The Great Depression was a time of great economic and social change that affected many parts of American life—including Halloween. Parents, concerned about their sons running amok on All Hallows' Eve, organized “haunted houses” or “trails” to keep them off the streets.
Halloween had long been a night of revelry for adults and children, seen as a positive outlet for young men to blow off steam. This ranged from stealing neighbors’ gates off their hinges to stealing dead bodies. In 1879, about 200 boys in Kentucky stopped a train by laying a fake stuffed 'body' across the railroad tracks. In 1900, medical students at the University of Michigan stole a headless corpse from the anatomy lab and propped it up against the building’s front doors.
“This is the only evening on which a boy can feel free to play pranks outdoors without danger of being ‘pinched,’ and it is his delight to scare passing pedestrians, ring doorbells, and carry off the neighbors’ gates,” espoused one boys’ craft guide. According to the guide, even if a boy had to fetch the gate he stole out of the tree he left it in, “the punishment is nothing compared with the sports the pranks have furnished him.”
There were plenty of people who didn’t see this as harmless fun before the Great Depression. However, the economic disaster exacerbated young men’s Halloween antics, leading to increased public concern and anger. In 1933, parents were outraged when hundreds of teenage boys flipped over cars, sawed-off telephone poles and engaged in other acts of vandalism across the country. People began to refer to that year’s holiday as “Black Halloween,” similarly to the way they referred to the stock market crash four years earlier as “Black Tuesday.”
Some cities considered banning Halloween altogether. Yet in many communities, the response was to organize Halloween activities for young people so that they didn’t run amok. They started to organize trick-or-treating, parties, costume parades—and yes—haunted houses to keep them busy.
“Hang old fur, strips of raw liver on walls, where one feels his way to dark steps,” advised a 1937 party pamphlet on how to create a “trail of terror.” “Weird moans and howls come from dark corners, damp sponges and hair nets hung from the ceiling touch his face… Doorways are blockaded so that guests must crawl through a long dark tunnel.”
Haunted or spooky public attractions already had some precedent in Europe. Starting in the 1800s, Marie Tussaud’s wax museum in London featured a “Chamber of Horrors” with decapitated figures from the French Revolution. In 1915, a British amusement ride manufacturer created an early haunted house, complete with dim lights, shaking floors and demonic screams.
These early American haunted houses were small, non-profit affairs held in residential neighborhoods. In later decades, larger organizations began to host their own haunted houses as fundraisers or commercial attractions. The most famous and influential one was Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in 1969, which had an extremely high production value for its day.
Since then, America’s haunted attractions have become more and more elaborate. American Haunts estimates there are over 1,200 haunted attractions that charge admission fees now. But as in the Great Depression, there are still plenty of small-scale haunts in American neighborhoods that parents put on for free—using their own homes, yards and imaginations.