No end of schemes were there of old
By which love's tender charms were told;
And still may fairies intervene
To bless the fates of Halloween.
-- from "Halloween", a poem from Harper's Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 2033, December 7, 1895, p. 1069.
There are some old traditional games here and some modern ones.
These are games that have been played for hundreds of years. They also include the fortune-telling games below. A number of traditional games featured the use of fire, so I don't recommend them at all for children (although children did once play some of them), and even adults would be better off just reading about them than playing them.
This is a very old game that was played in Britain and parts of North America. Because of this game, some people used to call Halloween "Snap Apple Night" because it was such a popular Halloween game (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 56).
There are different ways to play this game. The easiest one is to hang apples from the ceiling on strings. The players, with their hands tied behind their backs, then try to bite the apples (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 56). It's not as easy as it sounds because the apples will swing out of their way when the players' mouths touch them.
In a riskier form of the game, they would hang a pole from the ceiling, with the string holding it tied around the middle. Then, they would attach an apple to one end of the pole and a lit candle to the other. Then, they would set the pole spinning. The challenge was to get a bite of the apple without getting burned (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 56). (I don't recommend this one. Hair burns very easily.)
This was a game for adults only! The object was to snatch specially-prepared raisins from a plate of burning brandy. The brandy also had to be specially-prepared before it was lit on fire. There should be about four or five raisins per person on the plate, enough to allow everyone a chance to grab some, but the players were supposed to compete to get more than the others did, grabbing them quickly to avoid being burned (Morgan p. 64).
I'm telling you this for historical interest. To discourage you from actually planning this game, I won't give you the special instructions for preparing both the raisins and the brandy, although I'm willing to tell you that the book I used as a source explains the game in more detail. I haven't played the game myself, although I did find a YouTube video with others playing it that gives a pretty good demonstration. If you're a mystery fan, the Poirot mystery series episode Hallowe'en Party with David Suchet has a scene where it is played by children (although it's really not recommended in real life).
The Priest's Cat
This was a game that children played during the 1700s after a bonfire party. As the fire was dying, they would find a stick with a glowing end. In a sort of "Hot Potato" style game, they would pass the stick among themselves, chanting, "About wi' that, About wi' that, Keep alive the priest's cat." The object of the game was not to be the person holding the stick when the end stopped glowing. The one holding the "dead cat" at the end had to perform a feat called a "forfeit." A forfeit could be whatever silly stunt the players decided it should be, perhaps something like reciting a poem from memory or singing a song (Morgan p. 64). (If you've played Truth or Dare, forfeits are kind of like the dares.)
There was a similar game during the 1800s called Jack's-Alive, which was played indoors with a candle. In that game, the chant was, "Jack's alive and likely to live, If he dies in your hand, you've a forfeit to give" (Morgan p. 65).
There's an element of folklore in The Priest's Cat because it was considered unlucky when a priest's cat died. Some county people believed that the cat's spirit might turn into a witch and haunt the town (Morgan pp. 64-65).
People have played fortune telling games at Halloween for over a thousand years.
Bobbing for Apples
This classic party game has been around for ages, and most people already know how to play. What not everyone knows is that it was once used as a fortune-telling game. There are some variations on the rules.
In the basic game, apples are set afloat in a tub of water, and players try to catch hold of them using only their mouths, no hands. One of the fortune-telling aspects of the game was for a player to name an apple after a person they liked, using their ability to catch that apple to predict if the other person would return their affections (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 56).
This was also a popular game in Britain and early America. Some people used to call Halloween "Nut Crack Night" because of this game. There are different ways to play, but one of the most popular was to take two nuts and name each of them after a potential suitor. Chesnuts and walnuts were popular for this. The player would then put both of the nuts on the grate in the fireplace while a fire is burning. What happened to the nuts would so the temperment of each of the suitors. A nut that remained still and burned steadily signified a lover who would remain faithful. If the nut exploded, the suitor it was named for would be untrustworthy (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 57).
"In order on the clean hearthstaue,
The luggies three are ranged;
And ev'ry time great care is ta'en,
To see them duly changed . . ."
-- Robert Burns, "Hallowe'en" (1785), quoted in A Halloween How-To by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne.
This game also comes from Britain, but pioneers in America would play it, too. The "luggies" are bowls. To play, get three bowls, fill them with different contents, and put them on the floor. A blindfolded player has to choose one of these bowls at random, and the choice of bowl would indicate the person's ultimate fate (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 57). There are several variations on the contents of the bowls and their meanings, but some of the possibilities are listed below (I have to warn you that some of the traditional predictions of the future can be a little dark, a sign of the times and attitudes of when they were played, if you play this game yourself, you can use whatever you like and give it whatever meaning you want):
A Traditional Version:
- Clean water -- The choser will marry a virgin.
- Dirty water -- The choser will become a widow/widower.
