Wendy Fonarow arrived in Mexico City late in October 2017, eager to observe the nation’s Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead. Celebrations for this holiday—also called Día de los Muertos—start on the evening of October 31 and in fact span several days during which people celebrate lost loved ones. On November 1, they memorialize children, and on the second, adults.
In many regions of Latin America, families prepare ofrendas, or altars, dedicated to the deceased and replete with food and mementos. Fonarow, an anthropologist at Glendale Community College in California, anticipated visiting such shrines, viewing graves bedecked with marigolds and candles, and tasting classic sugar skulls. What she didn’t expect to find was Halloween.
In fact, her friends in Mexico City were eager to show her a local home famous for its Halloween decorations. A handful of tombstones festooned the yard; skeletons and a ghost or two lurked among jack-o’-lanterns and cornstalks. “It just looked like a typical, not over-the-top American suburban decoration,” Fonarow recalls. This kind of decoration, while still unusual in the city, made it clear that Halloween had arrived in the capital.
Then she traveled to the state of Michoacán, famed for its traditional Día de Muertos festivities. Upon her arrival, on October 31, she saw costumed children toting apple-sized jack-o’-lantern baskets. Fonarow rushed into a candy store to procure sweets, but most people just gave pesos. No matter what they received, the kids begged for more with the phrase “tan pequeño”—“so little.”
This import and fusion of Halloween with other holiday traditions is not unique to Mexico: The U.S. version of Halloween has gone global in the past few decades. It’s traveled thanks to companies eager to sell candy and costumes, as well as Hollywood movies and TV programs—such as The Simpsons and Sesame Street—and Instagram and YouTube, which young people use to spread the fun of costumes and celebrations.
“The American Halloween seems to be what has become the mass-media Halloween,” says Jack Santino, a folklorist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and author of the book Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life.
Even in the United States, Halloween is itself a hodgepodge of traditions. Homeowners deck their dwellings with creepy décor. Children carouse their neighborhoods demanding sugary treats. Women dress as a “sexy” angel, pirate, or even pizza. Young adults get plastered on “zombie” bar crawls. And others hole up with a scary movie or join in harvest traditions such as corn mazes and bobbing for apples. Most of those traditions share an inversion of norms: Children threaten adults, images of death and gore are welcome, people want to be afraid, and no one is what they seem.
In every place this rule-bending holiday lands, it becomes something new as people adapt it to their culture. In Mexico, as Fonarow observed, Halloween coexists with regional traditions and ideas about death. In Japan and the United Kingdom, it’s less directly associated with the dead and instead provides a welcome excuse to dress up. People in other countries, such as France, have largely rejected the import. The holiday’s success depends both on the receiving culture and the flexible character of Halloween itself.
In fact, the export of American Halloween reveals how cultural traditions travel and settle in new locales—or don’t. “Holidays can transfer their meanings and have niches in societies where they weren’t created, but they have to have some local meaning and some local interpretation,” says Merry White, an anthropologist at Boston University. “There has to be some pre-existing hook.” In other words, the customs need to land on fertile soil.
Of course, Halloween didn’t originate in the U.S. Though it’s hard to be certain about its roots, scholars have a general sense of its history. As described in a classic 1990 research paper by Russell Belk, who studies consumer culture at York University in Toronto, the holiday can be traced back to the Samhain festival (meaning “summer’s end”) among the Celts, a people who first populated much of Europe some three millennia ago. Researchers suspect Samhain celebrated the harvest and honored deceased ancestors. Celtic Druids may have sacrificed people to the Lord of the Dead, also called Samhain. They lit bonfires to scare off marauding ghosts and witches. Scholars have also proposed they engaged in traditions that may be predecessors of modern trick-or-treating: Participants may have disguised themselves with animal skins and laid banquets for hungry ghosts, or perhaps beggars asked for food during the festival.
Even after the advent of Christianity, Samhain traditions continued in the British Isles. In 835, the Roman Catholic Church attempted to redefine the pagan holiday as All Saints’ Day, or Allhallowmas (hallow being an old term for a saint), on November 1. Church leaders later added All Souls’ Day on November 2. They encouraged people to dress as their favorite saints and celebrate not only deceased saints but other people who had passed on. The church failed to obliterate Samhain traditions, of course, but it gave Halloween—from Allhallows Eve—its modern name.
Halloween never went away, though the popularity of All Saints’ Day in the United Kingdom waned with the rise of Protestantism and the creation of another fall holiday, Guy Fawkes Day. Celebrated November 5, the day commemorates the failure of a 1605 plot to blow up England’s Houses of Parliament. One conspirator, Guy Fawkes, was captured before he could light the fuse. Brits celebrate Fawkes’ downfall with bonfires and children beg for “a penny for the Guy.”
Meanwhile, Samhain and Halloween traditions continued and evolved in the U.K. into the 20th century. Hugh O’Donnell, 69, a media analyst at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, grew up celebrating Halloween in a Scottish steel town. “The kind of masks available today, in a mass market, didn’t exist,” says O’Donnell. Instead, the kids dressed up as ghosts by wearing old white bedsheets.
