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Stephen D. Winick, Folklorist, American Folklife Center
Nicole Saylor, Chief, American Folklife Center
Suzanne Schadl, Chief, Hispanic Division
Note: This guide was created as part of the Library's 2017 pop-up exhibition "LOC Halloween: Chambers of Mystery." It has been revised and expanded several times since then.
Created: October 2017
Last Updated: October 2022
Halloween is one of the most popular holidays in contemporary America, and it's becoming globally popular as well. Día de Muertos, a related but different holiday, is similarly popular in most of Spanish-speaking America, but especially in Mexico. This guide will lead you to some of the Library of Congress's most fascinating resources on Halloween, Día de Muertos, and the supernatural.
Halloween had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead called Samhain. Samhain became the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people by assigning the Christian feast of All Saints or All Hallows to November 1 and All Souls Day to November 2. These feast days, in addition to serving important functions in the Christian calendar, were intended to substitute for Samhain and ultimately to replace it. Instead, elements of Christian and pre-Christian belief mingled, creating the popular festival of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve--the festival we still observe today. (To learn more about Halloween history, listen to Jack Santino's lecture in the player below!)
In Mexico in the colonial era, a similar mingling occurred between All Souls Day and several Indigenous celebrations of the ancestors, creating Día de Muertos, which means "Day of the Dead" but also "Day of the Ancestors." The "los" in "Día de los Muertos" seems to come from a translation of the English phrase "Day of the Dead" back into Spanish; the "los" was rarely used in Latin America before the 1960s--however, now both names are used.
The Library of Congress is home to an array of resources on the folk customs, fine art, pop culture, and literature of Halloween and Día de Muertos, as well as a wealth of supernatural materials. Collections include field recordings of traditional storytellers and singers spinning tales and ballads about ghosts and witches; a classic early silent film of "Frankenstein;" and recorded readings by authors playfully blending the living with the dead, such as Álvaro Enrigue’s Muerte súbita, Valeria Luiselli’s Los ingrávidos, and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. We have documentation of spooky séances with the great Harry Houdini, the eerie and iconic artwork of Edward Gorey and José Guadalupe Posada, and the timeless poetry of Robert Burns and Rafael Campos.
Immediately below, you'll find an audio lecture and a written essay by Jack Santino, revealing the origins of Halloween in Celtic and Catholic contact; the lecture was delivered at the Library of Congress in 1982. In the early days of the internet, we put Jack's essay in gopherspace, and it has been one of the most popular features on the Library of Congress website since we’ve HAD a website. We hope you'll continue to enjoy this classic.
After the audio and essay, you'll find more fun links. In addition to those, please select from the categories in the left navigation menu to explore highlights from the Library's print and media collections, webcasts from some of our Halloween-related events, and blog posts shedding curatorial light on some of the Library's most unusual items. It's not just surprising how much supernatural stuff we have; it's downright scary!
Hear Jack Santino's Popular Halloween Lecture!
The Library's Hispanic Reading Room commemorates Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with an altar to individuals who have passed. Feel free to come leave an offering of your own. Learn more about Día de los Muertos, as celebrated in Oakland, CA