- Nothing/Empty -- The choser will never marry.
American Pioneer Version:
- Apples -- The choser will have good luck, find love, or achieve wealth.
- Nuts -- The choser will have no change in luck or status, life just goes on.
- Soot -- The choser will have bad luck, like losing a love or getting sick.
This Scottish game was supposed to help predict which months of the coming year would be lucky for the player. The players would put twelve candles on the floor in a large circle, each one representing a different month of the year. Then, they would take turns jumping over them, one at a time. If a candle's flame went out when it was jumped over, that month would be unlucky for the jumper. The candles that were still lit at the end of a player's turn stood for lucky months (Hunt 34).
A non-flammable version of this game would be to set up twelve pairs of playing cards with each set of two leaning lightly against each other for players to jump over. Cards that fall represent unlucky months, and cards that are still standing at the end are lucky (Hunt 34).
This game is not specifically a Halloween game, but I'm including it because of its connections to fortune-telling and talking to the dead. For some people, it isn't exactly a "game," either. Some people really believe that it does allow people to communicate with spirits. As a kid, I was always warned not to get involved with Ouija, just in case it could really conjure evil spirits (it's a pretty common warning for people who grew up Catholic or part of other conservative Christian groups). Now, I more believe the explanation that the "game" is more a psychological trick, like automatic writing, based on unconscious thought and the expectations of the players, but to tell the truth, even thinking that, I'm not sure I'd really recommend it to anyone to play because it's still pretty dang creepy and, well, one never knows. (This is from a person who likes a little creepiness. I have limits.) Mostly, I'm interested in explaining the history of the game, which dates back to 19th century spiritualism.
Actually, one of the best explanations that I've seen of the history of Ouija boards is a short film from the Smithsonian Channel on YouTube:
This article and the accompanying audio podcast also explain more of the history of Ouija boards and the psychology behind them. The "game" concept itself is fairly simple. You place your hand so that it rests lightly on the the special pointer, or planchette, included with the board, ask a question of the board, and "allow" the planchette to move and point to letters written on the board that will spell out the answer to your question. Supposedly, it's the "spirits" making the planchette move. On the other hand, maybe you are yourself without realizing it. If you buy a board, it will come with instructions. But, play only at your own peril!
The Body Parts Game
I've heard several different versions of this one, but the basic idea is to frighten/gross out your party guests by having them feel various objects (mostly food-based) that represent the "body parts" of some hideous monster being built by a mad scientist or maybe the victim of some experiment gone horribly wrong (or something along those lines) without being able to see them (so they don't know for sure what these "body parts" really are. In large part, the success of this game depends on the window dressing you give it -- how well you tell the story behind these disgusting "body parts." Make up a good story about the mad scientist and his creation (or whatever back story you want to give it) and give it as much detail and color as you can before presenting your guests with the daring challenge to touch these body parts.
Getting up the courage to do it is part of the fun of the game. Even though your guests will know that you don't really have some dead body or monster parts laying around, the imagination takes over as the game goes on, especially if you're a really good story teller and describe each "part" vividly as the guests try to feel them. Sometimes, this game is also presented as part of a larger challenge of some kind, like part of a haunted house or a trip through a mad scientist's lab. In Roderick Hunt's Ghost, Witches, and Things Like That (pp. 36-37), he presents it as part of a series of challenges that players must complete while blindfolded called The Chamber of Morbius. In that game, once a person has completed all of Morbius's challenges, which include receiving the power to levitate (another illusion created by having people on either side of the blindfolded person slowly sink down as the blindfolded person "rises" and then bumping the top of their head with a book, as if they'd just hit the ceiling), walking amid snakes' eggs (made from the bottoms of egg cartons), and holding the brain of Morbius (the congealed spaghetti mentioned below), the player's blindfold is removed so that he can see the truth of the ordeals he has endured and watch others go through them.
How you present these body parts (whatever story you use or whatever challenge it may be part of) is up to you, but the important part is that your guests have to be unable to see what they're touching in order to create the illusion. The version that I played as a kid involved blindfolding the players. This has the advantage of being really amusing for non-participants to watch because they will be able to clearly see both the real objects the players are touching and the players' reactions to them. Other possibilities include having players reach into boxes to feel the objects or, as Sheena Morgan suggests in The Real Halloween, arranging a sheet with slits it in over the objects so that players will have to reach through the slits to touch them.
|Body Parts||Real Objects|
This game requires a good amount of space in order to play. You can play it indoors or outside, but a combination of both makes it more challenging. The rules come from Roderick Hunt's Ghost, Witches, and Things Like That, p. 38.
