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Popular symbols of Halloween

October is the time for pumpkins, bats, ghosts and more and are often found when you go shopping, view your social media feeds or even take a walk down your street.  It is easy to become so focused on specific imagery this time of year.  Here are just a few of the symbols we associate with Halloween!


Jack-O-Lanterns

Pumpkins start popping up all over as early as September and often through November.  Fall is when they come into season, so they are most plentiful that time of year. But where did the idea of carving and illuminating pumpkins come from?  Old Irish legend has it that “Stingy Jack” tricked the Devil several times throughout the course of his life.  When he died, he wasn’t allowed into Heaven, forcing him to wander the earth for all of eternity with his carved, illuminated turnip to light his path. He was known as “Jack of the Lantern,” eventually shortened to “Jack-o-Lantern”. To ward off Stingy Jack and other evil spirits, the Irish began carving demonic faces into turnips and potatoes and illuminating them. Irish immigrants brought this tradition to the United States and switched to pumpkins since they grew so abundantly here.


Bats

At first, it seems like bats are obvious symbols of Halloween. They’re strange looking, have pointy teeth and drink blood, right? Wrong! Well the last part is at least.  Out of the over 1,300 bat species, only three actually drink blood and are considered vampire bats. When Europeans began exploring Central and South America during the 1500’s, they discovered the few species of blood-drinking bats and brought, what were likely exaggerated stories, back to Europe. The folklore of vampires already existed throughout Europe, so the idea of a blood-drinking bat and vampires naturally became connected and voila: the concept of the vampire bat was born. It became even more widespread when Bram Stoker published Dracula (which we have numerous versions of in our collection) in 1897 and has remained a cultural phenomenon ever since, especially during the creepiest time of year!


Black Cats

Cats generally come across as sneaky and conniving. (I’m not a cat person if you couldn’t tell), but black cats specifically hold a special place in Halloween lore. No one seems to know exactly why they became such a scary symbol, but it may have begun in the Middle Ages. During this time, black cats became associated with witches. Legend has it that they were “familiars,” allowing witches to speak with the spiritual world, or were even witches in disguise. During the Salem witch trials, black cats were sometimes burned with witches at the stake. Black cats may not be “magical,” but they certainly look good in a Halloween picture, which has probably been the greatest driving factor in their enduring popularity.


Fall, specifically October, is one of the most popular times of the year for images that make us think about all things creepy and spooky. If you want to know more about some of these popular Halloween symbols (the real version), how you can incorporate them into your festivities, and more, here are a few titles in our collection:

Halloween Pumpkins and Parties: 101 Spooktacular Ideas by Better Homes and Gardens

Realistic Pumpkin Carvings by Lundy Cupp

The Haunted History of Halloween (video recording)

Bats of America by Roger William Barbour

America’s Neighborhood Bats by Merlin D. Tuttle

Understanding Cats (video recording)

Encyclopedia of Cats by Candida Frith-Macdonald


Kelsey Shackelford is the Community Events Liaison at Boone County Public Library.

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