Linda Sarhan has been a freelance writer and researcher for 20+ years and has a B.A. in English and creative writing.
Superstitions and Symbols Connected to Halloween
Halloween has long been shrouded in mystery, fear of the unseen, and above all, superstition. Many of the darker legends associated with the holiday stem from superstitions that have been passed down from one generation to the next, most of which began as urban legends or old wives' tales fabricated in days long gone to help make sense of the natural world.
For some of us, however, there is real power in suggestion, and the fear that looms around Halloween is still quite tangible. Luckily, not all Halloween superstitions are clouded in gloom and doom. Some actually involve lucky omens and signs of good things to come.
This article explores some of the more common superstitions, customs, and omens tied to the Halloween holiday. Some you may be familiar with, but others might surprise you.
Bats are one of the most iconic symbols of Halloween. One superstition states that if you see a bat flying around you or your home on Halloween, there may be a ghost or spirit nearby. However, a bat circling your home three times is said to be an omen that someone close to you will die soon.
According to another legend, if a bat flies into you, good luck is on the way, but if you see one during the day, ill fortune may befall you. Superstition also dictates that you should never kill a bat, as this is thought to shorten your lifespan.
Black cats often get a bad rap on Halloween. After all, it is believed by some that if a black cat meows close to your door or window, a death in the family will soon occur.
A very well-known superstition states that if you hurt a cat, whether accidentally or intentionally, seven years of bad luck will follow. This is thought to have something to do with the belief that if you see a black cat on Halloween, a witch is nearby.
Lighting a large bonfire on Samhain or All Hallow's Eve (older versions of Halloween) is an old Celtic custom. After the bonfire has died down and burned out completely, some people make a circle with the ashes. Upon the ashes, they place a pebble. The following day, if the pebble is moved or damaged, it is considered a sign that ill fortune or death will befall the person it represents within 12 months.
Being Born on Halloween
It is considered a blessing to be born on Halloween. People who have Halloween birthdays are thought to have good luck follow them throughout their lives. It is also believed that those born on Halloween are likely to have the gift of second sight (or ESP). Although this can present in many ways, Halloween-born individuals are believed to possess a heightened intuitive nature and have the ability to perceive unseen spirits in some way or another.
One superstition states that if a lit candle goes out suddenly on Halloween, an evil spirit is lurking close by. However, if the flame of the candle turns blue, a good spirit is close and may be watching over you. If the flame of a candle suddenly burns tall, you will soon be visited by a mysterious stranger.
Lighting Candles on Halloween
An old Samhain tradition involves lighting white candles throughout your home so that good luck and fortune follow you all year round. A variation of this belief states that if you light an orange candle at midnight and let it burn until dawn, you will have good fortune from that day forward.
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Some people believe that if you stare into the flame of a candle long enough between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am on Halloween night, you will catch a glimpse of what lies ahead in your future. It is also believed that any candle you burn on Halloween should not be burned on any other day of the year, as doing so may bring bad luck to you and your household.
Note: Another superstition warns that mirrors and candles do not mix on Halloween (see section on mirrors below).
Some folks believe that if you bury animal bones or even a picture of an animal close to your doorway that ghosts and spirits will not be able to enter your home. Another superstition states that if you lay down in a coffin, even it is just for fun, that you are inviting death upon you or someone close to you.
It is thought to be rude to point at a grave on Halloween, and some even believe that doing so will cause your finger to rot off. Few take this concept literally; most interpret it more symbolically to mean that finger-pointing could result in a variety of unsavory outcomes such as arthritis, damaging a digit in an accident, or even being blamed for something you didn't do.
Another common superstition advises holding your breath when passing a cemetery in order to prevent evil spirits from possessing you. A variation states that you should turn your pockets inside out when walking past a graveyard so ghosts do not follow you home.
Crossroads have long been the loci of popular superstitions. One states that if you stand at a crossroads on Halloween and listen carefully, you may hear what will happen to you over the next year.
Of course, in Scotland, it is thought that if you bring a three-legged stool to a crossroads on Halloween, you will be told who among your acquaintances will die during the upcoming year. Granted, you can counter this by retrieving an article of clothing belonging to the person who is supposed to die and throwing it in the air at the crossroads while yelling out their name.
