18 Spooky Halloween Phrases From Around the U.S.

Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images
Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images

Halloween has been celebrated in the United States since the 1800s, thanks to Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought over their All Hallows' Eve traditions. So it's no surprise that sayings in American English have risen around the holiday, including these 18 spooky regionalisms we’ve gathered in our continued partnership with the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

1. Holly Eve

In Arkansas or Missouri in the 1930s, West Virginia in the 1940s, or Pennsylvania in the 1950s, you might have referred to Halloween as Holly Eve. Hence, says DARE, a Holly Eve-er is “one who goes out on Halloween.”

2. Poke of Moonshine

Another name for the jack o' lantern, at least in 1930s Connecticut. A peak in the Adirondacks shares the name and, according to The New York Times, it might come from the Algonquin Indian words pohqui, meaning "broken," and moosie, meaning "smooth," possibly referring to "the level summit and stunning east-facing cliffs.” In the case of a jack o’ lantern, it could possibly refer to its carved and intact surfaces. In South Carolina, to move like a poke of moonshine is to move slowly and lazily.

3. False Face

The term false face originated in the late 18th century, according to DARE, to mean a mask in general, and in the early 1900s came to refer specifically to a Halloween mask. A 1911 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer said, “Halloween Masks—We have that false face you want for Tuesday night, grotesque and funny.”

The term seems to have been popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, with DARE quotes from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Mississippi, Kentucky, Indiana, and Texas. One individual states that their grandmother, who was born in New York City in the 1880s, used “‘false face’ (stress on ‘false’) as her ordinary word for ‘Halloween mask,’” and while the mask “didn’t have to be worn specifically on or for Halloween … it did have to cover the entire face.”

4. and 5. Help the Poor / Soap or Eats

While trick or treat is the norm for bonbon-begging, in 1930s and '40s Detroit, you might have also heard help the poor. Over in parts of California, Ohio, and Minnesota, the candy call might have been soap or eats or soap or grub. According to a Wisconsin resident, soap has to do with “threatening to soap windows” if goodies aren’t given.

6. Penny Night

Another trick or treat alternative is penny night, at least in southwest Ohio. The term also refers to the Halloween celebration itself. We're not sure what pennies have to do with it except as sweets stand-ins.

7. Beggar's Night

Parts of the North and North Midland— especially Ohio and Iowa—call Halloween like it is: beggars’ night. “Beggars’ Night, how ’bout a bite?” you might have heard in the Buckeye State. Beggars' night could be celebrated on “one or more days” the week before Halloween, much to the annoyance of several of those quoted in DARE. From a 1936 issue of the Piqua Daily Call in Ohio: “If the kids would get organized and pick on one particular date for their Beggar’s Night, we could brace ourselves for the onslaught.”

One Ohio resident said they had beggar’s night on October 30, on which they said, “Please help the poor,” while on Halloween they said, “Trick or treat.” The same practice also occurred on Thanksgiving eve, according to quotes from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York City.

8. Devil's Night

As a Michigan resident, you might have called the night before Halloween devil’s night, during which, according to quotes in DARE, kids might vandalize and set fire to abandoned buildings. In 1995, Detroit rechristened devil's night as Angel's Night, a community-organized event in which tens of thousands of volunteers "help patrol and surveil the streets during the days leading up to Halloween."

9. Mischief Night

To New Jerseyans, Halloween eve has always been mischief night, on which you could expect to get TP’d, egged, or spray-painted. According to quotes in DARE, additional activities might include doorbell ringing, gate removing (hence, gate night in some parts of the Northeast), car window soaping, pumpkin stealing, and porch furniture moving.

In England, mischief night refers to the prank-filled evenings of April 30 (May Day eve), October 30, or November 4, the night before Guy Fawkes Day. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation of the term is from 1830, while DARE’s is from 1977. It’s not clear exactly when the New Jersey/southeastern Pennsylvania meaning of mischief night originated. The earliest record we could find was from 1947 in an article, “Passaic Takes the 'Mischief' Out of ‘Mischief Night.’”

A variation on mischief night might be mystery night, attested in Essex and northern Middlesex counties, as well as other parts of north and central Jersey.

10. and 11. Goosey Night / Picket Night

Garden State alternatives to mischief night include goosey night and picket night. While picket night might come from “the custom of producing noise by running a stick along a picket fence,” according to Lexical Variation in New Jersey by Robert Foster, it’s unclear where goosey night comes from. If we had to guess, perhaps from goose, meaning to poke or startle.

