Bobbing for apples, which is sometimes comparable to dunking your head in a cesspool of saliva, wasn’t always the kid-friendly activity we know today. Early versions of the game played in England on Halloween night lacked the tub of water, but they did include fire, hot wax, and a lot more injuries to the face.
Written recordings of Snap-Apple date back to at least the 14th century. Like bobbing for apples, the game had players catch apples in their mouths without using their hands. To make things even more difficult, apples were placed on one end of a wooden plank hung horizontally from the ceiling which was then spun in circles. Chomping at an apple as it whipped around the room was only half the challenge. At the other end of the board was a burning candle: Players who didn’t retrieve the apple in time risked getting walloped in the face with molten candle wax.
The 1833 painting below, titled Snap-Apple Night, depicts a round of the game in action. A few years after it was made, a writer for The Literary Gazette, and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences described the image in detail:
"... see the open mouth of the adventurous peasant who is going to make a bite at the fruit,—and what a mouth!—the sweet child at his foot seems to look with wonder at its capacity. Look at the fellow behind him grinning with pain, having made an unsuccessful bite, and caught the candle instead of the apple; and see that hand thrust from behind a backward group, giving the machine a malicious twitch to increase its speed …"
Despite its risks, Snap-Apple was a beloved part of the harvest season in England and Ireland. The tradition became so popular that it was literally synonymous with Halloween, with many people referring to October 31 as "Snap-Apple Night." In Wales, the date was sometimes called "Snotching Night" in reference to the act of snatching or "snotching" the apples from the beam.
As the holiday evolved, less fiery apple-centric games began popping up beneath the Snap-Apple umbrella. According to The New York Times, one iteration of the game had players struggle to wrangle an apple with their mouths as it hung from the ceiling by a string. Superstition held that whoever succeeded in biting the fruit first would be the first to walk down the aisle, reflecting the days when Halloween was as much a time for romance as it was for horror.
Today, only one version of the game is still played at Halloween parties: the one that requires participants to dunk their faces into a pool of lukewarm water. Like Snap-Apple, bobbing for apples often ends with ruined clothing, but at least related visits to the emergency room are rare.