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Halloween Symbols – Learn their History & Meanings on Halloween

During the month of October, you’re likely to see lots of Halloween symbols. In the fall, stores and homes are filled with these images.

They are present in everything from the Halloween decorations we use, to the food we eat, and even the cocktails we drink during this time of year.

Though we see the symbols of Halloween every year, few people know why these particular images are associated with the holiday. Each of the Halloween symbols have a specific meaning rooted in the history of the holiday.

Keep reading for the seven most recognizable Halloween symbols, and why they are so important on this holiday.

A purple background with 12 different windows holding various symbols of Halloween including ghosts, jack o lanterns, and skulls with the words "Halloween symbols" in the center of the images.

What are the symbols of Halloween?

The seven symbols of Halloween are jack o lanterns, witches, black cats, bats, spiders, ghosts and skeletons.

Many of the symbols of Halloween are connected to Samhain. This ancient Pagan festival was the earliest version of Halloween, and many of Samhain’s traditions and symbols are still seen in our modern day Halloween celebrations.

The mythology and folklore surrounding these Halloween symbols also plays a part in their meanings on Halloween and why they are so prevalent during this time of year.

Halloween is not the only holiday with a set of symbols that have special meaning. Learn more about other holidays with our guides to the symbols of Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day symbols, Mardi Gras Symbols, and St. Patrick’s Day symbols.

Jack o lantern meaning on Halloween

During the fall months, you’ll see a wide variety of pumpkins. They range from traditional jack o lanterns to expertly carved designs, and everything in between.

The type of pumpkin associated with Halloween, specifically, is the jack o lantern. You might be surprised to learn that the history of pumpkin carving on Halloween dates back on old Irish story called The Legend of Stingy Jack.

A jack o lantern with a big smile lit up, in a dimly lit room, with a window in the background that's letting in moonlight.

Stingy Jack was a mischievous man who outsmarted and made deals with the Devil for his own gain. In the end, this scheming backfired on Jack, and he was banned from both heaven and hell, cursed to wander the earth for all eternity.

People carved everything from turnips to pumpkins, and lit them, in hopes of scaring Stingy Jack’s ghost, and other malevolent spirits away. Learn the full story and history of this tradition in our post on The Legend of Stingy Jack.

If you want to carve your own pumpkins this year, be sure to check out this list of pumpkin carving ideas. Your pumpkins will be festive all season, because in addition to the pumpkin being one of the Halloween symbols, they are also a symbol of Thanksgiving

Witches and Halloween

Though once revered as great healers, the view of witches has changed drastically throughout history. It was believed that their ability to cast magical spells came from the devil, connecting them to evil.

Two witches standing around a cauldron wearing pointed hats, one holding a lantern and one holding a lizard.

Because of this association, they were tied to Halloween and have become one of the most recognizable Halloween symbols. 

Not only will you see witches during this time of year, but you’ll also see items associated with them like brooms, cauldrons and witches hats.

If you want to add witches to your Halloween celebrations this year, try making this witches brew cocktail with vodka (or rum), and this DIY witches legs decor project.

Black cat symbolism on Halloween

Black cats are tied to Halloween because of Scottish and Irish legends about a creature called the cat sith. Unfortunately for cat lovers, the cat sith was anything but cute and cuddly.

According to Scottish folklore, the cat sith was described a giant black cat with a white patch on its chest, and a knack for trouble. This feared feline would visit farms on Samhain, looking for milk.

If farmers left out a bowl of milk for this cat, it would bless the home. However, if they didn’t, it would curse the home and the cattle, render the cows unable to produce milk ever again. 

A silhouette of a black cat with a witches hat sitting on grass, next to a jack o lantern with bats flying around them.

Irish folklore believed that the cat sith was a witch that had the ability to turn into a cat. They believed that witches could transform into the cat sith nine times, but after the ninth transformation they would be stuck permanently in feline form.

To learn more about this spooky mythological cat, make sure to read our guide about the mythology of the cat sith.

If you’d like to celebrate black cats on more than just Halloween, make sure to check out the two national days of year dedicated to them: National Black Cat Day and Black Cat Appreciation Day.

To include black cats in your Halloween decorations this year, check out this list of black cat pumpkin carving ideas, and this compilation of black cat quotes.

Bats as Halloween symbols

Bats are another one of the Halloween symbols that come from Samhain. Fire was a crucial element of this spiritual holiday, as it was one of the four fire festivals celebrated by the ancient Celts during the year.

During Samhain, the ancient Celts would gather their harvest and share it with their community around a giant bonfire, to mark the end of the harvest and beginning of winter. They would feast together, tell fortunes, make sacrifices and pray over the fire.

