These 19th-20th Century Photos of Halloween Costumes Are Simply Macabre

Halloween featured

Sure, Halloween is about scares and creepy things, but much of its modern decorative spirit leans much more toward the commercialized spooky fun than the genuinely creepy. However, for the people of the early 20th century, things were just a bit, uh, different.

The surreal collection of photos curated and brought together by English artist Ossian Brown for his recent book Haunted Air very visually demonstrates just how much of a difference there is between “creepy” and just plain creepy.

The artist took the time and effort to collate an extensive series of private, largely home-made photos that were captured in the United States between the late 1800s and the early 1900s of families, children, and random people with their own personal takes on different kinds of Halloween costumes.

The sepia and black & white photos were mostly captured by amateurs using 35mm film or at least film exposures of some kind.

For the most part, despite the simple homemade character of the costumes their subjects are wearing, the general effect is genuinely disturbing.

As Brown himself mentions in his book, “I like to experience each photograph as a magical event, frozen in front of me. I’m drawn to pictures with a mood that ‘oozes’ into the normality of the moment, and changes it,”

If that mood was ever fun-loving in the way modern Halloween often is, the effect definitely gets lost in translation across the 100 or so years between then and now.

Halloween’s roots sink deep down into a distant pre-Christian past of Celtic festivals such as Samhain, in which the death of an old year and the birth of a new one were celebrated.

On that particularly magical night, the separation between the living and the dead became thin enough to sometimes wear through, letting ghouls and ghosts, and spirits of all kinds pour into our world, to sometimes be felt or heard, and possibly even seen by those who still breathed.

On this dark but special night, which Christianity converted into All Souls’ Day for the sake of mourning the dead, children would mask themselves outlandishly to avoid falling victim to the phantoms of the night, while wandering from home to home begging for a treat.

The photos in the book certainly convey some of that darker spirit on Halloween night. Have a look for yourself. Below are a few gems featured in the book, and elsewhere on the web.

Ossian Brown’s Haunted Air is an interesting look into those early traditions of Halloween night. It’s available now.


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Shotkit Journalist, Writer & Reviewer

Stephan Jukic is a technology and photography journalist and experimental photographer who spends his time living in both Canada and Mexico. He loves cross-cultural street photo exploration and creating fine art photo compositions.

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