It’s there, every day, in my elevator: a flyer advertising my apartment building’s “Howl-o-ween Spooktacular,” the latest of the monthly “yappy hour” for dogs and their owners (yes, it’s that kind of building). When you’re made to stare at something like that long enough, you begin to ask questions. Like, when did “spooktacular” become the Halloween pun of choice?
This year, events billed as Spooktaculars have been thrown at venues ranging from to elementary schools to wildlife sanctuaries to nightclubs to Sea World. There’s a spooktacular hot-air-balloon festival in Arizona. Here’s an article referring to Donald Trump jack-o’-lanterns—“Trumpkins”—as “absolutely spooktacular.” And here are eight spooktacular jello shots. The term’s so inescapable that in 2012, The Onion carped, “The Word ‘Spooktacular’ Used To Mean Something In This Country.”
That parody column implied that the word has become a meaningless Frankenstein stitching of spooky and spectacular into something garish and capitalistic and possibly tinged by internet-era irony. Google Trends indicates the term has grown in popularity online over the past 12 years, hitting a plateau in 2013, seeming to confirm my suspicion it started with a joke from The Office or something.
But Katherine C. Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press, found evidence that the term dates back to at least 1897. She sent me a 119-year-old Christian Observer article describing a Halloween party where blindfolded attendees were made to touch items that felt like eels or snakes or corpse hands but were actually just “some sausage links, a pinball, a ham bone, a piece of wet fur, and an old kid glove which had been filled with wet bran and laid on ice!” The article’s writer, Laura A. Smith, referred to the objects as “spooktacular.”
So it’s not new. But Martin said that according to the linguistic data she has, spooktacular didn’t really catch on popularly until sometime in the late 20th century, though it’s hard to pin down an exact date. “The fact that it goes back to 1897 doesn’t [necessarily] represent a continuous existence of the word,” she said. “Halloween comes around, people are flinging copy around, and many people may individually have thought they came up with this great idea for a word.”
Language evolves, in part, by just this process: people smashing up two old words to make a new one. But the practice of doing so has accelerated over the last century and a half, Martin said, pointing to recent neologisms like “phablet” and “mansplaining.” Most surprising might be the fact that “spooktacular” predates the term “trick or treating,” a phrase believed to have originated in 1927.
The American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron, author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, told me that she might expect “spooktacular” to wear out its welcome due to sheer clunkiness—it requires a lot of movement of the tongue around the palate to say. But its virtues are that its meaning is obvious and useful, representing the specific meld that Halloween-time ephemera represents between fright and frivolous spectacle. And the fact that it connotes something other than true spookiness might explain why it’s so often used in business advertisements and children’s celebrations.
“It’s a funny word because it’s used primarily in a promotional context, in the name of an event or in a press release announcing an event,” Martin said. “So there’s not a lot of non-self-conscious use by people. It’s not the kind of thing you can say without archness.”
In its association with marketing, spooktacular’s story might be the same as Halloween’s story. “I think it’s not a coincidence we have a word associated primarily with the commercialization of Halloween celebrations,” Martin said. “Its increase reflects the increase in the commercialization of Halloween over the course of the 20th century.” Of course, any modern American holiday by now is a commercialized spectacle, which might be why when “spooktacular” won’t do in December or April, you can turn to “holidazzle” or “eggcellent.”