An orange moon with the silhouette of a large castle with turrets, being surrounded by Halloween bats flying around.

If you’ve ever had a bonfire, you might have noticed that fires attract insects. The extra bugs in the air were appealing bats, who eat insects, causing an abundance of bats during this time of year.

Thanks to Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, bats have also been associated with vampires, which are also frequently seen during Halloween in costumes and decorations. 

To celebrate bats this spooky season, make sure to get our free Halloween word search and Halloween word scramble and locate them!

Spider superstitions at Halloween

It seems like spiders are everywhere in the fall! Not only are they in Halloween decorations, but there’s also tons of real spiders around. There’s a few reasons for this.

Spiders reach maturity around October, so they are fully grown and more visible. This is also the time of the year when the males go looking for mates, so you’re likely to see them in places you might not normally.

Similarly to black cats, spiders were also linked to witches. The spider’s ability to spin webs seemed almost magical, so they were believed to have possessed supernatural powers.

A purple background with spiders, spiderwebs and jack o lanterns on it, arranged in no particular order, with some right side up, some upsidedown, and some sideways.

Some spider superstitions use spiders as a signal for otherworldly presences. It was believed that if a spider fell into a candle flame, it signaled that witches were nearby. 

It was also thought that if you saw a spider on Halloween, it meant that the spirit of a loved one was watching over you.

Spiders also often spin webs in spooky locations like graveyards and dark corners, further playing into their eerie reputation.

If you want spiders make an appearance your next Halloween party, try using fake ones in your drinks! You could make these spider ice cubes or this vampire cocktail with licorice spider garnish.

Ghosts as Halloween symbols

It is commonly said that the veil between the living and the dead is its thinnest on Halloween. The ancient Celts believed that during the night of Samhain (October 31), the veil between the living and the dead could be breached.

They would welcome their dead ancestors come to visit during celebratory feasts, as death was not feared but regarded as a natural part of life. 

Five Halloween ghosts floating on a black background with small white and yellow specks around them that resemble stars.

However, these good ghosts were not the only ones that could walk through the veil. Monsters and evil spirits from the other side could also pass through the veil and walk among the living.

The Celts would wear animal skins as a disguise to hide themselves from malevolent ghosts. This is actually where dressing up for Halloween originates. To follow their example check out these last minute adult costumes and these easy DIY costumes for kids.

To incorporate ghosts in your Halloween celebrations this year, try making ghost pb&js or banana ghosts for your kids, and a ghostbuster cocktail with whipped cream ghost garnish for yourself!

Halloween and Dia de los Muertos skulls

Skeletons are another Halloween symbol that, like ghosts, represent the dead. It makes sense that they would be included in a holiday where the barrier between the living and the dead is the thinnest.

It’s important to note that not all of the skulls you might see during this time are for Halloween. In addition to being a symbol of Halloween, skulls are also an important part of Dia de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead.

A Halloween skull on the left side of the image, with a dia de los muertos skull on the right side of the image.

Dia de los Muertos originated from an Aztec festival to honor the dead. It is widely observed in Mexico, and outside of Mexico by those with Mexican heritage.

The Dia de los Muertos skulls are brightly colored sugar skulls which are often placed on a gravestones or altars as an offering to the dead. You may also see faces painted with skulls to honor loved ones who have passed on Dia de los Muertos.

Ways to decorate with the symbols of Halloween

Now that you know the meaning of the seven Halloween symbols, you can fully appreciate them this season. Below are some suggestions for how to add them to your decor this year.

Various symbols of Halloween, including ghosts, bats, and jack o lanterns on an orange background.

Some of the links below are affiliate links. I earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you if you purchase through an affiliate link.  

Halloween colors

In addition to Halloween symbols that represent the holiday, there are also colors that represent Halloween, and have special meaning during this time of year.

A spiral of Halloween colors, alternating black and white in a counterclockwise direction.

The colors of Halloween are orange, black, purple, green and white.

To learn about the colors of other holidays and their meanings, make sure to check out our guide to the Valentine’s Day colors, the colors of Mardi Gras, and the St. Patrick’s Day colors.

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Looking for more fact-based posts?

If you enjoyed learning about the symbols of Halloween, be sure to also check out these posts to learn more fun facts about some of your favorite things! 

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An orange background with bubble text in the center that reads "learn about the Halloween symbols, their meanings & history", and a border of various symbols of Halloween including a skull, bats, spiders and jack o lanterns.

Jess author photoAbout the author

Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.

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