How The Great Depression and Walt Disney Made Haunted Houses a Cult Icon

Leaving your front porch light on for trick-or-treater’s has a more sinister history behind the tradition.

When the Irish immigrated in large numbers to flee from the Potato Famine in the 1840s, they helped to popularize Halloween. Halloween was celebrated as a night of pranksters and tricksters for adults and children to have some harmless fun. Common Halloween tricks included placing farmers wagons and livestock on barn roofs, tipping over outhouses, and tearing down gates that allowed livestock to escape.

In the early 20th century and with the invention of the automobile, pranks were brought to a whole new level with removing manhole covers, deflating tires and placing fake detour signs to confuse motorist. Parked cars were mutilated with rocks by smashing windows and destroying the exterior of vehicles. Halloween night had become alive with youngsters bent on mischief.

In Appleton, Wisconsin, the newspapers reported tricksters stretching wires across a crosswalk just high enough to trip pedestrians. Sidewalks were ripped up, fences were destroyed and windows were covered with soap. What started out as innocent fun evolved into the destruction of property and homeowners were reporting pillars being removed from their front porch, destroyed front yards, and street lights shot out with rifles.

By the Great Depression, the economic disaster had only made things worse when pranksters and tricksters became gangs and mobs of violence for Halloween antics. Public concern became overwhelming and by 1933, October 31st was known as “Black Halloween”. Acts of vandalism such as setting fires, flipping over cars, derailing streetcars, and rioting caused several thousands of dollars worth of damage. Halloween hoodlums raided small stores and stole merchandise. Police had become virtually powerless to cope with the mobs of terrorizing gangs. The actions of youth had perverted the spirit of Halloween and made it an excuse for the shameful excesses of mischief.

The Black Halloween of 1933 was a night of terror and mayhem. The worst news reports came out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was the most destructive Halloween the Minneapolis Police Department had ever seen. Countless calls for help started coming in at dusk and police worked through the night. Reports came in of clubbings, riots, stonings and individual battles of fistfights that squared off in the streets.

Star Tribune – Minneapolis, Minnesota (November 1, 1933)

There were gangs of boys which ran from several hundred to more than a thousand rushing from one corner to another causing mayhem and destruction. More than 500 fire hydrants in the city had been opened flooding the streets. Gangs of boys had found concrete blocks, sheds, big metal tanks, fences and sections of porches piled high on the car tracks, and tipped over cars in an attempt to block off streets. It was not until police threatened the gangs with tear gas that the disturbing crowd dispersed. Large areas of the city were left in darkness after a number of lights had been broken and telephone poles had been cut down with saws. Live electrical wires laid across the streets.

A holiday that used to be devoted to harmless fireside gatherings had become tragic and fearsome and people were afraid to leave their house. Halloween had become a nightmare and some cities and communities considered banning the holiday. Residential communities were arming themselves and leaving the front porch light on to keep the pranksters out their yards and off their property. But parents and communities decided to come together and start organizing Halloween activities to keep young people occupied and off the streets. They began having costume parades and door to door house parties. Soon people were decorating their basements to create spooky primitive haunted houses as attractions and designed “trails of terror” in residential neighborhoods.

People would travel from home to home to experience a variety of frightening situations, such as hearing weird moans and howls and cardboard cutouts of black cats. To create a horrifying sensory experience, damp sponges and hair nets hung from the ceiling that would touch people’s faces, animal furs were hung on the walls of darkened hallways, and long dark tunnels were created for them to crawl through. The first haunted houses were staged outside and home parties became charitable events often produced by groups like the Jaycees (a civic organization dedicated to promoting business skills for young adults).

In Charlotte, North Carolina parents and teachers met with committees to have celebrations at playgrounds. Playgrounds were lit up with lights and booths and vendors were set up that served pumpkin pie, hot drinks, apples and nuts. For adults, they organized boxing matches, live music, dancing, costume contests and lantern parades. Instead of the rowdiness of gangs and property destruction, the holiday was replaced with a night of fun and entertainment for all ages.

The Minneapolis Star – Minneapolis, Minnesota (November 1, 1933)

Haunted houses or ghost houses have been around since the 1800s with Marie Tussaud’s wax museum in London featuring the “Chamber of Horrors” featuring decapitated figures of French Revolution soldiers and gory live theater productions. But haunted houses did not become a cultural icon until Walt Disney designed and built Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion in 1969 that took more than a decade to plan. The project was derived from the Winchester Mystery House and the Shipley-Lydecker House in Baltimore, Maryland. The happiest place on earth also became the spookiest place for Halloween. From ectoplasmic ghost and mischievous spirits, Walt Disney and his staff spent more than 10 years researching haunted homes, castles, supernatural occurrences and psychic phenomena in designing the mansion. They even consulted with psychics that claim to see ghost and spirits in designing their hologram spirits for the mansion.

Press release Disneyland issued in 1969 to announce the grand opening of the Haunted Mansion. Photo courtesy of Dad Logic Blog.

Due to the instant success of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, within a few years, commercial haunted houses had sprouted across the country. Haunted houses also inspired Hollywood slasher films such as Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. Many haunted houses began including characters such as Freddy Krueger, Jason and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

As more professional haunted houses emerged, it forced the non-profit groups like the Jaycees out of business. Organizations struggled to compete against the competition and got pushed out. According to an NBC report in 2015, commercial haunted houses estimate $300 million a year. The industry has evolved from haunted houses to extreme trauma-inducing zombie runs, escape games, hayrides, mazes and scavenger hunts. Some extreme haunted houses offer strange things to eat and horrifying sites of blood and gore that could give some visitors a heart attack. Unfortunately, if you are literally scared to death and die during the tour, no one might not notice. Extreme haunted houses are not for the faint of heart.


Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2006

Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. Reaktion Books. 2013

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Hope Thompson
Hope Thompson

Hope Thompson is the editor and publisher of Unmasked History Magazine. She has been a freelance journalist for seven years and has published articles for popular media websites such as Her focus has been on the hidden history, Native American culture, Appalachian and Southern folklore traditions.

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