Pranks are a common staple of Halloween celebrations and have been so for centuries. Some of the pranking is based on traditions from the British Isles, where the tradition of Halloween itself began, but modern society has plenty of new options to choose from. The threat of "trick or treat" was historically a real one and not just a thing kids said at their neighbors' front doors to get candy. Those who weren't forthcoming with their hospitality were taking a risk!
This section of the site isn't to tell you to go out and play mean tricks or to commit acts of vandalism but just to discuss an old Halloween tradition. At the end, there are some haunted house variety tricks and fun stunts that you can do with your friends at a Halloween party, but remember that a joke is only really funny if everyone involved can laugh at it. If people get hurt or property gets destroyed, nothing is funny and no one will be laughing (or, they won't laugh for long).
Pranking on Halloween has a long tradition, based on Mischief Night practices from the British Isles. It was especially proper with boys and young men in 19th century America, and they could be very creative with their pranks (Bannatyne, Halloween, p. 61-62). Some of their pranks included:
- Removing a neighbor's gate and hanging it in a tree or throwing it in a pond or ditch.
- Placing a wagon on a barn roof.
- Blocking roads with fences, hay bales, or logs.
- Blocking doors with carts.
- Throwing turnips at people's doors.
- Taking horses out of their stables and leaving them in a field.
- Letting livestock loose.
- Hanging rocking chairs from trees.
- Hiding and using a button on a string to rap on a window, laughing at the people trying to figure out what was making the noise.
- Putting bags of flour on top of open doors to fall on people.
- Pretending to break a window by first smacking it with a hand and then breaking a bottle against the side of a house.
- Writing and drawing on windows and sidewalks with chalk.
- Tipping over outhouses.
Up through the mid-20th century, the idea that "trick-or-treat" implied that there would be tricks played on those who didn't offer treats was so common that, in some areas of the United States, the children would recite a rhyme that spelled out the nature of the expected trick instead of just saying "trick-or-treat." For example, one that my mother remembered from her childhood in the 1950s went:
We are the beggars of the street!
Do we soap, or do we eat?
The "soap" part refers to the classic prank of rubbing a bar of dry soap over someone's windows to cover them in a soapy film (or, sometimes, write or draw things with the soap). This prank was more of a hassle than vandalism, since the soap would wash off, but it put people to the extra trouble of having to wash their windows.
A similar-sounding rhyme from the 1950s children's story The Blue-Nosed Witch by Margaret Embry goes:
Candy or cake
or your windows we'll break!
The children in the story didn't actually break any windows, and they even promise the adults that they're not going to soap any windows, either. Their rhyme is mostly traditional.
Even in the 21st century, people like to play tricks on Halloween. Sometimes, their tricks are mean pranks, like decorating someone's yard with toilet paper. ("TP-ing" is usually more the prank of choice these days than soaping windows, although that prank hasn't completed disppeared.) However, thanks to generations of effort to "tame" Halloween, modern pranks are usually less destructive in the 21st century than they were in the early part of the 20th century and earlier. In the later part of the 20th century and onward, some adults persuaded children that the "trick" part of "trick-or-treat" meant that the children might have to perform some kind of trick in order to earn a treat at each house. The tricks that the children might perform were usually something like telling jokes (especially Halloween-themed jokes), reciting rhymes, or singing songs. However, children aren't always required to perform these "tricks" for treats - it mostly depends on where they live and what the adults of the community decide to emphasize about the holiday.
Another popular kind of modern trick is the haunted house style of trick, where the player sets up an atmospheric trick or series of tricks to frighten party guests and trick-or-treators with sudden surprises. The "victims" of this kind of trick are usually at least half-expecting it, and the perpetrators do it as much for the victims' amusement as their own. Sometimes, it's fun to be a little scared!
Tricks for Treats
I'd like to begin this section with a couple of warnings for adults. First, not all communities make children perform a "trick" on Halloween in order to get a treat. If you're new to a community, don't try to force children to perform a trick for you if that's not a thing that people in this community do. The children may not be prepared to recite a joke or rhyme, and it can be embarrassing if they aren't prepared. Second, understand that some children are more shy than others, particularly the young ones. I've had trick-or-treaters who are shy about even saying "trick-or-treat" to a stranger when they come to the door. What I'm saying is that holidays are supposed to be fun, and this particular tradition, as it is practiced in the 21st century, is meant to be fun for children. If a child is reluctant to tell jokes or even speak up much, be nice about it. Let them have a treat anyway, and say "It's okay. Maybe next time." You are the host, and they are guests. Be hospitable.
If you live in one of the communities where children are asked to perform "tricks" in order to earn treats, one of the easiest and most common "tricks" is to tell Halloween-themed jokes. Here are a few examples from a joke book, Count Draculations!: Monster Riddles compiled by Charles Keller:
Why do witches get A's in school?
