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What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?

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The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

Legend Has It

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

Old Tale, New Traditions

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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8 Awesome Halloween Displays From Around the Country

Looking for some Halloween decorating inspiration? Look no further than these spooky displays. From New Mexico to New York, here are eight creepy homes worth going out of your way for each All Hallows' Eve.

1. THE PUMPKIN HOUSE IN KENOVA, WEST VIRGINIA

C-K AutumnFest—an annual fall festival thrown by the West Virginia towns of Kenova and Ceredo—offers scarecrow-building contests, tractor shows, and home-canning competitions, among other activities. Its highlight, however, is probably the Pumpkin House. The historic Victorian abode once belonged to IRS commissioner Joseph S. Miller, a friend of President Grover Cleveland. But when Ric Griffith moved in, he put it on the map with elaborate jack-o'-lantern displays.

Each year, in late October, the onetime Kenova mayor festoons the home’s yard, porch, rooftops, and gables with 3000 glowing pumpkins, some of which sit on specially built displays with music and lights. The laborious project begins in earnest around a month before Halloween, when Miller and his daughter start drawing faces on the gourds. Then, around five days before AutumnFest kicks off, local volunteers help the duo scoop, carve, rinse, and arrange the jack-o'-lanterns into tiered rows around the house and yard.

You can check out the Pumpkin House in person at this year’s festival, which runs October 27-28. “Due to the shelf life of a carved pumpkin, carving will not begin until October 23,” organizer Kim Layman tells Mental Floss. “Once the pumpkins are carved and set into place, they remain lit 24/7. The best time to see the greatest number of pumpkins lit is the weekend of AutumnFest. Weather permitting, the pumpkins will remain lit through Halloween.”

2. DANIEL'S HALLOWEEN HOUSE OF WARWICK IN WARWICK, RHODE ISLAND

The annual Halloween display at 69 Darrow Drive in Warwick, Rhode Island is so over-the-top that it has its own Facebook page for local fans. Past iterations have featured Halloween props designed by homeowner Mike Daniels, spooky interactive figures, and multi-colored lights synchronized to more than 14 songs. This year’s clown-themed yard show won’t be complete until around mid-October, but there will be “new designs and props and music,” Daniels tells Mental Floss. “We’ve added some awesome new stuff!”

Proving that Halloween isn’t always about tricks and/or treats, Daniels typically leaves out a bin for charitable donations. This Halloween, the collection will be donated to the Spirit of Children hospital foundation, which funds art, music, and other therapeutic projects for children receiving medical care.

3. “OPERATION: SCARE ‘N SHARE” IN WELLS, MAINE

In 2006, Stanley Norton of Wells, Maine, began competing with his brother to see who could build the best Christmas light show. The winner gained bragging rights, and the loser was required to hang a portrait of their sibling in their home with the words “I wish I was my brother” underneath. Norton got so into the challenge that eventually, the satisfaction of beating his brother was no longer enough. About two years after the inaugural lights contest, he also began regularly decorating his home for Halloween, an endeavor he’s since dubbed “OPERATION: Scare ‘N Share.”

Norton’s annual display runs the week before Halloween, and features spooky props and thousands of lights synced to radio music. (They're erected with help from the local Wells Soccer team, which Norton used to coach.) The tunes and lights change each year, but visitors are always asked to bring canned goods to donate to a local food pantry. In 2015, Norton’s Halloween house had so many visitors that they collected close to 1000 pounds of food.

4. THE CUNNINGHAM HAUNT HOUSE IN FARMINGTON, NEW MEXICO

When a prospective career in the haunted house industry didn’t work out for him, Darrell Cunningham, a software programmer in Farmington, New Mexico, decided to turn his passion into a hobby by decorating his own home for Halloween. The project soon morphed into an ongoing tradition that's now six or so years running.

Today, Cunningham, with help from his father, constructs elaborate Halloween displays at his parents’ more spacious abode. The Cunningham Haunt House, as it’s called, features handmade props that Cunningham builds himself. (They've included grim reaper, witch, and angel statues fashioned from chicken wire, plastic pipes, paper mâché, and "monster mud," a special mixture of paint and drywall compound.) There are also plenty of spider webs and fake tombstones, as well as projectors that play music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller."

