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7 Burning Halloween Questions: Answered!

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As you put the finishing touches on your costume and stock up on candy for the neighborhood kids, let's take a minute to reflect on the origin of some popular Halloween traditions.

1. WHO STARTED HALLOWEEN?

Halloween got its start thousands of years ago, and we can thank the Celts for getting things going. They celebrated a holiday known as Samhain on October 31, one of the four "quarter days" of the calendar, and possibly the Celtic New Year. They believed that the dead could walk the earth on Samhain and cause mischief but, on the plus side, their presence also made it easier for the Druid priests to predict the future.

2. WHY DO WE WEAR COSTUMES?

On Samhain, a big bonfire would be built and sacrifices made to the dead, while the common folk would dress up in animal skins and try to tell their own fortunes (probably with the same success rate as the "professionals"). The costumes, Halloween's most enduring tradition, were donned either to calm the spirits or to blend in with them, so as to not incur their wrath.

3. HOW DID SAMHAIN BECOME HALLOWEEN?

Starting in 43 CE, the Roman war machine rolled through Britain and conquered a large chunk of the Celtic population. But the Romans, always the master conquerors, cleverly blended two of their own holidays with the Celtic Samhain to make the transition to Roman rule more seamless. One holiday was a celebration of the dead (easy enough to mix with Samhain) and the other was a celebration of the Pomona, the goddess of fruit and tress, where, supposedly, the tradition of bobbing for apples takes root.

When Christianity arrived on the scene, the hodgepodge holiday again was forced to change. Like the previous blending, the Christians incorporated their own holidays into the Samhain tradition. November 1 became All-hallow's, a day to celebrate the saints and martyrs, and October 31 became All-hallow's Even ("Even" being short for "evening," and providing the "n" in "Halloween"). Through the magic of etymology, All-hallow's Even became Halloween.

4. HOW DID WE GET FROM BONFIRES AND DEAD SAINTS TO PLASTIC MASKS AND CANDY CORN?

Why, the Americans of course!

But it didn't happen right away. Puritans in New England suppressed the superstitious holiday. In the South, however, where religious piety was less important, Halloween was celebrated in much the same way it was in Europe. But a great tide of immigration in the late 1800s brought a new life to the holiday, and no amount of piety could contain it. Through the years, the "spookiness" of Halloween was replaced with a more wholesome community feel, out of which grew trick-or-treating and, as towns celebrated together, stripped any religious significance away. Finally, after many thousands of years and many cultural modifications, we arrived at a holiday involving witches, costumes, candy, mischief, the deceased and pumpkins.

5. WAIT, WHERE DO PUMPKINS FIT IT?

Making vegetable lanterns can be traced back to Great Britain and Ireland, where carving turnips, beets and potatoes had been a fall tradition for many centuries. According to an Irish myth, a man named Stingy Jack once had a drink with the Devil and, when he didn't want to pay for it, he convinced the Devil to turn into a coin. However, Stingy Jack lived up to his name and pocketed the coin next to a cross, keeping the Devil locked in a monetary state until he struck a deal with Jack to leave him alone and not claim his soul for Hell upon his death. When Jack did die, Heaven rejected him and, true to his word, so did the Devil.

As punishment for his trickery, the Devil sent Jack out to wander the earth forever with a single coal in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way. To Irish children he was Jack of the Lantern or, as the Irish are wont to do when confronted with an "of the," Jack O'Lantern.

But Jack-o'-Lanterns were not a part of Halloween celebrations in Britain; it would take a new continent to cement that tradition. The first mention of a Jack-o'-Lantern being part of a Halloween celebration comes from a Canadian paper which, in 1866, wrote, "The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle."

6. WHY DID PUMPKINS BEAT OUT TURNIPS, BEETS AND POTATOES?

Simple. Pumpkins abounded in America and were much better for carving and illuminating than any of the aforementioned veggies. We can assume the tradition of smashing pumpkins originated very soon after the carved pumpkin entered the Halloween celebration in the late 1800s.

7. WHERE DOES CANDY CORN COME FROM?

Like Christmas and the candy cane and Easter with its marshmallow Peeps, Halloween, too, has a signature sweet: the mysterious candy corn. Like some annual plague, the small cone-shaped candies infect our stores and molars each year before vanishing as quickly as they came. Comedian Lewis Black has a theory about candy corn: "All the candy corn that was ever made was made in 1914. They never had to make it again. We never eat enough of it. We only eat two or three or four pieces apiece. So, literally, after Halloween the candy corn companies send out their minions. And they go from garbage can to garbage can and collect the corn and throw it back in the bags. And it appears next year." Good theory, but not quite right.

Nobody knows who invented candy corn, but we do know it began to appear in the 1880s, and we know the first company to make it commercially was the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia. Soon after, the Goelitz Confectionery Company began production of candy corn in Cincinnati in 1898. The process at first was daunting: a candy blend was mixed up, heated and then poured by hand into molds. Each mold needed three separate pours to achieve the tri-color glory that is candy corn. Today the process is mechanized and the tri-color composition isn't nearly as impressive as it was to the people of the 19th century, but Goelitz has never changed the recipe and they continue to make the candy to this day. The Goelitz Confectionery Company even went on to invent another fairly popular candy a few decades later, although they had to change the company name to do so. Today they are known as Jelly Belly.

All images via iStock.

This story originally ran in 2008.

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Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?
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Warner Bros.

With the box office-smashing success of the new adaptation of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the new PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explains the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

If you’re not completely spooked yet, watch the full story below.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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This Oregon-Based Nonprofit Creates Amazing Costumes for Children in Wheelchairs
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Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Ryan and Lana Weimer celebrate Halloween all year round: The couple from Keizer, Oregon, runs a nonprofit called Magic Wheelchair, which the two founded in early 2015 to build elaborate—and free—costumes for kids in wheelchairs.