Deals With the Devil
Ghost and evil spirits are also thought to gather around crossroads. Some people go to crossroads on Halloween to make deals with the devil—it is believed that in exchange for your soul, the devil will grant you any one wish.
Ghosts and Spirits
It is widely believed that the veil that separates our world from the world of the dead is thin or practically non-existent on Halloween night. Another similar belief states that all souls who are sentenced to purgatory will get to roam the earth for two days starting on Halloween. In fact, in England, some people do not go hunting on Halloween for fear that they will wound a ghost or spirit.
Keep in mind that if you hear footsteps behind you on Halloween or the day after, you should not turn around to look. If you do, you may soon meet your demise and find yourself walking among the ghosts next Halloween. The most common superstition when it comes to ghosts is that if you see one on Halloween, you should walk around it nine times to banish it and make it leave you alone.
Jack o' Lanterns
Pumpkin Jack o' lanterns are a fairly new tradition that originates in the United States. Originally, carved pumpkins were used to frighten people in their homes by raising them as if they were peering in windows. The actual concept of the jack o' lantern was inspired by the Irish, who carved designs and sometimes faces into gourds and placed candles inside to light their homes at night.
There are several superstitions when it comes to placing a lit candle inside a jack o' lantern on your porch or by your front door. Some believe that doing so honors your ancestors and lights their way home. Others believe that it will ward off mischievous and evil spirits, including vampires. Another superstition states that carved pumpkins can trap the devil and prevent him from entering your home.
Some say that you can see a deceased loved one by looking into a mirror by candlelight, but a popular superstition warns that you should never stare into a mirror by candlelight alone on Halloween, as you never know what you might see or unleash.
In fact, many people cover up all of their mirrors on Halloween. There are two thoughts behind this tradition. One is that mirrors act as portals to the unknown, and covering them prevents evil spirits from entering the home. The other is that ghosts and spirits can be trapped in mirrors, so if a loved one who has died comes for a visit on Halloween, covering your mirrors will prevent them from becoming trapped and doomed to spend an eternity in the mirror.
It is a common belief that owls are one of the few creatures that can live in the same location as ghosts. It is thought that if you see an owl nest near a house or other structure, the location is haunted with roaming ghosts and spirits.
Some people grew up with the belief that when a person is dying or has just died, owls may swoop down over the body to eat the soul of the person. They are also said to predict doom or death. It is thought that if you hear an owl, you should turn your pockets inside out, much like you would when passing a cemetery to avoid taking ghosts home with you.
Superstition also states that if an owl hangs around your house or you hear one hoot, it may be delivering a message that something bad is about to happen. If the owl makes eye contact with you, either you or someone you know will die soon.
Spiders give most people the creeps at any time of the year, but on Halloween, they are said to represent dead loved ones. It is thought that if a spider comes into your home on Halloween, you should not kill it because it could be one of your dead ancestors.
Although the modern practice of trick-or-treating is of American origin, it may have evolved from older traditions in Europe. Ancient Celts believed that by dressing up in ghoulish costumes on Samhain, they could ward off demons and evil spirits or blend in among them unnoticed.
Baked treats called soul cakes were often left out as offerings for any spirits and ghosts that stopped by on Samhain. Some wanted their ancestors to visit, while others just wanted to appease spirits and be left alone.
Other Halloween Superstitions
- If you trap a snail on a flat dish on Halloween, you will see the first letter of the name of the person you will marry on the dish (in snail slime) the next morning.
- Ringing a bell on Halloween can help keep evil spirits away.
- If you cast a shadow with no head or cast no shadow at all, you will die within the year.
- Traveling out of town on Halloween is bad luck.
- On Halloween night, if you sleep with an apple under your pillow, you will dream of your future spouse.
- If you make a list of things you wish to accomplish or want in the next 12 months; fold the list 3, 6, or 9 times; and burn it with a candle's flame; your wishes will come true by next Halloween.
- On Halloween, right before the sun sets, it is thought that if you walk backward around your house counterclockwise three times, you will ward off any evil spirits that might try to enter your home.
- If you want to find and meet a witch on Halloween, you should walk backward while wearing your clothes inside out.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Linda Sarhan
elle9o on August 16, 2014:
Cool article! I was born on Halloween so I was curious to see if it would be included in this. How fascinating!