Because they are good at spelling.
How do you get into a locked cemetery?
With a skeleton key.
Why did Frankenstein's monster go to the psychiatrist?
He thought he had a screw loose.
Why did the invisible man go crazy?
Out of sight, out of mind.
Why do they put fences around cemeteries?
Because people are dying to get in.
Why does a skeleton go to the library?
To bone up on a few things.
What kind of horse does the headless horseman ride?
What happens when you don't pay an exorcist?
You get repossessed.
What was Dr. Jekyll's favorite game?
Hyde and seek.
Why are vampires crazy?
They are often bats.
What kind of crew does a ghost ship have?
A skeleton crew.
Why was the skeleton a coward?
Because he had no guts.
If you're trick-or-treating in a large group, you might not want to have each individual person tell a joke. You could have one person tell a joke on behalf of the entire group (the best option for saving time, and it saves the more shy children from having to perform). Another option might be to have the entire group sing a short song or recite a short poem. I found a couple of YouTube videos that show the lyrics for a couple of Halloween-themed kids' songs. If you use one, try keep the performance to under a minute in order to keep the trick-or-treaters moving.
Old Woman All Skin and Bones
A very short, scary song with a surprise ending. Takes a little less than a minute.
A favorite song at summer camps! This one isn't really connected to Halloween; it's just about a really strange woman and has a funny ending. One of the advantages of this song is that you can make it shorter by leaving out some of the verses. The song also comes in a lot of variations, so if you know a different verse that you want to add in, you can, or you can even make up a verse or two of your own. You can sing it any way you want and still be right! In the interests of time, I'd recommend using no more than two or three verses total, including the ending one.
The Haunted House on the Hill
This is a song that I've only heard recently. I understand that it's a song often used for music lessons in Britain, but I like it because it's a very short song that fits well with the Halloween theme. The song is in the video below, just about a minute long. I have written the lyrics beneath it. The lyrics could be recited as a rhyme, if no one wants to sing. To shorten it, just use the first verse and end with "in the haunted house on the hill."
The door squeaks, and the floor creaks,
While the wind is howling ‘round the walls
Then a clock chimes, and a dog whines,
As a strange and ghostly figure calls.
There are shadows in the corner,
Shadows in the darkness,
The bats fly, and the owls cry,
While the moon hangs silently and still
And the panes shake as the ghosts wake
In the haunted house on the hill.
This is a short poem by e.e. cummings. It's possible to sing it, but just reciting it is fun. You can read the full text of the poem here (the spaces between words indicate pauses). However, I've decided to include only the second half of the poem on my site, the part about the "old woman with the wart on her nose" because trick-or-treaters will want to be brief in the interests of time, and the second part is the most dramatic. Just be sure to put a lot of spirit into the ending!
look out for the old woman
with the wart on her nose
what she’ll do to yer
for she knows the devil
This page has a collection of Halloween poems that are appropriate for children, but my favorite is the first one, The Witch by Jack Prelutsky. Again, when you're trick-or-treating, you'll want to be brief, so you may want to recite only the first and last verses.
The Witch by Jack Prelutsky
She comes by night, in fearsome flight
in garments black as pitch,
the queen of doom upon her broom,
the wild and wicked witch,
a cackling crone with brittle bones
and desiccated limbs,
two evil eyes with warts and sties
and bags about the rims,
a dangling nose, ten twisted toes
and folds of shrivelled skin,
cracked and chipped and crackled lips
that frame a toothless grin.
She hurtles by, she sweeps the sky
and hurls a piercing screech.
As she swoops past, a spell is cast
on all her curses reach.
Take care to hide when the wild witch rides
to shriek her evil spell.
What she may do with a word or two
is much too grim to tell.
Part of the key to this is knowing your audience and planning for them. I wouldn't recommend scary surprises for the youngest trick-or-treaters, who might be toddlers or little more than toddlers. Keep things light and fun for younger children. For older children you can get a little scarier and make the trick-or-treat experience more exciting.
Is It Really a Dummy?
One of the most common methods for surprising trick-or-treaters is what I always think of as "Is it really a dummy?" I saw this one done multiple times when I was young in the 1980s and 1990s. A person dresses up as a dummy, in a costume that fully covers their body, and sits on a chair by their front door, with the bowl of candy on their lap. Nervous trick-or-treaters suspect that the "dummy" holding the candy is actually a person, but they can't really be sure. They approach nervously and reach for the candy, and the person in the costume has a chance to give them a fright by grabbing their hands, growling, or suddenly saying, "Take only one!" After a brief scare, the trick-or-treaters are allowed to take candy from the bowl.
Haunted House Tricks