The Weimers’ eldest son, Keaton, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) when he was 9 months old. The rare genetic disorder affects the control of muscle movement, so Keaton uses a wheelchair to get around. In 2008, the 3-year-old asked his parents if he could be a pirate for Halloween. It was then that Ryan had an idea: Instead of simply giving Keaton a tri-corner hat, why not build a pirate ship that fit around his wheelchair?

Weimer constructed the wooden ship, and “what happened when we went out trick-or-treating was really just a wonderful, wonderful experience for us,” Weimer tells Mental Floss. “There's this weird awkwardness around disability. People don't always look at the kid and say hi, or talk to him or look at him. Instead, they just pause, or stare … But with that [pirate ship] costume on [Keaton’s chair], his disability really seemed to disappear, and people saw him before they saw his wheelchair.”

Kids swarmed around Keaton as they admired his ship, and he even wound up getting his picture published on the front page of the local newspaper. An annual tradition was born: Not wanting to rest on his laurels, Weimer continued building Keaton elaborate, wheelchair-friendly Halloween costumes each year. When his younger son Bryce—who was also diagnosed with SMA—was born in 2011, he included him in the fun, too. The positive reactions they received, Weimer says, inspired him and Lana to eventually “create a nonprofit to duplicate the experience we had for other kiddos and other families.”

A custom pirate ship Halloween costume, created by Magic Wheelchair founder Ryan Weimer for his son, Keaton.
A custom pirate ship Halloween costume, created by Magic Wheelchair founder Ryan Weimer for his son, Keaton.
Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Magic Wheelchair—which is funded by individual and corporate donors—relies on teams of local volunteers around the country, who work together to build costumes for children in their communities. To be considered for a costume, families fill out an online application, which provides the nonprofit with a kid's biography and a description of their desired ensemble.

After receiving automatic email confirmation that Magic Wheelchair has received their materials, recipients are selected on a first-come, first-serve basis, although kids with life-threatening conditions do get priority. The rest are placed on a waitlist until a local volunteer team is able to complete their build. This process can take a few months or a few years, depending on whether there's an available team in the region.

Once kids make it off the waitlist, they meet with volunteers to discuss their vision. After that, the teams work anywhere from 100 to 500 hours, from start to finish, to construct the commissioned costume. The final product is kept under wraps so Magic Wheelchair can surprise the lucky recipient at a grand unveiling.

One of these kids was 13-year-old Cassie Hudson, a fan of comic books who hails from North Plains, Oregon. Cassie, who has spina bifida and other related health issues, first heard about Magic Wheelchair in 2015 when she noticed a flyer for the nonprofit hanging in the lobby of Shriners Hospitals for Children.

The non-profit was new at the time, so Cassie and her mother, Tess Hudson, figured they wouldn’t have the resources to provide the teen with her dream Halloween costume. But in 2016, Magic Wheelchair approached a physical therapist at Shriners and asked if they knew anyone at the hospital who would be interested in receiving one of their custom creations through a big reveal at the upcoming Rose City Comic-Con. “She was like, oh my goodness, I know exactly the kid!” Tess tells Mental Floss.

Cassie’s favorite fictional superhero is Green Arrow, who appears in comic books published by DC Comics. “I just think he’s super cool—he’s one of those superheroes that doesn’t have any powers and just wants to help people because he feels the need to,” Cassie says. She wanted Magic Wheelchair to transform her chair into his motorcycle. The costume the volunteers built lights up, makes noises, and looks so much like an actual motorcycle that at one comic-con Cassie attended, security teams initially said she couldn't bring it into the building.

A custom Halloween costume created by Magic Wheelchair for 'Star Wars' fan Bryce Amiel.
A custom Halloween costume created by Magic Wheelchair for 'Star Wars' fan Bryce Amiel.
Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Designing custom costumes for wheelchairs does pose a unique set of challenges: For one, "these kids need their chairs," Weimer says. "Our volunteer teams don't have the chair to build on, so they take measurements and pictures and build off of those."

Also, Weimer says, "you definitely have to consider what the kiddo is capable of, where [the costume] is going to be stored, and where it's going to be transported—because they're big." Costumes, which wrap around the wheelchairs, range anywhere from 2.5 feet by 4 feet to 5 feet by 8 feet and are sometimes constructed in pieces, which makes moving them around much easier. Like pieces of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, these parts fit together on the wheelchair's base and are secured in place with brackets, plastic and metal pipes, zip ties, duct tape, and specially designed metal mounts.

These obstacles don't interfere with Magic Wheelchair's goal to build what Weimer calls the "biggest, baddest costumes" imaginable for kids. "The sky's the limit," he says. "The only limitations are what's OK with the family and the kiddo." One particularly ambitious recent build was for an Atlanta resident named Anthony. "He loves cooking, and so [the volunteers] built him this chef's kitchen around his wheelchair, with a stove," Weimer says. "There was even food—a turkey, and different dishes on the stovetop."

In just a few short years, Magic Wheelchair has grown from six volunteer teams, with anywhere from one to 10 members, to around 50 teams. This Halloween season, they plan on constructing around 50 costumes—a far cry from the seven or eight ensembles the nonprofit first produced in 2015. And it's poised to become just as big and bad as the costumes it creates. “We have a complete board of directors now,” Weimer says. “We were also able to get to the point where we have hired a fundraiser and some part-time staff. This just help us to keep on growing.”

For more information on volunteering with Magic Wheelchair, or to make a donation, visit their website.

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