Children visited their neighbors, where they’d offer some small performance, often a joke or song, in return for a treat. “It was almost always monkey nuts,” recalls O’Donnell, using a word for peanuts in the shell. And they carried lanterns carved not from New World pumpkins but from turnips.
Children also enjoyed what Scots called “dookin” (or dunking) for apples in a barrel, says O’Donnell. “It was all very low-key, people had fun, no one spent a lot of money,” he says.
Similar traditions sailed to the New World with Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine in the 1800s. Over the ensuing centuries, Halloween morphed into something much more commercial. Americans are expected to spend a total of US$9 billion on the holiday in 2018, according to the National Retail Federation. (Of course, that’s still monkey nuts compared with the federation’s predictions for the winter holiday season: US$718–721 billion.)
In the U.K., too, modern Halloween is big business. O’Donnell was surprised to see pumpkin decorations at his local grocery store in early September this year. “The big difference is Americanization,” says O’Donnell, who co-edited the book Treat or Trick? Halloween in a Globalising World. He can’t recall the last time he saw a turnip lantern—though admittedly, pumpkins are easier to carve. “It has basically become Americanized, and that is a synonym for internationalized.”
Yet Halloween in Britain is hardly identical to revelry in the U.S. There’s some trick-or-treating, but it hasn’t taken hold everywhere. Instead, the focus—and what really gave Halloween as celebrated in the States a foothold in the modern United Kingdom—is the costumes. “Us Brits dress up for anything,” says Andy Andreou, manager of Angels Fancy Dress in London, citing movie theme nights, hat parties, wig parties, and fancy-dress office Christmas parties.
When the British get dressed for Halloween, “it’s anything goes, with a bit of blood,” says Andreou. Movie characters and superheroes, such as Batman, are always popular. Other costumes are just silly: One year, Angels’ top sellers included a “zombie banana.”
A love of costume also helped Halloween, as it’s celebrated in the U.S., find a home in Japan, which has had a tradition of costume play, or cosplay, since the 1980s. “The whole idea of dressing up as something else, and performing and acting out and having a good time, dovetails quite nicely with some aspects of the Halloween tradition,” notes John Davis, an anthropologist at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
In Japan, Halloween is mostly divorced from macabre or memorial traditions; people celebrate their dead during the summer festival of Obon. Japanese Halloween has “no sense of fear, and there’s no sense of religiosity at all,” says Junji Koizumi, an anthropologist and professor emeritus at the Osaka University. “It’s just fun. … It’s purely commercial.”
Indeed, it was a media and commercial behemoth that helped bring Halloween to Japan: the Disney empire. Tokyo Disneyland opened its gates in 1983 and began hosting its Happy Halloween Harvest Parade during the 1990s.
There’s no trick-or-treating in Japan, outside of enclaves where American or Irish expats or Japanese who’ve lived in the U.S. reside. “There’s a cultural block against knocking on people’s doors and demanding something of them,” says White, who studies Japanese culture. “It seems very uncivilized to Japanese people.”
Instead, Japanese Halloween is a public celebration mainly enjoyed by teens and young adults, and ground zero is Tokyo’s Shibuya district, a popular dining, shopping, and entertainment area. More than one million costumed celebrants crowd the streets, eating and drinking. The holiday has spread in popularity as participants post Instagram photos and YouTube videos of their revelry.
“It is no longer what Americans would consider as Halloween, but it’s a Halloween of its own,” says Tomoko Hamada, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, who specializes in East Asia. “Many of them don’t even know it has anything to do with American Halloween.”
In Kawasaki, another large city in Japan, a parade is the main draw. The 2018 organizers are expecting up to 2,500 people in costume to promenade. Parading, sometimes in costume, has a long history as part of Japanese festivals, notes Hamada.
What differentiates Halloween from traditional Japanese festivals is its unruliness. “Japan is a very ecological, clean country, where people don’t litter,” Hamada says. But in Shibuya, garbage lines the streets on the morning of November 1. So in Japan too, Halloween inverts norms for one night. Some conservatives rail against the noise and mess, but other people are indifferent to the imported holiday.
Broadly, White says, the Japanese sensibility is that: “If you can add onto your repertoire of holidays, why not?”
People in Japan have also adopted the Christian holiday of Christmas. But the Japanese Christmas is neither religious nor centered around gift-giving; instead it’s a romantic evening, somewhat akin to a U.S. high school prom night. Meanwhile, department stores encouraged the adoption of Valentine’s Day. But rather than a day to give your sweetheart treats, as it’s celebrated in the U.S., in Japan the holiday is split in two. On February 14, women give men gifts such as chocolates. One month later, on White Day, men give women presents, such as white chocolates or white lingerie.
Not every culture welcomes Halloween. “Internationally, there’s a real range from acceptance to rejection,” says Santino, the folklorist from Bowling Green.
Those with conservative views worry about Halloween sullying their culture or promoting capitalism, says Anne Johnson, an anthropologist at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. And Jonas Frykman, an ethnologist and emeritus professor at Lund University in Sweden, says, “People from a religious background find it extremely problematic that, instead of going to the graves of the ancestors or loved ones, you should dress up like devils and go from house to house to try to scare people.”
