Creepy Vintage Halloween Costumes

By Karen Harris

Spooky ghost near haunted house at Halloween in vintage style. (ArtMarie/Getty Images)

In the early days of Halloween festivities, the holiday retained much of its original focus on the macabre. Instead of princesses and firefighters or even friendly ghosts and human serial killers, kids donned costumes that made them look like something straight out of hell.

Homemade Costumes

A century ago, there were no Spirit Halloween pop-up stores to help folks find the perfect costumes. Instead, mothers dutifully stitched together masks, hoods, and cloaks from cast-offs. As a result, each child wore a truly unique costume that was a frightening mix of childlike innocence and fiendish horror.

Supernatural, Extraterrestrial

The traditional purpose of Halloween costumes is to trick the departed souls and otherworldly nasties that are said to return to earth into thinking the wearer is one of them so they don't get attacked, so the children's costumes of yore leaned toward the supernatural, from ghosts and corpses to devils and demons.

Scary, Not Sexy

Those modern Halloween stores are full to bursting with costumes made with scant fabric of dubious transparency, but it was rare in the 19th and 20th centuries for adults to dress up at all. Even when they did, they toed the children's line of morbid, haunting costumes that couldn't induce arousal in even the most gung-ho horror fan.

Victorian Halloween

Victorian England, with its death-obsessed prudes, was when Halloween really started popping off. Young adults were not only encouraged to wear costumes and partake in the revelry but also to pair off with a cute demon of the opposite sex, resulting in many couples meeting at Halloween parties. Their costumes remained on the scary side for the most part, but they began adding characters like cats, clowns, Mother Goose, and Little Bo Peep to the mix.

Pop Culture

By the 1930s, people began opening their minds to less frightening Halloween costumes as youngsters started wanting to dress up like their favorite superhero or movie character. The United States was also in the midst of the Great Depression, however, so for many families, costumes had to be made as inexpensively as possible. Many children dressed as hobos, with torn clothing and soot on their faces, because it was cheap and easy.

The Child-Adult Split

In the latter half of the 20th century, many families, schools, and church groups began to frown on images of the devil, the undead, and the supernatural that were common around Halloween. Instead, children were encouraged to dress as ballerinas, cowboys, and other nonthreatening human archetypes. At the same time, around the 1970s, two things happened: One, commercially made masks became available, making it easy to dress as a monster or alien. Two, the sexual revolution and the gay community's embrace of Halloween (which is known to some as "gay Christmas") meant adult costumes started getting way more "adult." Today, you're much less likely to find a child dressed as creepy as the ones shown here than an adult who is way too willing to try to scare the pants off you.

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.