Halloween Death Myths, Omens & Superstitions

Dark traditions underlie many of the holiday symbols we take for granted

Photo © Charles Mann/Getty Images

While people generally view superstitions with mild amusement these days, it is amazing how many of us still knock on wood to avoid tempting fate, cross our fingers for luck, or avoid walking beneath a ladder "just in case." Here are numerous Halloween myths, omens and superstitions involving death connected to the October 31st holiday. You may take them as seriously (or not) as you wish!

• Bats are creepy enough at any time of the year, but if you spot one on October 31 and it happens to fly around your house three times, then someone within will soon die.

(The lesson here, obviously, is to watch for Halloween bats while standing outside of your home.)

• If you discover a bat flying around inside your home on Halloween, don't blame yourself for leaving a window or door open somewhere. Instead, the ghosts and spirits of the dead that haunt your house let the flying furry mammal inside.

• While some cultures today actually associate black cats with good luck, hearing a black cat "meow" outside your front door or a window on Halloween traditionally means you or someone in your family will soon die.

• If you plan to drive your little ghouls and goblins to another neighborhood on Halloween night in hopes of a better "score" and your route takes you past a cemetery, everyone in the vehicle should hold his or her breath while passing it to prevent evil spirits from entering their bodies.

• Before they head off to trick-or-treat, warn your kids to turn their pockets inside-out if their travels will take them past a graveyard, or even a house where someone recently died.

This way, your children won't return home with ghosts and the spirits of the dead in their pockets.

• The distinctive shape of a coffin often appears in modern Halloween-related merchandise, but the living should never climb into one, even in jest. Doing so merely invites death by signaling that you are ready to go.

Presumably, this same admonition applies to a casket, too.

• Orange and black comprise the traditional colors of the Halloween holiday because orange symbolizes the colors of fall, such as leaves, pumpkins, gourds and other harvested crops, while black represents death and the seasonal "end of life," i.e. the conclusion of the growing season and the transition from autumn to winter.

• Sure, there's nothing spooky today about that row of Halloween costumes in your local, brightly lit Target store, but the ancient Celts started disguising themselves at the end of the fall harvest in order to prevent the dead from stealing their souls.

• You should rethink dressing up as the Headless Horseman on Halloween. Casting a headless shadow, or even no shadow at all, is considered an ominous sign that a death with occur within the year.

• In order to remove all of the negative spirits in your home, you should extinguish all flames on October 30 and then relight them on Halloween using the same source, i.e., a single candle, a single match, etc.

• If a lit candle in your home flickers, turns blue and then suddenly self-extinguishes, it means your house contains a ghost or dead spirit.

Some superstitions hold that this ethereal visitor is good, while others posit an evil intent.

• If your child's Halloween costume allows, or if his or her clothing underneath permits, stick some "holy bread" in a pocket as an offering so the ghosts and spirits of the dead will leave him or her alone. You can make your own holy bread by sprinkling salt on each piece in the shape of a cross.

• Assuming a ghost proves willing to stay in one place, you should walk around this dead spirit nine times to make it go away. The reason this requires nine encirclements is lost to time, but that number holds great symbolic significance, such as a cat's nine lives, Dante's nine circles of hell, Tolkien's famous nine rings of power, and the Tarot's "nine of cups," symbolizing personal isolation.

• Burying animal bones in your front yard is an effective method of preventing ghosts and dead spirits from entering your home (although it might raise a few eyebrows among your neighbors).

• The best-known of all Halloween symbols, hollowed-out pumpkins with glowing candlelit faces allegedly originate from Ireland's "Stingy Jack" myth. Rejected by both heaven and hell after he died, his soul condemned to wander eternally, Jack placed a glowing "hell fire" coal inside a hollowed-out turnip in order to light his way. Originally, the Irish called his ghostly visage "Jack of the Lantern" until shortening it to "Jack O'Lantern."

• Placing a candlelit jack-o-lantern outside of your front door isn't just a kitschy holiday decoration; it also wards off any ghosts or dead spirits with evil intent.

• If you happen to see a spider on Halloween (a real one and not some kid at your front door wearing a Spiderman costume), it means that the spirit of a deceased loved one benevolently keeps his or her eye on you.

• The practice of knocking on doors in hopes of receiving a handout originated from the less-fortunate in Ireland and Great Britain, who offered on Hallowmas (November 1) to say a prayer for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2) in exchange for something to eat.

• If you hear three knocks on your front door but discover there's nobody there after opening it, it means a loved one will soon die. (Or, you were just visited by a roguish trick-or-treater familiar with this superstition.)

• While prowling the neighborhood in search of Halloween candy in the dark of night (or even if you're just accompanying your children), you should run straight home without looking back if you think you hear footsteps behind you. The ghosts or spirits of the dead might be following you, and if you look back and make eye contact, you will soon join them.

• Make certain you avoid looking at your shadow cast by the Moon's reflected light while trick-or-treating, unless you're interested in dying soon.

• The black bubbling cauldrons we associate today with witches derive from an ancient Celtic belief in the "Crone" or "Earth mother," who stirred just such a pot containing the souls of the departed as they awaited reincarnation.

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