12. Cabbage Night

In some northern parts of the United States, October 30 is known as cabbage night, during which, according to DARE, “young people throw cabbages and refuse on people’s porches, and play other pranks.” Why cabbages? It might have to do with an old Scottish tradition in which young women would pull up cabbages to inspect their stalks. The thickness of the stalks supposedly predicted whether their future husbands would be thin or portly. Then they would inexplicably hurl the vegetables at neighbors' homes.

13. Clothesline Night

In parts of 1950s Vermont, clotheslines were apparently the victim of much TP'ing on Halloween eve. Hence, clothesline night.

14. and 15. Corn Night / Doorbell Night

Corn was the projectile of choice in Ohio areas in the late 1930s. One resident remembered the custom of celebrating the night before Halloween by chucking “dried, shelled corn” at porches. In other parts of the Buckeye State, ringing and running is preferred on what’s known as doorbell night.

16. Light Night

Over in New York, mischief makers would “fling rocks at bare street lights,” says one resident—hence, light night.

17. Moving Night

After a raucous moving night in Baltimore, you might find anything not nailed down—including gates, flower pots, and porch furniture—moved to a neighboring yard, down the block, or even on the next block.

18. Ticktack Night

The cabbage night equivalent in regions including Iowa, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Ticktack are various “homemade noisemakers used to make rapping or other annoying sounds against a window or door as a prank,” especially around Halloween, as well as the prank itself. In parts of Ohio, one resident said, the ticktack noises were from the sound of corn being thrown at windows.

According to Foster’s Lexical Variation in New Jersey, “Mercer County is the home of Tick Tack Night,” where the name is sometimes reinterpreted as “Tic Tac Toe Night” and some pranksters believed they were “called upon to draw tic tac toe diagrams on houses and walks."

Aaugh! 10 Facts About It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Lee Mendelson hadn’t planned on a career in animation. But when television sponsors saw the filmmaker’s documentary about cartoonist Charles Schulz, they asked if the two could team up to produce a Christmas special based on Schulz’s Peanuts strip. The result, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was seen by roughly half of all households watching television during its premiere on CBS on December 9, 1965.

Mendelson went on to produce other Peanuts primetime specials, but 1966’s It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown remains one of the most endearing. As you prepare annual sympathy for poor ol' Chuck (“I got a rock”), check out some facts about naked composers, vomiting voice actors, and CBS’s bizarre ultimatum.

1. The future of animated Peanuts specials depended on It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.


Warner Home Video

Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez had very high aspirations for A Charlie Brown Christmas. When they screened it prior to its premiere, however, they felt it didn’t live up to its potential—and CBS agreed. The network said it was the last Peanuts special they would buy. But after it delivered huge ratings, CBS executives changed their minds and asked for more. When the two delivered another hit—the baseball-themed Charlie Brown All-Stars—they thought they had earned the network’s confidence.

Instead, CBS told them they needed a special that could run every year, like A Charlie Brown Christmas. If Mendelson couldn’t provide it, they told him they might not pick up an option for a fourth show. Despite Schulz and his collaborators being annoyed by the network's abrasive attitude, they hammered out a story with a seasonal clothesline that could be rerun in perpetuity.

2. The voice of Violet puked after every recording session.

It’s standard practice these days to use adult actors to mimic juvenile cartoon characters: adults are (presumably) better able to take direction and deliver a performance in line with the director’s wishes. But for many Peanuts specials, children were used to voice Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and the rest. Anne Altieri, who portrayed both Violet and Frieda, was so nervous to be part of the show that she threw up every time she was done with a recording session.

3. It was the first time Lucy snatched the football from Charlie Brown.

In animated form, anyway. When Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez were brainstorming scene ideas for the special, talk turned to the fact that Lucy’s habit of pulling the football away from Charlie Brown had never been seen in animation. They also decided it would be a good time to introduce Snoopy’s World War I Flying Ace. The joke had appeared in the strip, but Mendelson thought it would work even better in motion. He was right: the sequence with Snoopy in a doghouse dogfight is one of the most memorable in the Peanuts animated canon.

4. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is secretly about Santa.

