Pumpkins, Creepy Children, and Memento Mori…

I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge fan of Halloween, although I have bene known to enjoy pumpkin carving! I wasn’t allowed to go trick or treating when I was a child, so as an adult I tend to close the curtains, turn the lights down low, pretend I’m not in if the doorbell rings with trick or treaters, and munch my way through the mini packs of Malteasers that my mother has inevitably bought in especially for the children of the neighbourhood when they come a-calling.

However, Halloween wasn’t always about handing sweets and chocolate to children dressed up as ghosts and ghouls. Caroline Nielsen, my dissertation supervisor for my undergraduate degree in history at the University of Northampton, has written a blog post about the roots of Halloween (which has saved me the trouble of attempting to write one)! It’s a really interesting read, and it shows how it has become a commercialised event over the years. (You can read Caroline’s blog post ‘Historically Halloween’ here).


What I do like about Halloween are the photographs of Victorian-era American children dressed up in scary costumes. There is something quite eerie about the primitive homemade costumes in black-and-white photographs in comparison to the many novelty costumes that appear on the market today. Rather than being a complete humbug this Halloween, I thought that I would share some vintage Halloween photographs and a little about the creepy Victorians. Warning: some of these photographs might scare the sheet out of you… (I love a good pun).

I think it’s the handmade masks that are really quite creepy in these photographs.


I absolutely love the film Meet Me in St. Louis, anything really of that era starring Judy Garland. There is a section of the film which revolves around Halloween and Tootie’s attempt to be the most horrible of the gang of children dressed up and running riot around the neighbourhood. Whilst the Halloween costumes of the children (above) are more comical than scary, they show the characters really getting into the spirit of things, and it’s a really memorable part of the film.

Whilst some children’s Halloween costumes were quite sweet, like the girl dressed up as a witch (below left), the image of the children dressed as ghosts with an accompanying pumpkin person (below right) seems a little sinister in comparison.

Continuing with the theme of ghosts, but moving away from Halloween completely, spirit photographs were rather eerie inventions from the Victorian era. Claims of capturing a spirit with a camera were made from the mid-nineteenth century. Photography was still a relatively new process and understood by few, so the notion of capturing the image of a spirit appeared to be possible. Spirit photographs were published in the 1860s as professional photographers had developed a range of techniques to portray ghost-like apparitions. For more information about spirit photography, I recommend Kristi Finefield’s article: ‘A Ghostly Image: Spirit Photographs’ which you can read here.


In fact, the Victorians were more than a little obsessed with spirits, ghosts and death in general. You may have heard of the Latin phrase memento mori, which means ‘remember you must die’. Rather creepy in itself, but memento mori for the Victorians often referred to post-mortem photographs: photographs of the dead. Pretty morbid. The Victorians embraced the reality of death, and photographing their dead relatives was a fairly normal practice of memorialising and immortalising the deceased in a way that was previously impossible. Deceased family members were often photographed with their living relatives, as the examples below show us.

Often the deceased was propped up in such a way to make them look as if they were alive, held up by a living relative, or pictured with treasured possessions from the land of the living, like the photographs below demonstrate. The left and centre photographs show family members holding up the deceased, but if you look closely at the photograph on the right, you can see a stand of some kind holding the deceased up.

You can read more about Victorian death photography here.

A step away from the usual content about archives and records management, this blog post comes with a happy Halloween to you all. I know I’ll be hunkering down at home, watching some horror films, eating chocolate and avoiding the doorbell.

Are you a Halloween fan? What is your favourite costume? Comment below and share your Halloween tricks and treats!