Ghosts of Halloween Past

From the Kennedy children to cross-dressing witches, a gallery of costumes and trickery in mid-century America

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Archive Photos/Getty Images

Jack o' lanterns and haunted houses, broomsticks and black cats -- these images are so synonymous with October that it's easy to forget Halloween wasn't always on the American calendar. Our Puritan ancestors knew about Samhain, the Celtic spirit festival, but they didn't exactly approve of it. It took two million Irish immigrants fleeing famine in the 1840s to bring All Hallows' Eve stateside. (Back in the Old Country, they'd been in the habit of carving jack o' lanterns from potatoes, but they willingly made the switch to pumpkins.) 

A hundred years later, in the mid-20th century, Halloween was a major American holiday. The religious overtones were gone, but the costumes and pranks remained, along with an eerie thrill of mysticism. These photos, courtesy of LIFE.com, capture some of the now-ubiquitous Halloween traditions that were becoming mainstream then: trick-or-treating, haunted houses, party games, and ghost stories. 

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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