking over more than ever. We do however start to see another change around the 1970s. As a result of the Civil Rights movement and the birth of a counterculture, costumes started to shift from loosely fitted vinyl gowns to tighter and more revealing wear. This sudden trend was caused by the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities. It was a way for them to freely express themselves without feeling judged or shamed. This era also saw an introduction to political costumes. Richard Nixon was one of the most known presidential figures whose likeness was used in conjunction with Halloween. Following the Nixon Scandal in 1972, the Nixon mask soared in popularity. It is also said that the mask was introduced following the event of an anti-Vietnam War protestor, who attended the Counter inaugural demonstrations in 1969 while wearing a paper mache Nixon mask.

From the late 1970s to the 1990s costumes returned to their darker roots with the burst of horror movies. Characters such as Michael Myers, Chucky, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Vorhees could be seen everywhere on Halloween night. People still continue to wear these costumes to this day, following the sequels of some of these classic horror films. In the meanwhile, music was another growing factor during this time. When Michael Jackson’s hit song “Thriller” came out, fans could not contain their excitement. This Halloween anthem is a staple for costumes. Designed by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Jackson’s signature red leather jacket with black stripe detailing is still replicated to this day.

Using trends from the previous decades, Halloween in the 2000s became a melting pot of pop culture. The introduction of social media, memes and advanced technology made costumes more creative and interesting. Costumes from the early 2000s focused mainly on pop culture from the late 1990s. Released in 1995, Clueless was a timeless hit that inspired so many teens. Because of its already iconic looks, it served as the perfect wear for the night. Literature was another defining part of costumes. The publishing of Harry Potter introduced a world of wizards, donning their round frame glasses and Gryffindor robes. But we can’t forget Frozen. When that movie first came out in 2013 it was huge. Children and even adults were dressed up as the lovable characters from Anna and Elsa to Olaf. And that hype did not stop when Frozen 2 was released. According to the National Retail Federation, in 2014 an estimated 2.6 million children planned to dress up as one of the Frozen characters. Superheroes play a major role as well. According to the same study, another 2.6 million children planned to dress up as Spider-Man for Halloween. Since the release of the new movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse the number of Miles Morales has definitely spiked. Black Panther was another movie that has left such an impact on Halloween. Coming from a former Halloween store employee, as the movie was released people rushed to buy the costume of their new favorite superhero. Even Spirit Halloween, or as I call it “the modern-day Ben Cooper, Inc.,” sold out quickly of the high demand costume. We can also thank celebrities for the role they played in Halloween. Their elaborate costumes paired with their extravagant Halloween gatherings have influenced so many to participate.

Who knew that this annual event would turn into the major holiday that it is now? I am looking forward to seeing what trends will inspire the costumes this year. Based on what has happened in 2020, I expect to see lots of costumes based on politics, the Coronavirus, and the smash-hit game Among Us. Even though Halloween is a time for parties, gatherings, and more social events, it is also very important to stay safe. So please be careful and enjoy your Halloween as much as possible. And if you do plan to participate this year, what are you planning on dressing up as?


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