For example, France flirted with Halloween in the 1990s, but it didn’t really take. That may be because at the same time of the year, the French are busy cleaning and decorating graves for All Saints’ Day, or La Toussaint. “France prides itself on being a secular country, but they still have a lot of church days as national holidays,” Santino says. Though the nation does not collect data on citizen’s religions, it’s estimated that nearly two-thirds of the population are Christian, mostly Roman Catholic. Plus, says Santino, the French already have Le Carnaval in the spring, giving them a time to have fun with parades and masquerades.
Elsewhere, new and old traditions can meld or exist side by side, as Fonarow discovered in Mexico. There, despite the fact that some media coverage suggests Halloween and Day of the Dead are in conflict, anthropologists report that Mexican pushback against the American fall holiday has been overstated.
In fact, centuries before Halloween’s arrival, the Mexican Día de Muertos grew out of two distinct traditions. Before the Spanish colonized the region that is now central and southern Mexico, Aztecs celebrated a summer festival honoring deceased ancestors. Spanish Catholics brought All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and the Indigenous festival moved and contracted to those two days. Día de Muertos has also spread across much of Latin America, and to other regions as well.
“The goal of these days is to gather the family, the people who are alive and the people who are already dead,” explains Rosa Isela Aguilar Montes de Oca, a freelance anthropologist from the Mexican state of Hidalgo who is based in Munich. On the ofrenda, the living put out the food the dead most enjoyed—even if it wasn’t particularly good for them, she says. “For the people who smoked, we have to put out some cigarettes; for the people who liked beer, we have to set it out also.”
Television and immigration brought Halloween from the United States to Mexico. Migrants who crossed the border into the United States brought the traditions back to Mexico when they returned home, says Aguilar Montes de Oca. She recalls first learning about the holiday from TV programs such as The Munsters.
Given the focus of Día de Muertos, Halloween’s association with death also helped it gain a foothold in Mexico, Fonarow says—even though the holidays reflect very different attitudes toward that subject. In the United States, death is typically considered final, and thus frightening, a view reflected in scary or bloody Halloween costumes. In Mexico, traditional beliefs present death as part of the cycle of life, and Día de Muertos skeletons are typically attractive, not gory. American Halloween glorifies generic, impersonal images of death. Meanwhile, the Mexican holiday is about a personal connection with specific people who’ve died—as explored in the Disney/Pixar film Coco.
During Día de Muertos celebrations, these young children in Mexico sing a song requesting pesos for the “little skulls” they carry.Wendy Fonarow
And yet, Fonarow says, there is also overlap between attitudes toward death, and death iconography, in Mexico and the U.S., giving the two holidays an opportunity to coexist. For example, both holidays feature skeletons. Another commonality is the scary ghost story, a classic element of U.S. Halloween. As an example of such stories in Mexican culture, Fonarow points to the oft-told tale of La Llorona, the weeping woman. She’s the spirit of a woman whose children drowned—some say at her own hand—who now roams the shores of waterways, searching for her sons and tossing in living children who happen upon her.
While Halloween has yet to become a big presence in rural areas of Mexico, American rubber masks and wooden Mexican ones sell side by side in urban shops. Little girls dress up as La Catrina, a Mexican embodiment of death, to trick or treat—typically in commercial downtown areas rather than in residential neighborhoods. Even the imagery of death itself has become a bit blended: Mexican death is typically female but the hooded guy with a scythe sometimes makes an appearance.
That said, certain communities do preserve their local Día de Muertos traditions and try to keep them separate from Halloween. In part, that’s because the Mexican government encourages Indigenous regions to maintain a living heritage.
Aguilar Montes de Oca observed this “living heritage” firsthand while working in Hidalgo’s Indigenous La Huasteca region. She visited a town where the local priest had initiated a beauty pageant, called Señorita Cempoalxóchitl for the Mexican marigold, in 1989 to reinforce an Indigenous identity as part of their Día de Muertos festivities. The contestants wear folk costumes made from the natural products of the region. Finalists speak about their experiences in La Huasteca during the Día de Muertos, called Xantolo in this area.
Yet Aguilar Montes de Oca also observed monster masks and costumes, a la U.S. Halloween, in La Huasteca. As Johnson says of the melding of traditions, “Nothing ever stays pure.”
Halloween’s history supports that statement. Celtic Druids would hardly recognize a person costumed as an undead banana as a modern-day celebrant of Samhain. Nor would 19th-century Irish Catholics see their traditions in the bands of bloodied schoolgirls or human-sized daikon radishes running amok in Shibuya. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re converging and becoming more alike,” argues Davis, because each culture makes the imports its own.
Even as La Huasteca leaders fight against the creep of Halloween creepiness, Día de Muertos imagery shows up in U.S. shops in candies, in pumpkin-carving kits, and even on tea towels. And back at Angels Fancy Dress, Andreou reports a rising trend to buy or rent Día de Muertos–themed costumes—inspired in part by the holiday’s representations in the films Spectre and Coco. Whichever holiday, or holidays, one celebrates, Halloween and its cultural counterparts are here to stay.
Amber Dance is an award-winning freelance science writer based in Southern California.