13 Retro Halloween Party Activites for Your Spooky Shindig

NYPL Gallery
NYPL Gallery / NYPL Gallery

No one knew how to party like the Halloween hosts of yesteryear. They sent weird invitations, with the text rhyming, written backward, or encased in a walnut shell. And from the moment their guests arrived, the spook factor was turned way up. One book from 1912 recommended hosts “have the hall totally dark with the door ajar and no one in sight to welcome the guests. As they step in they are surprised to be greeted by some one dressed as a ghost who extends his hand which is covered with wet salt.” Another from 1903 instructed hosts to dress like a “shade,” or a resident of the underworld, to welcome guests:

As guests enter house, barn or cellar, they are welcomed by a Shade who introduces them to another Shade by saying: "This is the shade of my grandfather” ... The Shade to whom the guest is introduced conducts the guest to waiting-room and introduces guest to Ghost: "Permit me to introduce the ghost of this room, she died ten years ago" ... Each time a guest is introduced there should be a lot of moans, sighs, groans, clattering noises, and raps. … After guests have removed wraps they are ushered into the first entertainment room by a band of Ghosts who close around them.

And things only got weirder from there. Here are a few fun, creepy activities from historical All Hallow’s Eve parties that you might want to incorporate into your own spooky shindig.


This game, as described in 1937’s The Jolly Hallowe’en Book, calls for chairs—one less than the number of participants—to be arranged in two lines; one chair should be covered in a white sheet. But unlike musical chairs, which eliminates the person still standing without a chair, "whoever was forced to sit in this chair when the weird music stopped suddenly was proclaimed a ghost and had to drop out of the game. Each time a player dropped out a chair was taken away. When the last player became a ghost he was commanded to howl as he thought a ghost might do.”


Forget the magic eight ball or the Ouija board; instead, use the shells of English walnuts to determine your future, as described in 1912’s Games for Hallowe’en. Step one: Open up some walnuts, remove the meat, and in each half “fasten short pieces of differently colored Christmas candles, each of which is to be named for a member of party.” (Alternatively, you can pour melted wax into the shells and stick in short strings to use as wicks.) Next, light them and put them in a large tub of water, after which your destiny will be revealed:

The behavior of these tiny boats reveals future of those for whom they are named. If two glide on together, their owners have a similar destiny; if they glide apart, so will their owners. Sometimes candles will huddle together as if talking to one another, while perchance one will be left alone, out in the cold, as it were. Again, two will start off and all the rest will closely follow. The one whose candle first goes out is destined to be old bachelor or maid.

In another version of this game from the 1903 book Hallowe’en Festivities, guests use a toothpick and slip of paper to make a tiny sail in their walnut shell boats: “On paper each one writes his initials and another's; revealing name to no one. Boats are all launched at same time; water is agitated to make miniature waves; those whose boats are overturned will not win their lovers and sweethearts, but owners of boats that override the troubled seas will get their hearts' desires.”


Kale is very good for you, and, according Halloween Festivities, can even help you determine some very important things about your future life partner. Party guests are blindfolded and taken down to the garden, either singly or in pairs, and, “groping about they pull up first stalk of kale or head of cabbage. If stalk comes up easily the sweetheart will be easy to win; if the reverse, hard to win.”

The shape of the stump will hint at your future partner’s figure, and the length will suggest his or her age. There are other things that can be determined by what you’ve pulled up out of the ground, too: “If much soil clings to it, life-partner will be rich; if not, poor.”

Lastly, the guest should take the stump home and hang it over their door; the “first person outside of family who passes under it will bear a name whose initial is same as that of sweetheart.”


