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12 Scary Halloween Symbols And Their Origins

Updated June 24, 2020 931.5k views12 items

As Halloween approaches, there's no shortage of decorations for sale, usually covered with Halloween symbols that we all recognize, even if we don't know where they come from.

Along with ridiculous costumes and enough candy to make you vomit, there are some things that you find every single Halloween. Jack-o'-lanterns, ghosts, bats, black cats - a lot of these symbols have their roots in the history of Halloween. Many of them trace back to the pagan festival of Samhain, which is thought to be the most direct ancestor of our modern celebration. This was a celebration of the departed at a time when the boundary between this world and the next was believed to be much thinner than normal. 

These scary symbols might not look so intimidating as decals in your window or cardboard signs hung on classroom walls, but their history is downright creepy. Full of folklore and spirituality, there's a long tradition of Halloween and deadly symbolism that you might not be aware of. So, before you grab your costume and go trick-or-treating this year, you might want to look at why we dress up in the first place. These are the origins of all your favorite Halloween symbols (and you may never look at broomsticks the same way again). 

  • Bats

    Bats are one of the most common Halloween symbols today, but their connection with the holiday is multi-layered, dating right back to its roots.

    A lot of vampires folklore states that vampires can turn into bats, giving them an extra spooky edge. And folklore aside, bats are pretty scare-worthy. Vampire bats live off the blood of animals - and sometimes people - and drink your blood for up to 30 minutes. Definitely Halloween material. 

  • Costumes

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The biggest question on modern Halloween is "What are you going to wear?" - but costumes used to be about way more than whether you should be Captain America or Harley Quinn. According to beliefs surrounding the pagan holiday Samhain, this was the time of year where the "veil" between this world and the world of spirits was the thinnest, so you were most likely to engage with the departed. And that could be very bad news.

    So, they would wear costumes, often made of animal heads and skins, to trick any ghosts they might run into. A lot scarier than a nurse costume, for sure. 

  • Ghosts

    It's no surprise that ghosts have become a major Halloween symbol. Historically, Samhain was thought to be the time where the spirit and living worlds were the least separated, so you could run into a ghoulish spirit. But they weren't necessarily the friendly, Casper-esque ghosts we see today.

    Though the presence of spirits was supposed to make the future easier to predict, pagans considered these departed spirits no laughing matter.

  • Skeletons

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The dancing skeletons you're so used to seeing at Halloween may not seem so scary - they're often downright friendly - but when you start to really think about that imagery, things get a little darker. Halloween has its roots in the pagan festival Samhain, the feast of the dead. And it doesn't get more dead than skeletons. They are literally what's left after your skin rots off and everything else decomposes. Pretty creepy when you think about it, and no surprise that they're associated with a number of holidays honoring the departed. 

    There's a history of displaying skulls all the way back to Aztec skull art, comprised of everything from racks of skull to skull necklaces, and even earlier, back to 7200 BCE. Skulls are also a major symbol in the Mexican Dia de los Muertos holiday.