The Great Pumpkin saga was adapted from Schulz’s newspaper strip, where he had conceived it as a metaphor for some of the hope (and disappointment) associated with Saint Nick. Schulz disliked the idea kids heard of a jolly fat man who delivered presents all over the world when he knew many families could only afford one or two gifts for the holidays. “The Great Pumpkin is really kind of a satire on Santa Claus,” he told Mendelson. “When [he] doesn’t come, Linus is crushed.”

5. The music composer was found naked by cops.


Warner Home Video

The jazzy scores of the early Peanuts specials were the work of composer Vince Guaraldi. When he was busy putting together “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” for the show, he decided to break for a shower. When he came out, he thought he heard noises outside and went to investigate, naked, and locked himself out in the process. Keyless, Guaraldi tried climbing a ladder to a second-floor window when cops spotted him. “Don’t shoot,” he said. “I’m the Great Pumpkin.” Police, who were many months away from getting the joke, let him back inside.

6. A loose tooth almost ruined It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

Kathy Steinberg was only 4 years old when she portrayed Sally for the first time in A Charlie Brown Christmas: her big break came when Mendelson, her neighbor, started work on the specials. While Steinberg had some limitations—like being too young to know how to read a script—things were going well until producers realized she was on the verge of losing a tooth. Fearing a lisp would ruin the voiceover work, they rushed to get her lines done. The day after finishing, the tooth fell out.

7. Kids sent Charlie Brown candy for years.

One of the most poignant moments of any Peanuts cartoon comes when downtrodden Charlie Brown opens his Halloween goodie sack and discovers he’s been given rocks instead of candy. According to Schulz, this so angered viewers that for years his California office was inundated with sacks of treats addressed to the character.

8. The original airings of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown were slightly different.

Production costs for the early Charlie Brown specials were subsidized by television sponsors Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison snack cakes: the brands appear at the beginning and end of the broadcast. The Coke “bug” appeared for several years before getting phased out.

9. CBS got a little salty about losing the rights to the special.

After spending decades at CBS, the rights to three holiday Peanuts installments went up for grabs in 2000. Though CBS could make the first offer, it was ABC who made the winning bid. Privately, CBS executives were not at all pleased about the business decision to take the football away. “It's a shame that a few more dollars meant more to them than years of tradition and loyalty," one network employee anonymously told Variety.

10. Some scholars thought the Great Pumpkin was real.


Warner Home Video

A real myth, at any rate. Talking to the Schenectady Gazette in 1968, Schulz said that since the special began airing two years earlier, he had received a number of letters from academics wondering where the Great Pumpkin story had originated. “A number of professional scholars have written me about the origination of the legend,” he said. “They insist it must be based on something.” Schulz suggested they broach the topic with Linus instead.

This article originally ran in 2015.

Why Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

nito100/iStock via Getty Images
nito100/iStock via Getty Images

There’s no one explanation for how Halloween costumes originated. Much like the holiday itself, the practice of dressing up is the result of a hodgepodge of traditions from around the world.

Many historians suspect that the tradition has some basis in the Celtic festival of Samhain (also called Calan Gaeaf in Wales). Celebrated between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain marks the official start of winter—known to the Celts as the “dark season.” During Samhain, “the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to humankind,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

That wasn’t a comfort to the ancient Celts, who believed their deities were prone to playing tricks on human worshippers. Many festival participants disguised themselves as animals or beasts, hoping to hide from malevolent spirits who might bring them misfortune.

Move forward a few centuries and the modern-day practice of dressing up and trick-or-treating has its roots in the European custom of “mumming and guising.” Mummers would dress up in costumes, often woven from straw, and perform plays and songs for neighbors in exchange for food. Scottish and Irish immigrants brought that tradition to North America, where it later morphed into what we now know as trick-or-treating.

Halloween costumes didn’t experience their true heyday until the mid-1900s, though. For that, you can thank New York City entrepreneurs Ben and Nat Cooper, who started a company producing pop culture-themed costumes at a low cost. Ben Cooper, Inc., found a niche in helping kids become the characters they admired from television and comic books, often purchasing merchandising rights before said characters ever became popular. Due in no small part to the Cooper family’s innovation, Halloween costumes became an accessible and even necessary part of holiday festivities.

Today, Halloween costumes are big business. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend about $3.2 billion on costumes this year (of that, about half a billion will go to costuming pets). You have to wonder what the ancient Celts would have thought about today’s Halloween costumes.

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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