To pull off this activity, as described in Hallowe’en Festivities, you’ll need a stage, “Tam O’Shanter” on your iPod, and eight ladies who can learn both choreography and stage direction and have the ability “[constantly hiss] … as if lots of cats were present.” Here’s just a portion of the action:

Enter eight Witches riding brooms and dancing around stage in a circle … After Witches have completed one circle, they reverse and go around stage in opposite directions. (Stage is lighted with white light.) Witches straighten into one long line at each side of stage with brooms at side. They whirl brooms in air and lines swing into one long line facing audience with hissing sound. (Stage is lighted with red light.) Witches clump handles of brooms on stage three times and meow. (Stage is lighted with green light.) Witches whirl brooms in air again; line divides at C. and swings back to sides with hissing sound. (Stage is lighted with white light.) Witches clump brooms on floor three times and meow. (Stage is lighted with green light.) Witches drop broom ends on floor and drag them; lines approach each other and pass each other to opposite sides on tiptoe saying "sh-uh sh-uh" in most witchly fashion.


This one from The Jolly Hallowe’en Book requires some prep work—namely, painting grotesque faces on balloons. To freak out your guests, “[turn] the lights very low again and [give] each guest a balloon to blow up as large as possible. These balloons were all dark in color and had previously been inflated long enough to have hideous faces painted on them with phosphorescent paint. As they were blown up the faces shone out weirdly and an occasional explosion added to the effect.”


Games for Halloween notes that “apple seeds act as charms on Hallowe'en” and, as such, there are a few games you can play with them. One simple game is to stick one seed on each eyelid; one is home and the other is travel, and “if [the] seed named ‘travel’ stays on longer, you will go on a journey before year expires. If ‘Home’ clings better, you will remain home.”

In another game, the seeds can be used to predict how much mail you’ll get. All of the apple seeds are placed in the palm of the left hand, and “with loosely clenched right hand strike palm of left. This will cause some, if not all, of seeds to fall. Those left on hand show number of letters you will receive the coming fortnight. Should all seeds drop, you must wait patiently for your mail.”


The Jolly Hallowe’en Book is full of songs you can sing at your party, most set to the tunes of other songs I’ve never heard of. But “Halloween is Lots of Fun” is sung to the tune of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” so it should be easy for everyone to sing along at your party:

1. Hallowe'en is lots of fun! E-I-E-I-O! (Repeat this sentence after each verse.) With Jack-o'-Lanterns everywhere ! E-I-E-I-O ! With a Jack, Jack here, and a Jack, Jack there ! Here a Jack, there a Jack, everywhere a Jack, Jack ! 2. Hallowe'en is lots of fun ! E-I-E-I-O ! Yowling cats are everywhere ! E-I-E-I-O ! With a Meow, Meow here, and a Meow, Meow there! Here a Meow, there a Meow, everywhere a Meow, Meow! 3. Hallowe'en is lots of fun ! E-I-E-I-O ! Squeaking bats are everywhere ! E-I-E-I-O ! With a Squeak, Squeak here, and a Squeak, Squeak there ! Here a Squeak, there a Squeak, everywhere a Squeak, Squeak ! 4. Hallowe'en is lots of fun ! E-I-E-I-O ! Spooky ghosts are everywhere ! E-I-E-I-O ! With an Ooo, Ooo here, and an Ooo, Ooo there ! Here an Ooo, there an Ooo, everywhere an Ooo, Ooo ! 5. Hallowe'en is lots of fun! E-I-E-I-O! Witches ride then everywhere! E-I-E-I-O! With a Cackle, Cackle here, and a Cackle, Cackle there! Here a Cackle, there a Cackle, everywhere a Cackle, Cackle !


What makes the cake dumb? According to Halloween Festivities, it’s because the whole cake is made without anyone saying a word. Each participant “places handful of wheat flour on sheet of white paper and sprinkles it over with a pinch of salt.” Then, someone makes it into dough, “being careful not to use spring water.” Next,

Each rolls up a piece of dough, spreads it out thin and flat, and marks initials on it with a new pin. The cakes are placed before fire, and all take seats as far from it as possible. This is done before eleven p.m., and between that time and midnight each one must turn cake once. When clock strikes twelve future wife or husband of one who is to be married first will enter and lay hand on cake marked with name.

