How Black Cats and Headless Horsemen Became Halloween Icons
Witches, black cats, and jack-o’-lanterns are all familiar Halloween icons. But how did these images become so identified with the holiday? Halloween expert Lisa Morton credits three 19th-century writers—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Washington Irving—whose stories “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” have long been read around Halloween.
“They kind of embody the three icons of Halloween,” Morton says in Episode 174 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “They really helped contribute to the popularity of that imagery and those icons that became so associated with the holiday.”
Horror author and English professor John Langan agrees, noting that while today we regard them as classics, these scary stories were the 19th-century equivalent of Stephen King and slasher movies.
“Poe’s contemporaries, I’m sure, would have been scandalized to think that a bunch of impressionable school children were being read ‘The Black Cat,’ with its portrayal of marital murder,” he says.
Halloween has become even more closely linked with horror thanks to John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween, which set the mold for the many subsequent slasher films. Horror is the only genre with its own holiday, a fact that famed horror author and editor John Skipp credits with helping to keep the genre popular.
“I think it’s the one day of the year that regular people are allowed to really enjoy horror,” he says. “And then for a lot of the rest of us, yeah, Halloween is pretty much every day at my house.”
Morton notes that today’s Halloween rituals would be unrecognizable to someone from a century ago, and that horror writers and filmmakers will continue to influence new Halloween rituals for years to come.
“I think people will always need that night of creativity and empowerment and fun and stepping outside the boundaries,” she says. “I think ‘trick or treat’ will probably phase out completely, and we’ll have something new that comes in and offers, I hope, the same kind of thing for kids.”
Listen to our complete interview with Lisa Morton, John Skipp, and John Langan in Episode 174 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
John Skipp on Tales of Halloween:
“Tales of Halloween is this new Halloween anthology film, 10 short films by 11 directors, and the short that I did with my co-director Andrew Kasch is called ‘This Means War.’ It’s about a pair of neighbors that live across the street from each other, who are both home haunt enthusiasts. One guy—played by the great comedian Dana Gould—his name is Boris, and Boris is a traditionalist of the Universal classic horror delineation. He does German expressionist weird trees and a mausoleum, and tombstones with James Whale and Max Schreck and people like that on them. And then all of a sudden Dante moves in across the street, and he’s more from the Rob Zombie school of gore and intestines and tits in a bucket and horrible stuff. And they are, of course, natural adversaries … and it all escalates into hilarious doom from there.”
Lisa Morton on sexy Halloween costumes:
“I was actually going through a major website today of Halloween costumes. … I looked at a hundred female costumes for Halloween, and 75 percent were sexy in some way or other. … I think that if you want to be sexy on Halloween, that’s great. To me the costuming thing is about empowerment, it’s about exploring a new identity. If you are a woman who feels like this is maybe your one night of the year where you can explore your own sexuality in this sort of safe, recognized night, that’s great. But you should have other options. You know, a lot of us maybe don’t want to be a ‘sexy’ pirate queen, we just want to be the pirate queen!”
John Langan on the meaning of Halloween:
“What I love about Halloween, and what I love about horror in general, is that sense that we’re in touch with these things that we don’t normally like to talk about, like death and decay and loss of control and all that. … I think for most of the people who are dressing up in the sexy costumes, it’s this way to kind of domesticate the holiday. … And I think that’s actually kind of a loss. I think that you’re losing touch with something—not to sound all mystical or whatever—but yeah, with these profound subterranean currents in the culture, and even in yourself. You know, be a sexy pirate some other day. Be a monster for Halloween.”
Lisa Morton on Charles Valency:
“There was a historian in the 18th century called Charles Valency, and this guy was a surveyor who was sent over to Ireland by the queen, to map Ireland. And Valency goes over to Ireland, and he becomes obsessed with Celtic language and culture. … There’s just one problem, which is that he’s basically a complete fool. … He just decided that Samhain, which was the name of the Celtic new year’s festival, that we think Halloween owes much of its character to, did not stand for ‘Summer’s End,’ which is the generally accepted translation. He decided it was the name of a ‘Celtic lord of death.’ … I think much of the Christian idea that [Halloween] celebrates ‘the devil’s birthday’ and so forth comes from [Valency]. … So a lot of that is a historical misunderstanding.”