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, but I don't necessarily mean something abstract like a pentagram; representational art works just as well for these purposes.

The 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.

The winner...

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 o'lantern.

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.

Runners up...

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.

Skulls.  Immediately 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 draw.

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.

Gravestones.  Again, 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 anywhere!

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 built them.

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 symbol.

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?

Pentagram.  Technically 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 horror flick.

Halloween colors

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.


Copyright 2012 the Ale[x]orcist with suggestions from Leiann.