Be careful if you go somewhere on the evening of October 31.
Actually, you might see a person dressed like a ghost. Or maybe they’ll be wearing another costume.
That’s because October 31 is Halloween, a fun, cultural holiday that people celebrate most often in the USA, Canada and the UK.
Depending on where you live, you may already know a lot about Halloween, or you may not know much (yet).
So there’s a good chance that you know a few of these words, but probably not all of them. And since Halloween is on October 31, today we’ll look at 31 essential words to talk about Halloween in English.
So, put on your costume and let’s learn some Halloween vocabulary!
Essential Halloween Vocabulary: 31 Spooky Words for October 31
These words are divided into four main categories: basic Halloween vocabulary, useful descriptive words, symbols of Halloween and scary monsters.
Basic Halloween Vocabulary
There are four main words that you should probably learn or review before we talk about the other symbols and customs related to Halloween. The first is the word “Halloween” itself.
Halloween is a very old holiday, and it has a surprisingly complicated history. If you have time, check out the Halloween videos on the History Channel’s website for more information. But for now, here’s a quick summary.
Originally, Halloween was a pagan (non-Christian) celebration called “Samhain.” Samhain involved lighting fires to scare off ghosts.
The name “Hallow” is similar to “holy,” and “een” is similar to “evening.” In this case, “evening” is used like “eve,” which is the night before a special day (Like “Christmas Eve,” which is the day before Christmas, and “New Year’s Eve,” the day before New Year’s Day). So in other words, “Halloween” is the night before a holy day: All Saints’ Day, on November 1.
In the past, many people used to wear costumes of scary creatures on Halloween to scare away the evil spirits. That custom evolved (changed over time) into modern traditions, such as dressing up like different creatures.
Modern-day Halloween celebrations are very different. In fact, Halloween is mostly for kids these days. It’s not a serious holiday; it’s just a fun reason to wear a costume, have a party, eat candy and play some games.
This is one of the most common Halloween traditions. When kids go trick-or-treating, first they must put on a costume. Then they go to different houses in the neighborhood.
When they get to each house, they knock on the door or ring the doorbell. When the owner answers the door, the kids all say “Trick or treat!” Then the owner usually gives each of the kids some small pieces of candy or chocolate.
Trick-or-treating also has an interesting history, but we’re going to look at the words “trick” and “treat.” A trick is similar to a prank, where you fool someone into doing something silly or bad (like on April Fool’s Day).
And a treat is something that is nice or delicious. So the kids are saying that if you don’t give them a piece of candy (a treat), they’ll do something bad to you or your house (a trick)!
Check out the short TV special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” It’s a classic Peanuts cartoon (with Snoopy) that involves trick-or-treating and other Halloween customs.
A costume is similar to a disguise, which is something that makes you look like a different person. Notice the pronunciation of “costume,” and that it’s different from “custom” (which is like a tradition or a common practice). A costume often has a main part that covers your body, and some also include a mask (the part that covers your face).
Remember that you can use the verb “to wear” with a costume, since it’s clothing that you put on your body. It’s also common to use the phrases “dress up as ~” or “go as ~” when talking about Halloween costumes. For example, you could say:
“Hi Mary, what kind of costume will you wear for Halloween?”
“I’m not sure. I may go as a nurse, but I was also thinking of dressing up as a kitten.”
Also, a fun/weird cultural note: It’s a joke that every costume can be made into a “sexy costume,” such as a sexy nurse or a sexy police officer. But in recent years the trend has become even more ridiculous, with costumes like a sexy lobster or even a sexy pizza rat!
Decorations are any objects put on display, which add to the feeling of a holiday. For example, a common decoration for Christmas is a Christmas tree.
For Halloween, some people put up decorations for parties, or to make their house look scary when trick-or-treaters visit. These decorations may include scary things like fake spiderwebs, skeletons or Jack-o’-lanterns.
Useful Descriptive Words
I just mentioned the word “scary,” and this section will have other adjectives (descriptive words) that people often use when talking about Halloween. Many of these words are similar because a big part of Halloween involves doing scary (but fun) things. So first, let’s look at the word “scary.”
If something is scary, it makes you experience fear. In other words, it causes you to feel afraid.
If you experience fear, you can say that you are scared. So “scary” and “scared” are very similar, but one causes fear and the other experiences fear.
A lot of people are scared of certain animals (like snakes or spiders), certain places (like elevators), or certain experiences (like flying or public speaking).
I’m scared of speaking in front of groups of people, so I’ve been practicing by doing my presentations with my friends.
A really common synonym for scared is “afraid,” and it’s often used with “of.”
I’m afraid of snakes. They often scare me when I’m walking in the grass and I don’t expect to see one.
The word “frightened” is another synonym for “scared” but it’s a bit more advanced (here’s the pronunciation).
