What is the ultimate
symbol of Halloween?
It occurred to me that a lot of visual
shorthands are used to represent Halloween. I call these symbols,
I don't necessarily mean something abstract like a pentagram;
representational art works just as well for these purposes.
following symbols are considered with their basis (i.e., what they
represent about Halloween) as well as why they have or have not gained
a foothold as a core symbol of Halloween.
Jack o'lantern. Without a
doubt, this is the ultimate symbol. Let's just get that out of
the way. It seems relatively benign compared to some of the
cooler entries on this list, but maybe that's why it wins out.
Why does it work? For a lot of reasons...
Halloween has its origins in celebrations of autumn/harvest, and the
pumpkin is an accepted symbol of that, regardless of whether you're
talking about the supernatural elements of Halloween. But now we
go one step further: Carving.
The pumpkin is a blank slate, and carving it is an analog of creating a
costume for it. This goes back centuries, and it's still
evolving. In fact, in recent times Halloween merchandise has
included accessories to add to jack o'lanterns such as push-in teeth,
eyes, etc. much in the fashion of Mr. Potato Head.
The expression of a jack o'lantern seems to have least a couple of
emotions, depending on the specific face carved, of course.
Typically, the face is grinning, but the lines are all sharp. The
grin expresses that this is a celebration, but the hard lines are just
that; they indicate that there's an edge to the event. Also, note
that the typical nose is a triangle, much like that formed by the nasal
opening of a skull. I find it hard to believe that's just
coincidence considering how it's the same on very nearly every jack
Additionally, jack o'lanterns look best lit from the inside at
night. I think Halloween is about night. You simply don't
do a single Halloween-related thing during daylight, and that includes
Trick or Treating, so that's a good fit.
Finally, a jack o'lantern is made of pure Halloween colors. By
default, a jack o'lantern is almost always depicted in black and
orange, the default colors of Halloween.
Bats. They make a nice
silhouette (think of the various Batman symbols over the decades), so
that works rather well. As animals, they have many of the
properties of mythical monsters: Fangs, drink blood, and live in
caves. And they're nocturnal, which has everything to do with
Halloween. While this list isn't strictly arranged in any
particular order of popularity, I did put bats second after jack
o'lanterns because I think this is the obvious runner-up.
Black cats. These are
often depicted in a startled pose, subliminally communicating the
"trick" in "Trick or Treat" (i.e., the scares). There's also the
ancient (for America anyway; who knows how far back this goes)
association with witches. Besides that, they're visually
interesting, being black (I mean, you don't see a calico for
Halloween), and that makes a nice contrast where yellow eyes really
light up. All this combines to make for a really effective
symbol. As pets though, they're shit.
connote death. Additionally, they're almost always human
skulls. Although any another animal skull (e.g., a goat) might
work just as well at that, the fact that human skulls are the default
decoration over any other seems to point to the fact we are thinking of
our own mortality. I have more skulls for decoration than any
other item in my collection. I think the image of a skull would
be used symbolically even more often if they were just a bit easier to
Ghosts. They stand for
the supernatural side of Halloween, thus touching on both themes of
mortality/death and magic. The problem is that a ghost doesn't
have a uniformly-accepted archetype to confer immediate visual
recognition. They can be drawn any number of ways and with any
level of detail. It would have to have a more fixed appearance to
be accepted as a symbol.
there's no single symbol of a gravestone. In fact, last year I
visited a cemetery for photo references before building a set of
gravestone props, only to find that the typical "taller-than-wide"
archetype found in Halloween art has been almost completely abandoned
in favor of more horizontal versions. Even more frustrating is
that the gothic carvings one finds on the styrofoam props around
Halloween simply don't exist anywhere in modern cemeteries. And
contrary to expectations, absolutely no one has "R.I.P." engraved
Coffins. Again this is a
sort of shorthand for death, but like gravestones, they've also changed
styles over the years. The so-called "toe-pincher" style coffin
just doesn't exist anymore outside of Western films. It's been
replaced with the velvet-lined lacquered box with metal trim, and
that's just not as creepy. You simply don't see those being used
as props the way the simpler ones are, and not merely because of
cost. It's still something of a symbol, but its greatest
application seems to be as guitar cases for metal heads.
Spiders and their webs.
They're sort of alien in so many ways that the "weird" factor kicks
in. Unlike other creatures that resemble our morphology, spiders
have eight legs and as many eyes. They form webs, a trap that is
equal parts huge and invisible, so much so that humans can get
ensnared. And there are the venomous ones such as the tarantula
(who isn't that deadly, honestly) and the black widow. Curiously,
I see webs in Halloween-related artwork more often than the spiders who
Snakes. Again we have a
venomous creature. The visible fangs and striking pose are all
good for evoking fear of death. There's also a connection with
satanic imagery that I can only guess goes back to Adam and Eve and
maybe some metal bands in the '80s. And yet I don't see a lot of
snakes in popular artwork ever since blacklight posters fell out of
fashion. Maybe this is again due to the diversity of snakes
around the world. Without a distinct look, they don't lend
themselves to being a universal symbol.
The moon. A full moon is
the calling card for anything to do with werewolves. But there's
also the fact that we're talking about nighttime, and that's a big
component of Halloween. I see the moon being used quite a bit,
although always as more of a background character than as a stand-alone
Noose. It isn't just
death; it's knowing that your death is coming, so it's a symbol of fear
and dread. However, I live in Texas, and the connection to
racially-motivated lynchings sours the more generalized impression this
symbol might have elsewhere.
Knife. An instrument of
murder. It's not just death but a violent end. However,
meat cleavers are more appealing to use in artwork for some reason,
perhaps because their shape is unique enough that it stands apart from
the more generic version of knives that can be used for buttering bread.
Crows. For most of us,
they're indistinguishable from a raven, so it sort of evokes a memory
of Edgar Alan Poe's famous poem and other works. They also look
just as good in silhouette as in direct light. However, I think
vultures would make for a better association with death and decay
(read: carrion), but for some reason that has never taken hold.
Rats. While not venomous,
they bring to mind diseases, particularly the Black Plague. I
don't think of them as death personified, but they are always
supporting characters in any scene in a dungeon.
Scarecrow. They're more
the symbol of harvest, one that goes well with crows for ironic
reasons, naturally, but they can be modified to stand for monsters as
well. Their job is to scare, after all, right?
it's a pentacle, but it's the accepted symbol of satanism and the
occult (though its history is more complicated than that).
However, a symbol like this locks the holiday into a specific religion,
which is probably why its application is restricted to the occasional
This is something to consider as well. Black and orange seem to
be the default colors associated with Halloween. My preference
has always been to change that to purple and green, but those lack the
underlying associations that make black and orange so appealing.
Specifically: Black = night, and orange = autumn.
the Ale[x]orcist with suggestions from Leiann.