12 (Mostly) Spooky Halloween Superstitions

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Many centuries before candy corn was invented, the ancient Celts celebrated Samhain on October 31, a night that marked the end of the year and the official start of winter. Samhain, which later became folded into Halloween, was also seen as a night when the dead returned to their former homes—or as the 1903 Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, Occult Sciences of the World puts it, "the night of all the year that spirits walked abroad and fairies were most bold." Plenty of folklore and superstition once accompanied this evening, and while much of it was concerned with romantic fortune-telling, some lore was significantly spookier. Here are a dozen tidbits from the Encyclopedia of Superstitions to get you in the Halloween mood.

1. In Wales, a disembodied spirit was thought to be sitting on every crossroad and stile on All Hallow’s Eve. (Stiles are small structures that allow humans but not animals to pass over fences.)

1. In the British Isles, it was said to be evil to eat blackberries after Halloween—because on that night “the spirit, called púca [Irish for ghost] comes out and defiles them.”

3. In Scotland, you can secure good luck for yourself by waving around the red-hot end of a fiery stick in certain “mystic figures” (the encyclopedia is unclear about which specific mystic figures are required).

4. Welsh families had an especially creepy bonfire tradition: After building a huge fire, each member of the family would throw in a small white stone they had marked in some way. The next morning, they'd search through the remains of the fire to find the stones. If one was missing, it meant that person wouldn't live to see another Halloween.

5. In the Western Isles, it was considered bad luck to leave your house on Halloween. (Don’t tell modern trick or treaters!)

6. On All-Hallow's Eve, the fishermen of the Orkney Islands made a cross on their boats with tar for good luck. If they weren't successful, they sprinkled " forespoken water" over their boats.

7. Norman seamen who ventured out to sea on Halloween "were said to have the 'double sight,' that is, each one beheld a living likeness of himself seated in close contact, and if he was engaged in any work, the phantom was doing the same."

8. Not all superstitions were spooky, apparently—some had to do with mundane health matters. In some Celtic lands, it was thought that if you eat a large apple under an apple tree at midnight on Halloween wearing only a bed sheet, you would never get a cold.

9. In the days before Weather.com, they thought that whatever direction a bull was facing while lying down on Halloween was the direction from which the wind would blow for most of the winter.

Spooky forest with full orange-colored moon
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10. Children born on Halloween were said to have the "power to see spirits and converse with fairies."

11. As late as the 17th century, it was customary for farmers in Scotland and elsewhere to walk around their fields with a lighted torch, singing or chanting a piece of doggerel verse, in order to protect their fields from harm.

12. Halloween was once called "Witches' Night" or the "Devil's Sunday," and was thought to be the occasion for a major celebration led by His Satanic Majesty. Witches were said to leave sticks in their beds to fool their husbands, and then ride to the festivities on broomsticks anointed with the fat of murdered unbaptized infants—or, failing that, a cat. "All Scotch boys will remember how tired the cats were the day after Hallowe'en," the Encyclopedia of Superstitions and Folklore writes. "Some pitied their miserable appearance; others were mad at them for carrying the witches."

What’s That Thing That Hangs Off a Turkey’s Face?

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iStock.com/JZHunt

That thing is called a snood. And it's there to let the other turkeys know that its owner is kind of a big deal.

When a male turkey—known as a tom—wants to mate, he faces two hurdles. One is his potential mates, the female turkeys (a.k.a. hens). In the realm of turkey mating, the hens wield the power of choice and the toms have to get their attention and win the opportunity to reproduce. Come mating season, a tom will strut around, gobble, puff out his chest, fan his tail, and drag his wings to attract the hens, who then pick which of the toms they’ll mate with.

The second problem for a tom looking for love is the other toms in the area. They’re all competing for the same limited number of hens. Sometimes a good mating display isn’t enough to win a mate, and toms will attack and fight each other to secure a hen. 

This is where the snood comes in. That goofy-looking piece of dangling flesh helps a tom both with choosy hens and with competition from rival males. Having a long snood almost always means that a hen will want to mate with him and that another tom will back down from a fight.

DUDES AND THEIR SNOODS

When two toms are trying to establish dominance, they’ll size each other up. Then they'll either fight, or one will flee.

In the late 1990s, Richard Buchholz, an animal behaviorist who focuses on turkeys, wanted to figure out which, if any, characteristics of a tom turkey could predict how they fare in dominance fights. That is, did bigger turkeys tend to win more scuffles? Did older ones? He also wanted to see if the turkeys used any of these predictive cues when sizing each other up. He looked at various characteristics of dominant toms that fight and win, and compared them to those of subordinate toms that lose fights or run from them. Of all the characteristics he looked at, only “relaxed snood length” seemed to be a reliable predictor of how a tom would do in bird-vs-bird combat. The dominant males, the ones who won fights and got a choice mate, had longer snoods.

With that in mind, Buchholz looked at how toms reacted to other toms with snoods of varying sizes. The birds tended to avoid confrontation with other males with longer snoods, and wouldn’t even feed near them. A big snood, this suggests, says to the other turkeys that this is a tom you don’t want to tangle with. Buchholz noted that snood length correlates with age, body mass, and testosterone, so, to competitors, the snood could be a good indicator of a tom’s aggressiveness, age/experience, size, and overall condition and fighting ability.

IN THE SNOOD FOR LOVE

Once the males have established who’s going to have a chance to mate, the final choice goes to the hen. While the mating display is the main draw for getting a hen to check him out, a tom’s snood helps him out again here.

Like it did for the other males, a tom’s snood signals a lot of information to a female assessing potential mates—it indicates how old and how big he is, and even says something about his health. In another study, Buchholz found that longer-snooded toms carried fewer parasites. If a hen wanted to choose a mate with good genes that might help her offspring grow large, live long, and avoid parasites, a tom’s snood is a good advertisement for his genes. In that study, hens showed a clear preference for toms with longer snoods. In another experiment years later, Buchholz found that healthy hens again showed a strong preference for long snoods and that hens with their own parasite problems were less picky about snood length and checked out more potential mates—perhaps, Buchholz thinks, because the hens recognized their own susceptibility to infection and were willing to invest more time searching for a tom with genes for parasite resistance that would complement their own—but still showed some preference for longer ones.

While a snood might look goofy to us, for a turkey, it’s integral to the mating game, signaling to other toms that they should get out of his way and letting hens know that he’s got what they’re looking for.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2013.

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

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iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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