When you experience fear, you feel frightened. Often, people are frightened because they are surprised, but not necessarily scared.
The movie wasn’t really scary, but some of the children were frightened because there were loud noises.
This is a common word to hear around Halloween. It’s similar to “scary,” but less intense. If something is spooky, it might make you feel a little bit scared or uncomfortable. But it’s often related to the atmosphere or the general feeling of a place, not necessarily an object.
I don’t like walking through the cemetery after dark. I know nothing will happen, but it just feels too quiet and spooky.
This word is also very similar to “spooky” and “scary,” but something creepy will make you feel uncomfortable, but not necessarily scared.
The verbs “to creep,” “to creep up” or “to creep around” mean to move in a secret, sneaky way that makes it hard be noticed. So people who creep around might be doing things that are dishonest or illegal.
Also, a “creep” is a person who does weird things that make others feel uncomfortable.
That man in the green shirt has been staring at that woman for about 25 minutes. He seems pretty creepy.
Again, this is similar to the others, but “freaky” is used to describe something that’s strange or not normal. It can also be used to describe a scary or intense situation or person.
A person who is freaky or who does freaky things can be called a “freak.” It’s more commonly used to describe someone who is really intensely interested in something. For example, I could be called a “Star Wars freak” because I really like the “Star Wars” movies.
You also might hear the verb “to freak out.” That means to either be really scared, to lose your patience or even to almost go crazy.
Here’s an example for a scary situation:
After I got into the car accident, I freaked out, even though I wasn’t injured. I had to sit down for a half hour before I was calm again. It’s still a bit freaky for me to drive on the road where I had the accident.
And now here’s an example for someone who’s intense:
Helen is a real pizza freak. She can eat two entire pizzas by herself! It’s actually pretty freaky to watch her eat, so I don’t eat pizza with her anymore.
This word is less common in modern English, but it’s basically a synonym for “scary.” “Eerie” is often used to describe something that is bizarre (uncommon or strange), and not necessarily scary. People often describe supernatural things as being eerie (here’s the pronunciation).
I was just about to call my cousin, who I hadn’t talked to in a year. But right when I picked up the phone to call him, my phone rang—it was my cousin! That was pretty eerie.
Finally, we have a word which isn’t a synonym for “scary.” In fact, this is basically the opposite of “scary.”
If something is silly, it’s fun or funny. In other words, it isn’t serious, and may even make you laugh.
It’s a good word for Halloween because people do lots of silly things, too (like trick-or-treating or having costume parties).
Many people say that clowns are supposed to be fun and silly, but I think they’re just creepy or even scary.
Symbols of Halloween
As we saw in the last sections, people like to celebrate Halloween by doing fun and scary things. So a lot of Halloween’s symbols are things that are usually scary.
Basically, it’s a pumpkin (another common symbol of Halloween) that has a face carved (cut with a knife) into it. Then, you put a candle inside the pumpkin. That way, it makes it look like the face is glowing.
People use Jack-o’-lanterns as common Halloween decorations, and sometimes people get together to have a small party to carve them.
14. Haunted houses
If something is haunted, it means that it has ghosts or spirits living in it. Some people believe that their houses are haunted if strange things happen which they can’t explain.
A haunted house at Halloween is a bit different, though. For this, a group of people decorate a house to make it scary or spooky, and then invite visitors to walk through the house. While the visitors walk through, the people who work for the haunted house may jump out to try to scare the visitors. Sometimes you must pay to visit a haunted house.
A scarecrow is used by farmers to scare crows (a type of bird) away from their fields, because the birds eat the grains in the field.
To make a scarecrow, you can take old clothes and fill them with straw or hay (dry grass). Then you put the stuffed clothes on a tall stick so it will stand upright. Scarecrows look a bit like people, and do scare away most birds.
I’m not completely sure why this is a symbol of Halloween. It may be because Halloween happens around harvest, which is the time of year when the farmers sell the food they grow and prepare for winter.
Also check out the Scarecrow character in the recent Batman movies.
16. Black cats
Black cats are related to many superstitions (some people think black cats bring bad luck), but they’re also related to Halloween because of witches (#23).
In old times, superstitious people (people who believe in magic/luck) thought that witches could transform themselves into cats. So black cats are still a common symbol of Halloween these days.
Many people are scared of spiders. People often use fake spiderwebs or fake spiders for Halloween decorations.
This is not scary at all (unless you’re a dentist, maybe!), but candy is really common around Halloween. When kids go trick-or-treating, they usually receive a lot of candy. Also, if you have a Halloween party, it’s common to eat sweets like candy corn or caramel apples.
A graveyard is another name for a cemetery. A “grave” (also called a tomb) is a place where a dead body is buried. A “yard” is a large, open natural space, usually covered with grass.
