Trick-or-Sweetheart: Halloween Was Oddly Romantic in Victorian Times
We love Halloween horror. We dress up as rotting zombies or gory murder victims; we tell terrifying tales by a crackling campfire; and we watch slasher flicks with the most gruesome death scenes ever. Halloween is supposed to be scary, amiright?
But Victorian Valentine’s Day, er, Halloween, was quite a departure from what it is today. Back in the 1800s it was more about matchmaking and marriage than masks and machetes. Spiritualism was in vogue – what with seances and fairy photography – and so exploring the secrets of the unknown was more of a draw than being scary or getting scared.
Halloween made its debut into American society in the 1870s, though by then fall-time superstitions thrived among immigrants and ethnic groups. The holiday was pretty much considered a quaint custom of the Scottish and English, but its practice was not necessarily encouraged. It had “shameful” Pagan roots, after all.
However, stories about Halloween were featured in periodicals and ladies’ journals like Godey’s and Petersons in order to satisfy a readership eager for tawdry tales. They wanted to learn about ancient rituals, historical facts, and romance. Yep, at the time it was believed that the dearly departed could help you get a little action.
Victorian Era Halloween Greeting Cards:
All Hallows-themed fiction published in in the penny dreadfuls were often about “death by passion.” These untimely exits from the moral coil may or may not have spawned ghosts. Female readers devoured bodice-rippers with such titles as “Love’s Seed-time and Harvest,” “Love Lies A-Bleeding” and “If I Were a Man I’d Shoot Myself.” In 1881, St. Nicholas Magazine printed an article lamenting the demise of an Old-World holiday by turning it into an excuse to party: “Belief in magic is passing away, and the customs of All-hallow Eve have arrived at the last stage; for they have become mere sports, repeated from year to year like holiday celebrations.” Oh, the horror. And candy corn wasn’t even invented yet. (It came along a few years later, in 1888.)
The first Halloween parties were meant for matchmaking. Parlor games were played, everything from candlestick jumping to bobbing for apples, but one of the most popular was called “The Bible Trick.” Here’s how it works: Get a Bible and place a key between the pages, leaving the rounded portion sticking out. While the Bible is being supported by the fingers of two boys, hopeful girls recite these words: “If the initial of my future husband’s name begins with A turn, key turn.” Slowly repeat the letters of the alphabet, and when the right initial is reached the key will swing around and the Bible will fall. (Sounds boring AF, but hey – there was no Shudder or Chiller back then.) Another game instructed a couple to write their names on nut shells and then cast them into the fire; if the shell cracked they were in for a rough year, if the shell blackened but did not break they were going to marry. And here’s one last corker: Single young women were sent into a dark room and told to select one from a variety of boxes, each containing an object that had some sort of amorous significance for the year to come. What was actually in those boxes, we don’t know… but there were steam-powered dildos, “ladies syringes,” and hand-cranked vibration devices back then. (I’m just sayin’!)
The turn of the century heralded the end of the Victorian Era, and hence the women’s mags took an intellectual and proper turn: travel, politics, history and current events took the places of fiction and romance to meet the needs of their changing readership. Halloween parties were still popular, but adults seldom dressed in costumes for the occasion. Trick or treating became popular in the 1920s and 30s and the celebration of Halloween was given over almost entirely to children.
That’s not to say some folks don’t still consider Halloween an occasion for amour. After all, why else are sexy adult costumes the biggest sellers in America year after year? And perhaps the most romantic thing of all is when Rob Zombie married Sheri Moon on October 31. The couple will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary this Halloween. Awwww. Cue the heavy-metal violins!