The aim of these games was obviously a little different back in the day, but this is still a fun challenge to undertake if you and your friends are lovers of baked goods!


In “Snapdragon,” from Games for Halloween, the dragon is a half-pint of brandy or some other alcohol in a dish—which should be placed “middle of bare table, for drops of burning spirits are often splashed about.”

Light the brandy, extinguish all other lights, and “freely sprinkle” salt in the dish, “imparting a corpse-like pallor to every face. Candied fruits, figs, raisins, sugared almonds, etc., are thrown in, and guests snap for them with their fingers; person securing most prizes from flames will meet his true love within the year.”

Alternately, write verses on slips of paper and wrap them tightly in tin foil, then place them in the dish. Pour on the brandy and ignite it; “the verse each person gets is supposed to tell his fortune.”


This one is kind of like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, only you’re sticking a pin on a pumpkin carved with every letter of the alphabet. Let Halloween Festivities explain:

Hostess enters with small round pumpkin on old pewter platter. On pumpkin are carved all letters of alphabet. One guest is blindfolded and given a hat-pin, then led to pumpkin, where she is expected to stick pin into one of the letters on the pumpkin.

Whichever letter she picks indicates what initial her future life-partner’s name will start with.


Halloween Festivities recommends putting your guests' gifts in a “Hallowe’en Pie,” which “consists of upper and lower crust of dough and looks like any large deep pie. Dish is deep and round. Bake under crust and upper crust. When cool, fill with sawdust and dainty knick-knacks. Have knick-knacks evenly scattered throughout sawdust. Then put on top pie crust and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Knick-knacks should consist of things pertaining to occasion, as witches on brooms, tiny jack-o'-lanterns, ghosts, apples, etc., — souvenirs of the occasion.” Presumably, your guests have to dig in to discover the prizes inside.

Games for Hallowe’en, meanwhile, suggests making them a little harder to get:

Suspend apples by means of strings in doorway or from ceiling at proper height to be caught between the teeth. First successful player receives prize. These prizes should be Hallow-e'en souvenirs, such as emery cushions of silk representing tomatoes, radishes, apples, pears, pickles; or pen-wipers representing brooms, bats, cats, witches, etc.


This bit from The Jolly Hallowe’en Book would be right at home in a performance artist’s showcase. Called simply “Hallowe’en,” it should be “recited slowly with much dramatic feeling. When the underscored words are spoken, suitable accompaniments are heard from the background.”

Hallowe'en ! Witches ride on broomsticks ! (Clatter of wood.) Black cats ! (Meows.) Snakes ! (Hisses.) Black bats ! (Flapping noise and squeaks.) The world is full of ticktacks ! (Sound of ticktacks.) Ticktack! (Sound of ticktacks.) Ticktack! (Sound of ticktacks.) Witches ! (Cackling laughter.) Goblins ! (Noise of turkey gobbler — speaker looks back sternly.) Goblins, not Gobblers ! Small boys! (Chatter.) Whistles ! (Whistles.) Catcalls ! (Catcalls.) Witches ! (Cackling laughter.) Cats ! (Meows.) Snakes ! (Hisses.) GHOSTS ! (Long drawn out sepulchral groan OHoooo.) HALLOWE'EN !


After all of these strenuous activities, your guests will probably want to relax a little bit. These ones from Games for Hallowe’en are technically for children, but they’re bound to elicit groans among adults, too.

Why does a sculptor die horribly?--Because he makes faces and busts. Why is it certain that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was not written by the hand of its reputed author?--Because it was written by Mrs. Beecher's toe (Stowe). If all the seas were dried up, what would everybody say?--We haven't a notion (an ocean). Why is a fishmonger never generous?--Because his business makes him sell fish (selfish). If a man who is carrying a dozen glass lamps drops one, what does he become?--A lamp lighter. Why did Eve never fear the measles?--Because she'd Adam.

See? We told you they were bad.