With Halloween coming, store shelves will soon be covered in festive and colorful holiday decorations. Year after year we are surrounded by the same Halloween symbols and may even use our favorites for decorating. Why not learn a little bit about your favorite symbols this year?
Halloween practices and traditions can change from place to place and generation to generation, but often the symbols stay the same. Over time cultures may forget what exactly each symbol represents and new meanings can slowly take shape. Below is a list of modern day Halloween symbols that have been around for generations and some information about what they have come to symbolize in America.
Many Halloween symbols will fall into one of three major categories:
- They can be symbols of The Season and the Harvest. Examples of this kind of Halloween symbol are corn husks, candy corns and jack-o-lanterns.
- Many Halloween symbols represent Death and Mortality. Some examples of these are skeletons, skulls, ghosts and graveyards.
- The third set of Halloween symbols represents Misfortune or Evil. Examples include witches, bats, black cats and clowns.
• Jack-o-Lantern Symbol
The pumpkin symbol began long ago in Ireland when the Celts would carve turnips on All Hallow’s Eve. They would place an ember inside the turnip to keep evil spirits at bay.
There were no pumpkins in Ireland, so the pumpkin symbol didn’t become popular until the Irish migrated to America during the potato famine. See our History of Halloween page for more information. At this point the Irish switched from turnips to pumpkins.
The face of the jack-o-lantern: Now you know why the pumpkin is hollowed out and filled with fire, but why do we carve a face on it?
The reason for the face centers around the old Irish story of Stingy Jack. According to the tale, Stingy Jack lived as a drunk Irishman who played tricks on people. During his life, Jack managed to make both God and the Devil angry, so when he died neither heaven nor hell would let him in. He was forced to roam the earth with only a turnip jack-o-lantern to light his way.
Townspeople began placing jack-o-lanterns around their homes to keep Stingy Jack from coming to their door. Check out our 25 Halloween traditions page for more details about celebrating Halloween.
• Witch Symbols
Witch symbols are still some of the most traditional Halloween images around. The iconic silhouette of a witch riding through a full moon is one of the more popular witch images used on Halloween.
Why is the witch associated with Halloween? In Celtic culture witches were supernatural female healers. This is why Witch is derived from Wicca, which means “wise one”.
Once other religions began combining with the Celtic festival of Samhain, anything supernatural in nature became feared and avoided, including witches. Healing, which was once seen as helpful, was now seen by the church as pagan worship and evil magic.
Christianity considered witchcraft “detestable to the Lord.” For all these reasons, witches became supernatural symbols of sorcery and evil.
• Halloween Bat
Bat Halloween symbols can be found all over the background of holiday decorations. The Halloween bat dates all the way back to the roots of Halloween, during the festivals of Samhain.
The sacred bonfires burned at Samhian would attract many bugs and flying insects which caused bats to gather at each festival. Since bats are nocturnal and eat insects, they became closely linked to the holiday.
The Halloween bat is also associated with vampires. When you see a Halloween bat, it’s extra spooky because you never know wether it will transform into an undead vampire.
Another factor that gives bats the edge as a Halloween symbol is that there are three species of real life vampire bats that feed solely on blood. The vampire bat can quietly drink the blood of animals or even a person for up to half an hour at a time. Yuck!
• Ghost Symbol
Ghosts have always been a symbol of Halloween. Even during the festival of Samhain, the Celtic people believed ghosts were nearby because the veil between the living and dead was at its thinnest.
It’s believed that the spirits of the dead can walk among the living on Halloween night, making the ghost symbol fitting for this spooky holiday. It’s also thought that ghosts will visit their past loved ones and old homes on Halloween night.
• Halloween Cat
Of all the Halloween symbols, the black cat has definitely had to pay a price and earn their place in the festivities. Beginning at the time of Samhain, black cat symbolism led to many cats being burned alive.
Druids believed that evil humans could turn themselves into cats, which led the druids to lock the cats in cages and throw them into the sacred fires. Being a Halloween cat during the festival of Samhain was nothing to celebrate.
Later on in history, many believed that witches could turn into cats and black cats became the symbol for a witch’s familiar. Once again during the Witch Trials cats were killed along with the accused witches for being evil.
Interestingly enough, black cat symbolism is very different in many other countries where they are seen as good luck.
• Skeleton Halloween Symbols
Skeletons are striking Halloween symbols because they are a stark reminder of death. Skeletons remind us that Halloween has always been a holiday about the dead.
For some, it’s believed that on Halloween night the spirits of the dead can walk the earth.
Another reason skeletons are great Halloween symbols is because the visual of skeleton costumes, with white bones on a black background, looks good on TV and in movies.
Skeletons have become such popular Halloween symbols that you can now get fun skeleton dogs, birds, cats, and other animals as decorations.
• Skull Symbol
Skulls as Halloween symbols can be found together or separate from skeletons. The skull symbol can mean death or danger. Like the skeleton, it is a reminder of human mortality and the short time we have to live.
Skulls are fun Halloween symbols, but they also remind us that we will eventually end up in the earth alone.
• Mexican Skull
The Mexican skull is often used during El Dia De Los Muertos, aka The Day of The Dead, holiday celebrations. It can also be referred to as a sugar skull or calavera in Spanish. The Mexican skull has very different imagery than a traditional skull because it is richly decorated and colorful.
A Mexican skull created as an offering for a loved one can also be deeply personal and specific to the deceased. Unlike the traditional Halloween skull, a Mexican skull is a symbol of remembrance, sadness, mourning and celebration all at once.
• Trick or Treating
It was believed that on Halloween the veil between the living and the dead is at it’s thinnest. This allowed the dead to walk the earth on Halloween night.
