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NPR history podcast 'Throughline' examines the rise of Halloween's popularity

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Does this sound familiar? Mid-October, buy Halloween candy. Mid-October, begin eating Halloween candy. October 30, buy more Halloween candy. The holiday is now a multibillion-dollar industry, but Halloween traces its roots back about 2,000 years to the Irish countryside and a spiritual celebration known as Samhain. So how did Halloween get so commercial? We turn to the hosts of NPR's history podcast, Throughline, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Halloween in early 20th-century America was a holiday just for kids, a night all about mischief and pranks.

LISA MORTON: These pranks are perpetrated mainly by young boys. And the pranks start kind of innocent.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

That's Lisa Morton, author of three books on the history of Halloween.

MORTON: Kids running out to, say, a local farm on Halloween night, they might disassemble a gate around the farmer's property and reassemble that gate in some place weird like on top of the barn.

ABDELFATAH: What was the response to these pranks?

MORTON: At first, people were mildly irritated, but kind of thought it was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORTON: The problem is, as the U.S. became much more urbanized in moving into the 1920s and '30s, the kids went into the cities as the cities were expanding. And at that point, the prank playing became far less innocent. It became out-and-out vandalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS SHATTERING)

MORTON: The kids were going into the cities and were starting fires. They were breaking windows. They were smashing light fixtures. They were tripping people on the sidewalks.

ABDELFATAH: And just as people were calling for a Halloween ban, others began to brainstorm a different solution to the pranking problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORTON: They looked at it and thought, maybe we can buy these kids off.

ARABLOUEI: Entire neighborhoods started getting together for what they'd call house-to-house parties.

MORTON: The way it would work was that the first house might offer the kids a simple little costume, like a sheet, where they could dress up and pretend to be a ghost. And then the next house might offer the kids a little spooky walk through a disguised basement, and then the next house would offer the kids a treat. And eventually, out of that, we get the whole ritual of trick or treat.

ARABLOUEI: By the 1950s, television was spreading across America, and with it, sitcoms spreading the idea of Halloween that went hand in hand with trick or treating.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Trick or treat, trick or treat.

MORTON: "The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet" has a Halloween episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, well, you look like a couple of desperate characters. I'm afraid I'll have to give in.

MORTON: There also was an immensely popular Disney cartoon, a Donald Duck cartoon called "Trick Or Treat," that helped cement the popularity of this growing ritual.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRICK OR TREAT")

CLARENCE NASH: (As Donald Duck) Hello, boys, trick or treat. Now here's your trick.

THE MELLOMEN: (Singing) Trick or treat, take a treat, trick or treat for Halloween.

ARABLOUEI: TV networks weren't the only ones going all in on the holiday.

MORTON: Now the candy companies come in. And they say, we'll make candies for you to give out. And the costume companies come in and say, we're going to give you not only a premade costume, but it's going to be your kid's favorite character.

ARABLOUEI: Corporate America sniffed an opportunity. They started to ask, could this kid's holiday be successful with adults, too?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) All you ghouls and goblins gather round.

MORTON: Coors, in the early '80s, was looking at holidays that they could kind of claim. They looked at Halloween, which at that point was not a major adult holiday, and somebody at Coors was brilliant enough to hire Elvira.

ABDELFATAH: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASSANDRA PETERSON: (As Elvira) Elvira here, Mistress of the Dark and sometimes surfer babe because Coors Light is the official beer of Halloween, and the party is at the Beach, Mali-boo (ph) beach, where you can...

MORTON: She's gorgeous, she's very voluptuous, she's witty, she's gothy. And as soon as they put standees of Elvira in every supermarket in the country, the beer flew off the shelves on Halloween.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETERSON: (As Elvira) Hello, darling. Yes sirree, it's little ol' me.

ABDELFATAH: Dressed in a tight, low-cut black gown, a dramatic pouf in her hair and stilettos, Elvira embraced the vampy, subversive, seductive side of fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) And then a step to the right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) With your hands on your hips.

ARABLOUEI: Elvira understood the cultural power of Halloween, and so did movie execs. In the 1970s and '80s, Halloween and horror movies were popping up left and right. There was something for everyone.

MORTON: Well, there is absolutely one movie we can point to...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The one...

MORTON: That...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The only.

MORTON: ...Completed that conversion of Halloween from a kid's to an adult's holiday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The classic.

MORTON: John Carpenter's "Halloween."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Halloween night, a small American town.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HALLOWEEN")

JAMIE LEE CURTIS: (As Laurie) Oh, God. Help me, please. Hello, hello?

MORTON: It was the first time that a movie used the holiday in a really horrific sense. And it was, of course, a terrifying movie. It was also, at the time, the most successful independent film ever made. Its impact almost cannot be understated, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HALLOWEEN")

CURTIS: (As Laurie) I killed him.

BRIAN ANDREWS: (As Tommy) You can't kill the boogeyman.

(SCREAMING)

MORTON: The last major evolution, I think, of the holiday that's fascinating is the global export. Our sitcoms and our television shows have been sold to markets all over the world, specifically "The Simpsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart) You're here, aren't you?

(As Hugo) Yes, Bart, I never left you.

MORTON: And of course, "The Simpsons" does a yearly Halloween episode. And people all over the world were seeing that and going, I like that. I want to do that.

ABDELFATAH: It's an American capitalism success story, that's what it sounds like.

MORTON: (Laughter) Yes, indeed, it is.

ARABLOUEI: In the U.S. alone, people are expected to spend nearly $4 billion just on Halloween candy this year. In the battle of trick or treats, treats are coming out on top.

FADEL: That was Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, the hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline. To learn even more about the history of Halloween, check out the full episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.