Halloween: A look back at 50 years of mischief and merriment

  • Halloween in New York City, 2008.
  • Halloween prop in Washington DC, 2008. 
  • Halloween in New York City, 2008.
  • A man is dressed as “Ghost Face” from the Wes Craven movie, “Scream” for Halloween celebrations in a pub in Wales, Oct. 31, 2007.
  • A ‘Penny for the guy’ in Mile End train station in the East End, London.
  • Halloween celebrations in Roath Park, Cardiff, Oct. 31, 2004.
  • Contemporary artists display Halloween props inside an abandoned steel mill in Birmingham, Ala., Oct. 31, 2003. 
  • A man dressed as a Rene Magritte’s painting character, in San Francisco, Calif., Oct. 31, 2000.
  • John F. Kennedy airport in New York on Halloween, 1999.
  • Halloween on the beach in France, 1998.
  • A Halloween parade in Washington park, New York City, Oct. 31, 1993.
  • Brother and sister, dressed up for Halloween, look through newly harvested squash in Lambton County, Ontario, Oct. 31, 1993.
  • Children bob for apples on Halloween, 1990.
  • Men dressed in their Halloween costumes for Carnival in Peloponnese, Krokees, Greece, 1989. 
  • Partygoers at a Halloween bash in Brixton, 1982.
  • A dummy hangs in the front yard of a Phoenix, Ariz., home on Oct. 31, 1979.
  • Kids in their Halloween costumes, Harlem, New York, Oct. 31, 1969.

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This Halloween children around the world will be stalking the jack o’ lantern lined streets of their towns and cities, tapping at their neighbors’ doors, and announcing the ultimatum: trick or treat.

Though the tradition of disguising oneself and trick-or-treating is fairly new in the U.S.—having only started in the 1920s—it has been around for centuries. In Britain and Ireland, the custom goes back to at least the 16th century. But the term “trick or treat” itself has a shorter history. The threat of misfortune, should a neighbor not comply with the request for a treat, only began being used in the 19th century.

As far back as the middle ages, however, people performed the ritual of going door-to-door dressed in costume, presenting short plays in exchange for food or beverage. It has been said that this came from the belief that the souls of the dead roam the earth during the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, which begins with Halloween. Much as it was believed that the spirits needed the candlelight of the glowing jack-o’-lanterns to guide them through the dark night, it was thought that they also needed to be appeased by these short theatrical performances—a tradition called “mumming”.

Above, photos spanning the last 50 years illustrate the mischief of trick-or-treaters around the world. 

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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