Black cats, jack-o'-lanterns, bats, and ghosts. There's a whole ghoulish host of common Halloween symbols, but do you know the superstitions surrounding them? Discover why we fear these things that go bump in the night and the ways we try to keep ourselves safe when the veil between our world and the spirit world thins.
Avoid Black Cats
Luckily, most people have written off this superstition as nonsense, but the idea of black cats being bad luck, or bad omens, originates in the Dark Ages. This Halloween superstition brings together a bit of religious zealotry and sexism, with some ageism thrown in for good measure.
Many older women during the Dark Ages (and for a time afterward) were rumored to be witches. Perhaps they lived alone. Maybe they lived in the country or forest or on the outskirts of town. It wasn't uncommon to have a cat — whether or not you were an older woman — because they're helpful in keeping pests away.
And where do the black cats come in? The thought was that black cats, specifically, were witches' familiars, gifted to them by the devil himself.
Or, if you were really suspicious of that older lady just trying to live her life, you might go with the idea that Satan sometimes turned himself into a black cat to visit with witches, who could also turn themselves into black cats if they chose and cause all manner of chaos.
It's this association with witches that makes black cats a mainstay of Halloween decorations and superstitions.
Carve a Jack-o'-Lantern to Guide Lost Spirits
Who doesn't love a jack-o'-lantern with a big carved smile, lit up by a flickering candle? While this is a much-beloved Halloween tradition now, its origin is not nearly as cheery.
The story of the Jack-o'-Lantern comes from an Irish myth. There was once a farmer named Jack. Farmer Jack got drunk and decided it might be fun to play a trick on the devil.
As one might guess, things didn't work out so well for Jack. To punish him for his attempted trickery, Jack was turned away from both the gates of heaven and the gates of hell when he died, forced to wander endlessly in the darkness.
To help light his way, Jack made a lantern from a turnip. He carved holes in it and then placed a burning piece of coal that the devil had thrown at him inside to illuminate it.
He used the lantern to try to find his way out of the darkness. So the story goes that if you carve a lighted jack-o'-lantern and place it outside, you'll help any other lost souls find their way.
The scary carved faces in pumpkins could also ward off evil. When the Irish began emigrating to North America, they brought this tradition with them. Since pumpkins were more plentiful than turnips, they began using them to guide all those lost souls instead.
Seeing Bats Might Equal Death
Here's another story of witches and their familiars, only now we're taking to the sky. Supposedly, bats were also witches' companions, gifted to them by the devil when they promised their souls to him.
As you can expect, bats were definitely not a good omen, especially when seen on Halloween when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest.
If someone notices a bat circling their house three times, it means someone in the house will soon die. And if a bat flew into your house? Your house is very possibly haunted, and the ghosts let the bat in. Best to keep the doors closed and not look up.
Pay Attention to Spiders
There are two ways this superstition can go. One is a bit ominous. And the other is more wholesome — albeit a touch creepy — depending on how you feel about ghosts.
The ominous superstition is as follows: if a spider falls into a candle and is consumed by the flame, witches are nearby. As you can guess, spiders were thought to be companions of witches. One might wonder how witches had room for so many companions. Talk about social butterflies.
As for the more wholesome spider sighting: the veil between life and death is thinner on Halloween, and seeing a spider during that time could very well mean that the spirit of a loved one is watching over you. So, think twice before grabbing a shoe to squash the spider.
As for even more witchy familiars, some believe that around Halloween, the sound of an owl hooting means a witch is soon to be on their way to you.
Throw Stones and Hope to Find Them Again
This superstition comes from the Welsh, who had an interesting Halloween tradition. They'd make a bonfire, and each member of the household would find a white rock that they'd then mark to identify it as theirs.
Once the fire was roaring, they'd all toss their rocks in, then continue their Halloween celebration. The next day, they'd return to the site of the bonfire and sift through the ashes in search of their stones. And if someone didn't find their stone, they likely wouldn't live to see another Halloween.
Give Treats or You Risk Angering Ghosts
During Halloween, or Samhain, the thinning of the veil between our world and the spirit world means that sometimes spirits might cross over and mingle with the living. And according to superstition, they could disguise themselves as something like a beggar or a person in need and knock on people's doors asking for money or food.
Turning them away and refusing was an incredibly bad idea. A ticked-off spirit might haunt or curse you, and that's not something anyone wants. So now, people give treats on Halloween to everyone who comes to their door, just in case a spirit or two are among them. Better safe than sorry! And definitely offer the good candy.
Dress Up to Fool Spirits
Somewhat related to the idea of spirits disguising themselves and mingling with the living, this Halloween superstition is all about why people dress up in costumes.
Essentially, the idea is that since spirits may be walking among the living, and because they may be up to mischief including taking your soul, it's a good idea to disguise yourself so they think you're one of them. Irish immigrants brought this tradition to North America in the early 1900s. By the 1950s, dressing up for Halloween was popular pretty much everywhere. Now, we continue to be safe instead of sorry when it comes to spirits looking for a soul or two to steal.
Be Careful at Crossroads on Halloween
According to a Welsh superstition, on Halloween night, there's a spirit waiting at every crossroads. While most will just let you pass by, others might be up to mischief. Maybe take the long way around to avoid the one who likes to make a little trouble.
Another crossroads superstition for Halloween is that if you stand at the center of the crossroads, the spirits there will whisper your future. So, what'll it be? Are you brave enough to take your chances on the crossroads ghosts next Halloween?
Some believe the superstition that Halloween dinner is to be eaten in silence. Otherwise, the spirits just beyond the veil will take it as an invitation to join you.
Blue Flames as Ghost Detectors
Ghosts and spirits abound on Halloween, and one superstition claims that all you need if you want to know if there are ghosts near you is a simple candle.
Light the wick, and keep an eye on it. If the flame turns blue, you very likely are in the company of a spirit or two. Remember to have a treat on hand should one come knocking.
If You Want to Know Your Future, Ask on Halloween
The ancient Celts believed that October was when the spirit and physical worlds drew close, and one might discover their fate by fortunetelling. Farmers wanted to know about crops and weather, and women wanted to know about marriage and children. Because Samhain, and later Halloween, took place at harvest time, fruit and nuts were used as part of the ritual. Apples were especially popular since they had been associated with gods and goddesses for thousands of years.
To know about your future family, apples were cut open horizontally, and the seeds counted: this told you how many children you would have.
A woman seeking love could carefully peel the apple and throw the peel over her shoulder. When it hit the floor, it would form into the initial of a future love. And for a courting couple, they would throw nuts into the fireplace on Halloween. If the nuts exploded and popped apart, they would not marry soon.
Most Halloween superstitions are centered on the idea that the veil between the worlds of the dead and the living is thin on that day. It's a day when ghosts and devils may walk among the living, and omens are everywhere. Whether you're the superstitious type or not, knowing these long-held superstitions may just make Halloween even more exciting.