Since Halloween props are expensive, the father-and-son duo is always soliciting either online cash donations or crafting materials—“decorations, webs, pumpkins, wagons light posts, poles, wood, anything that could make cool props,” according to the Cunningham Haunt House’s Facebook page.

5. 84 MAIN STREET, CAMILLUS, NEW YORK

Trick-or-treaters in the greater Syracuse, New York region visit the town of Camillus to admire (and score candy from) Mickie and Bill Hendrix’s house on 84 Main Street. The homeowners are fans of classic horror films, so each October they transform their residence into a spine-tingling attraction complete with a fog machine, orchestral music, a giant barrel of "toxic waste" that pumps out green goo, and life-sized figures of skeletons, clowns, mummies, and vampires.

The display surrounds the house, and trick-or-treaters are forced to navigate their way through a sea of monsters and ghouls to receive candy at the back door. There, they're greeted by jumping motion-sensor creatures. (Some kids are too scared to come to the door, in which case Mickie Hendrix will toss candy out the window, or go downstairs and hand it to them personally.)

The couple have been decorating their home for more than 16 years. "It started out small and just got bigger and bigger," Mickie Hendrix told Syracuse.com. "It's getting out of control and we're getting older. Thank God for our grandchildren. They helped us get everything out." However, the display might be in its final years, as the couple is planning to eventually move to Florida.

6. TERROR ON TILLSON IN ROMEO, MICHIGAN

Halloween is a community affair in Romeo, a tiny 19th century village in Macomb County, Michigan, where residents transform a single two-block street into a spooky wonderland each October.

It’s said that the seasonal spectacle on Tillson Street began with longtime homeowner Vicki Lee, whose birthday falls on Halloween. To celebrate the occasion, she always decorated her home with pumpkins, corn stalks, and scarecrows. Her enthusiasm for the holiday spread, and as more families with young children moved into the area, other neighbors began building handmade Halloween scenes in their own front yards. Ultimately, around 30 homes joined in on the fun, resulting in the street-wide affair that the village knows and loves today.

Today, an estimated 80,000 visitors are said to visit Tillson Street each year to experience the spectacle—nicknamed Terror on Tillson—for themselves. On Halloween, the street is blocked off so kids can safely trick-or-treat under the watchful eye of a makeshift security team of high school athletes. (In a separate event, Tillson Street residents also team up with the Kids Kicking Cancer organization to provide a safe daytime trick-or-treating event for around 50 children with cancer.)

Terror on Tillson has become so famous that it’s spawned souvenir T-shirts, a neighborhood cookbook, a food drive, and a scholarship fund dedicated to Lee’s late husband, Buzz Lee, who passed away from a brain tumor in 2002. Paying the street a visit, however, is always free of charge.

For more information, visit Terror on Tillson’s official website.

7. EDWARDS LANDING LIGHTS IN LEESBURG, VIRGINIA

For the past seven years, Brandon Bullis of Leesburg, Virginia has created a musical Halloween light show, covering the front of his house with thousands of lights that are synced to blink along with popular tunes. Past examples include Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Handclap” by Fitz and the Tantrums, and "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by Norwegian electronic group Ylvis, the last of which caused the home to go viral in 2013.

The show—which Bullis has branded “Edwards Landing Lights”—is technically silent, but viewers can listen to its tunes by turning on their car’s radio. They can also add money to a driveway donation box, the proceeds of which are donated to Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

To see Edwards Landing Lights in person, drive along Woods Edge Drive Northeast in Leesburg, Virginia after dark.

8. EAST 30TH STREET AND TACOMA AVENUE IN LORAIN, OHIO

Ricky Rodriguez constructs Halloween displays that look like movie sets. In 2013, the Lorain, Ohio resident teamed up with his brother Tony to built a giant two-story pirate ship, designed to look like it was crashing through the side of his home. The pirate ship returned to East 30th Street and Tacoma Avenue in 2014 (and presumably 2015), but last year, Rodriguez replaced the vessel with a fabricated steam-powered locomotive, inspired by the final scene of Back to the Future Part III.

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12 Halloween Traditions From Around the World
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Although most Americans spend Halloween dressing up and trick-or-treating, other countries have their own celebratory rituals. Here are 12 Halloween (and Halloween-like) traditions from around the world.

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