It’s a common symbol for Halloween because Halloween was traditionally associated with ghosts and spirits of dead people.
A tombstone is a stone that marks where a tomb or grave is located. Usually it includes the name of the person who is buried, the dates that he or she lived, and some kind of message or other inscription.
You’ll often see the letters “R.I.P.” on a tombstone, which stand for “Rest In Peace.”
In this final section, we’ll look at some of the most common creatures that are associated with Halloween. These are also some of the most common costumes for Halloween, but remember: Halloween costumes don’t need to be scary. In fact, most of them are fun or based on pop culture.
Still, if you watch any Halloween movies or TV shows, you’ll probably see at least one of the creatures in this section. I personally like the “Harry Potter” books and movies. They have a lot of these creatures, plus many more that aren’t on this list!
A monster is a general word to describe any creature or person that is scary, unnatural or gigantic (very big). The most well-known monster is probably Frankenstein’s monster. That’s from the book “Frankenstein,” in which Dr. Frankenstein constructs a monster from different dead body parts!
There have been many movies that involve the Frankenstein’s monster character, and it’s also the title of a really long 1970s psychedelic rock song!
22. Ghost / Spirit
These two words are basically synonyms, at least when talking about Halloween. Some people believe that when you die, your ghost or spirit stays on Earth. Ghosts and spirits might either watch over people or haunt (scare) them.
It can also be a really cheap Halloween costume, since you just need a large white bed sheet with two eye holes!
A witch is a woman with magical powers. A “regular” witch often wears a long, tall, black hat and rides a broom. There are different types of witches, though, including the women from the “Harry Potter” books.
As mentioned in #16, long ago people believed that witches could turn themselves into cats.
A wizard is the male (boy or man) version of a witch. In other words, it’s a man with magical powers.
You’ve probably heard this word, since it’s very similar in many languages. A zombie is basically a corpse (a dead body) that somehow comes alive.
Mummies are actually real things, but a Halloween mummy is a bit different from a real one.
In some tombs in places like Egypt, people made their kings into mummies by wrapping the dead bodies before burying them in a tomb. You can even see mummies from some Egyptian kings like Ramses II in museums today.
A Halloween mummy is based on the same idea, but it looks more like the mummy from a science fiction movie from 1932. They’re usually wrapped in white cloth. Also, a Halloween (and Hollywood) mummy comes alive and walks—which obviously couldn’t happen with “real” mummies!
The most popular vampire story is about Count Dracula from Transylvania, in modern-day Romania. The stories say that vampires like to drink blood from their victim’s necks. If you get bitten by a vampire, you’ll also become a vampire!
According to some legends, vampires can transform themselves into bats, so bats are another common symbol of Halloween.
A skeleton is a collection of all the bones in a body. You have a skeleton, too, but you also have muscles, organs and skin.
Skeletons are just the bones. They’re associated with Halloween because they are the remains of a dead person. Many people think skeletons and bones are creepy or scary.
A werewolf is also sometimes called a “wolf-man.” It’s a person who is a human most of the time, but when there’s a full moon, he or she transforms into a wolf.
A werewolf acts normal as a human, but can be very violent as a wolf. If you get bitten by a werewolf, legends say that you will also become a werewolf!
30. Death / The Grim Reaper
The word “death” is the noun form of the adjective “dead” or the verb “to die.” In most Halloween “Death” costumes, people wear a long, black robe with a hood and carry a sickle or scythe (a sharp tool that farmers use to cut grain in the field).
Death is also known as “The Grim Reaper.” The word “grim” means dark or depressing. “Reaper” is related to the verb “to reap,” which means to collect or harvest things, like a farmer does. But the Grim Reaper doesn’t collect food, he collects dead people!
31. Devil / Demon
Our last creature is not a silly one, but he’s very common.
When the word “devil” is used generally, it can be a synonym of “demon.” Demons are basically the opposite of angels. They are evil creatures that live in Hell or in the afterlife, and sometimes they torture people’s spirits after the people die.
You may also hear people refer to the Devil (singular and with a capital “D”). In that case, it might have a religious meaning, probably referring to the “boss” demon who is in charge of Hell. Other names for the Devil are also Satan, Lucifer and Mephistopheles.
There is often some controversy about Halloween because it has non-Christian roots. We won’t discuss it here, but just know that most people celebrate Halloween to have fun and to go to costume parties. (And not because they like the Devil or doing evil things.)
When people dress up as devils for Halloween, they usually wear red clothes with horns on their heads. They often carry a pitchfork, which is similar to a large fork, but for farming.
You now have 31+ words to help you increase your English vocabulary and to talk about and understand Halloween.
Whether you get dressed up and go trick-or-treating, or if you just stay at home and watch scary movies to celebrate, I hope you have a happy Halloween!
Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.
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