Start by making up a bunch of signs with various Halloween-themed locations, written in big letters so they're easy to read. Each sign should also have a different letter of the alphabet. The suggested list of locations and letters in the book is:
- Count Dracula's Castle -- A
- The Chamber of Horrors -- E
- Frankenstein's Laboratory -- L
- The Haunted House -- C
- The Graveyard -- H
- The Witch's Kitchen -- K
- The Devil's Den -- B
- Werewolf Woods -- F
- The Snake Pit -- J
- The Black Swamp -- D
- The Vampire's Lair -- G
You can vary the locations according to your own tastes and dress them up with special decorations to add atmosphere. When I played this game with friends, I made up locations like The Mummy's Tomb, The Spiders' Den, The Scarecrow Fields, and The Haunted Tree. You can also change the number of locations to fit the location or change the length of the game.
Once you create your list of locations and make the signs, hang them up in various places around your playing area (adding whatever decorations you like). It's a good idea to have them spaced out across the area, not right next to each other.
When it's time to play, give your players the name of the first location they should find. Then, the players split up and run off in search of it. When they find it, they should check the letter next to the name on the sign. As each player comes back to tell you what the letter is, you tell them the name of the next place on the list and sent them off to find that and its letter. The winner is the first person to find all of the locations and their letters. (This requires you to keep track of the master list of locations and where each person is on their hunt, so you know which location to tell them to find next.)
This game is named after the movie The Blob. It's basically an elaborate version of tag as blobs attempt to devour everyone in the entire world! The rules come from The New Games Book edited by Andrew Fluegelman, p. 107.
First, establish the boundaries for the game. You need to play in a well-defined area because some people may try to escape from the blob by leaving the playing field. You need to play in a place where there is plenty of room to run and have a good number of players. Too few would make for too short a game. It could be easily played with a couple dozen players, provided that you have the room for them.
When the game starts off, one lone person is the "blob." The blob is basically "it" in the game, chasing other people to tag them, but like in the movie, the blob grows ever larger as the game goes on. As soon as the blob tags someone, they join hands and go after more people. Each tagged person also joins their chain, getting absorbed into the blob. At times, the blob is at something of a disadvantage because, although they can use their immense size to corner lone humans running away from them, when they're running as a chain, the people in the middle can't tag anyone, only the people on the ends with free hands can. However, when the blob starts getting bigger, it is allowed to split into smaller blobs which are still allowed to communicate with each other in order to corner their prey. The winner is the last person left who has managed to avoid becoming part of the blob. At least, that's as close to winning as this game comes. Winning seems to be less of an object as just playing.
In the book's description, it ends saying, "But alas, there is no defense against the Blob, and humanity succumbs. (If that seems unfair, well, that's the plot.)" I quibble with that because the Blob was defeated in the movie, so I think the last person standing alone should be counted as the winner. The book further says, "The moral of our story could well be, 'You become what you fear.' If you have the heart to destroy humanity again, you can have the last person caught start the Blob for the next game."
This game is somewhat similar to Blob, but it doesn't require running. The rules come from The New Games Book edited by Andrew Fluegelman, p. 123.
You should start by defining your playing area and appointing a Referee (or multiple Referees). Almost any number of people can play this game, but I'd recommend no less than six players, and more than that would be even better. Too few wouldn't be enough to make the dynamics of this game work.
After you've selected your Referee, have all the other players spread out over the playing area. There should be plenty of room for people to move around and no obstacles for them to trip over (although one of the roles of the Referee is to keep people from straying out of the playing area or bumping into things). Trip hazards are a concern beccause the players' eyes will be closed most of the time. The Referee tells all of the players to close their eyes, and they start slowing walking around, hands outstretched in front of them. The Referee goes up to one of the players (it can be anyone) and tells that person that he or she is a vampire. There is only one vampire in the beginning, but there will soon be more.
It's inevitable that the players, walking around blindly, will stumble into each other. (No tackling or running, please, just a light bump or brushing of outstretched hands.) When an ordinary human bumps into another human, nothing happens. However, you never know when you might bump into the vampire, and if you do, that person will turn you into a vampire, too! Whenever the vampire bumps into any, he or she screams. The other person then screams also, and from that point on will also be a vampire, changing anyone they bump into.
From this point on, there are different ways this game can go. If you like the dynamic of the winner being the last person who has not been turned into a vampire, you can have the Referee watch for that lone survivor and let everyone know when there's a winner. However, the rules in the book also state that if two vampire bump into each other, they should both turn back into normal human beings. (So, it's important to remember what you are. In a large group, others may lose track.) For this reason, I really recommend having vampires give a loud hiss instead of a scream when they're "attacking" someone so that you can tell their special sound from the victims' screams and they can more easily know when they've bumped into another of their kind. If you play using that dynamic, instead of looking for an individual winner, you might treat it as more of an experiment to see whether everyone in the group will all be turned into vampires or whether all the players will manage to cure themselves and each other of their vampirism. You could pick one of these as your goal and aim for it!