This meant that spirits of dead loved ones would return to their homes on Halloween night to visit. Living relatives would leave out food as snacks and even put out chairs for loved ones to rest in.
Eventually this led to the hungry and poor dressing up as spirits and going door to door for offerings.
Later traditions like guising, mumming and souling led to our modern day version of trick or treating. You can read more about these on our Halloween traditions page.
• Scarecrow Halloween Symbols
Scarecrows can be used for both Halloween and fall decorations in modern day culture. Scarecrows are more than just Halloween symbols, they are a symbol of the fall season and the harvest.
Long after all the witches, bats and ghosts have been put into storage, the scarecrow remains. The scarecrow will stay all the way through Thanksgiving, symbolizing the fall harvest and the autumn feast.
However, don’t think this means the scarecrow hasn’t earned its place as a symbol of Halloween. They were used by many cultures in the fields, sometimes with animal skulls as heads. During harvesting rituals the scarecrows would be burned in celebration and the ashes returned to the soil.
Scarecrows are Halloween symbols because no matter what culture and what harvest, their underlying purpose is to instill fear. They always have one purpose, to frighten away intruders and they do it well. Modern day scarecrows have starred in TV shows, comics and movies as terrifying creatures that provoke a sense of dread.
• Owl Symbolism
Owls have been associated with Halloween symbols since the beginning of Halloween, at the festivals of Samhain. The druids would light huge sacred bonfires which would attract many bugs, flying insects, bats and owls.
The owls and bats came for the easy food supplied by the insects. Owls have long been associated with Halloween and magic, just ask Hedwig on Harry Potter.
In the Middle Ages, owl symbolism took a dark turn as the owl became associated with witches. People began to believe that witches could turn into owls, and the sharp call of the Screech Owl made them think of witches flying overhead. The spooky hooting sounds made by owls are known symbols for an approaching witch.
Owl symbolism has also labeled these creatures as indicators of nearby death or hauntings.
There are so many legends and superstitions about owls, but not all owl symbolism is bad. Owls are also known to be wise, foretell good fortune, provide guidance, and some cultures even consider them sacred. Check out our Halloween Superstitions page for more interesting notes about the owl.
• Blood Symbolism
In our current culture blood has become a significant part of Halloween culture. Blood is often a center piece in Halloween movies, costumes and even decorations. Window clings with bloody hands and blood drippings have become widely available and popularized.
A classic reference to blood in Halloween culture is the vampire with blood dripping down the side of his mouth. Blood symbolism in Halloween is very similar to other uses of blood symbolism.
Like many Halloween symbols, blood represents life and mortality. It’s a reminder that we are human and can experience pain and be killed. Showing the loss of blood or blood draining from a body is a direct reference to mortality and the fear of dying.
Along with orange and black, red is often used in popular decorations to symbolize the color of blood when decorating for Halloween.
• Spider Symbolism
Spider symbolism is extensive in folklore and mythology with spiders being seen as weavers of fate and oracles of death. This will focus on Halloween spider symbolism because spiders and their webs are consistently found woven throughout this spooky holiday.
Historically, spider symbolism took a dark turn at the time of the Witch Hunts. Like other nocturnal creatures, spiders were seen as an evil companion of witches and they became a bad omen.
Another reason spiders are seen as creepy, crawly creatures is because of where they like to hang out. Spiders can often be found in dark abandoned places like spooky houses, graveyards, creepy caves and dark dungeons. This makes it easy to associate spiders with abandoned and spooky places.
Add to all this the fact that some spiders are so deadly they can kill humans, and it’s no wonder spiders are looked at as scary creatures of the night.
• Halloween Clowns
The clown has been around for a long time, but it’s only lately that the dark and scary clown has become popular. Historically, in Rome, China, Europe and elsewhere clowns were often the only ones who could make fun of kings and emperors.
They were tricksters and jokesters with an impish spirit hidden behind a smiling face of make-up. Clowns were friendly but also symbolized mischief and unpredictability while wearing a joyful mask.
The modern clown has taken a much darker turn, with the scary version of clown make-up becoming more dominant. In fact, it’s much easier to think of examples of dark scary carnival clowns than it is to come up with fun loving cute clowns.
Some movies and shows with famous evil clowns are Stephen King’s IT, Killer Klowns From Outer Space, American Horror Story, the Devil’s Rejects, and even that creepy clown toy in the movie Krampus.
Add to this the real life creepy clown sightings in 2016 and it’s safe to say that the Halloween clown has become a dark symbol of fear for Halloween. The clown has always been a symbol of the unknown, but now it represents dread and uncertainty too.
• Corn Husks
Corn husk are Halloween symbols that go all the way back to the times of Samhain when agriculture was a big part of the season. In modern times, corn husk decorations can stick around all the way through Thanksgiving, like the scarecrow.
This is because corn husks symbolize the end of harvest and the change of seasons. They can represent a successful harvest, autumn’s end and the start of winter.
• Candy Corn
You are probably wondering “What does candy corn symbolize?” It hasn’t been around since the festival of Samhain and it’s not an ancient ritual.
True, but candy corn has still earned some respect from Halloween fans. It has only been around since the late 1800’s, but candy corn has become a symbol of the changing seasons. It’s a symbol of autumn, a reminder of the changing leaf colors and that refreshing, cool crisp air. Candy corns also symbolize the impending arrival of Halloween!
Many of the Halloween symbols listed above are directly connected to ancient Halloween customs. Be sure to check out our Halloween traditions page if you are interested in learning more.
Also go to our Fun Facts about Halloween page for interesting details about Halloween.
• If you enjoy trivia be sure to check out our Halloween Trivia page.
Looking for Halloween jokes?
• We have a great selection go to our Halloween Jokes page and choose which category of jokes to start with.