Halloween is the festival of the year in the USA, coming up just behind Christmas as the nation’s favourite holiday. Halloween is the perfect occasion for the family to do things together; carving pumpkins, putting up lights, decorating the yard and house and going through the overwhelming fun of preparing ghoulish costumes.
However, Halloween was not always a family-friendly festival. It has transformed from an ancient pagan festival that revolved around appeasing the spirits of the dead to the happy, kid-oriented, candy-distributing, party-throwing holiday it is today.
Halloween comes to us from ancient Celtic, Roman and European religious practices and Catholic tributes to dead saints. The non-Catholics believed that angry or spiteful ghosts could harm them or their crops by bringing about harsh winters. To ward off these spirits they would wear costumes and offer burnt animals as offerings. In the case of the Catholics, prayers were offered and night vigils arranged to honour the souls of the departed saints. The Catholic tradition, called All Hallows’ Eve, was an officially sanctioned attempt to supplant the old pagan rituals.
In the mid-nineteenth century the Irish and the Scots brought Halloween to North America. Their traditions included turnip carving (soon replaced by pumpkins), donning costumes, preparing family dinners and telling ghost stories. It was also a harvest festival when the community would get together to play music, sing and dance to celebrate.
As early as the 1930s Halloween in the US involved parades with the participants dressing up in costumes. Since Halloween was connected to evil spirits, people would dress up as witches, ghosts, goblins and skeletons.
The costumes have undergone changes since then and dressing up as pirates, princesses and comic book superheroes is commonplace. Films and TV shows offer endless inspiration when it comes to costumes - especially zombies and characters from slasher and horror films rule the dark streets.
The celebration has also become more and more about the kids. By the 1950s children playing “trick-or-treat” had become customary. There is a whole industry devoted to making costumes as well as planning and creating Halloween themes for children’s parties. Schools and neighbourhood associations have “block parties” for older children. Stores and other businesses give parties with games and treats for kids as part of their sales promotional activities.
So big has the Halloween scene become that even museums, aquariums and zoos are organising events to celebrate the festival. All around the country there are plenty for kids of all ages (including those masquerading as adults) to do, experience and enjoy during this chill-inducing season.
There are an estimated 1200 ‘haunt’ or ‘scare’ related attractions taking place all across the US during Halloween. These events can range from scary boat rides, ghost and vampire walking tours to haunted house tours.
The biggest and best organised promoters of Halloween are theme parks. And nobody does it bigger, better and brighter than Orlando. The theme park capital of the world has more than 80 Halloween events during the six weeks leading up to Halloween!
The Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando involves zombies staggering and roaming around the park grounds, gruesome blood spattered prosthetic bodies, howling banshees springing out of the woodwork or from darkened doorways and a hundred other horrific creatures and monsters to make your blood run cold. Fans of The Walking Dead will love the terrifying new mazes inspired by Season 3 of the award-winning TV series. Dodge the gory walkers and see if you survive without getting bitten!
At Orlando every level of scare is explored to give everyone a good dosage of racing hearts, sweaty palms and cold chills.
For the littler ones there are gentler, less scary varieties of Halloween themes playing and happening at the parks. Princesses, famous and well-loved friendly ghosts, mice, ducks and Sesame Street characters will be on hand to interact with the younger children. There are also plenty of magic shows and costume parades to keep the whole family entertained.
Modern-day customs mixed with ancient rituals bring us the potent cauldron of Halloween as we now know it. However you like spending the holiday, if it’s October and you’re in the mood for blood-curdling excitement, then you have to be down in Orlando, Florida.