18 Spooky Halloween Phrases From Around the U.S.
By Angela Tung
Halloween has been celebrated in the United States since the 1800s, thanks to Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought over their All Hallows’ Eve traditions. So it’s no surprise that sayings in American English have risen around the holiday, including these 18 spooky regionalisms from the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).
1. Holly Eve
In Arkansas or Missouri in the 1930s, West Virginia in the 1940s, or Pennsylvania in the 1950s, you might have referred to Halloween as Holly Eve—and so, according to DARE, a Holly Eve-er is “one who goes out on Halloween.”
2. Poke of Moonshine
Poke of moonshine is another name for the jack o’ lantern, at least in Connecticut in the 1930s. A peak in the Adirondacks shares the name and, according to The New York Times, it might come from the Algonquin Indian words pohqui, meaning “broken,” and moosie, meaning “smooth,” possibly referring to “the level summit and stunning east-facing cliffs.” In the case of a jack o’ lantern, it could possibly refer to its carved and intact surfaces. In South Carolina, to move like a poke of moonshine is to move slowly and lazily.
3. False Face
The term false face originated in the late 18th century, according to DARE, to mean a mask in general, and in the early 1900s came to refer specifically to a Halloween mask. A 1911 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer said, “Halloween Masks—We have that false face you want for Tuesday night, grotesque and funny.”
The term seems to have been popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, with DARE quotes from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Mississippi, Kentucky, Indiana, and Texas. One individual states that their grandmother, who was born in New York City in the 1880s, used “‘false face’ (stress on ‘false’) as her ordinary word for ‘Halloween mask,’” and while the mask “didn’t have to be worn specifically on or for Halloween … it did have to cover the entire face.”
4. and 5. Help the Poor and Soap or Eats
While trick or treat is the norm for bonbon-begging, in 1930s and ‘40s Detroit, you might have also heard help the poor. Over in parts of California, Ohio, and Minnesota, the candy call might have been soap or eats or soap or grub. According to a Wisconsin resident, soap has to do with “threatening to soap windows” if goodies aren’t given.
6. Penny Night
Another trick or treat alternative is penny night, at least in southwest Ohio. The term also refers to the Halloween celebration itself. We’re not sure what pennies have to do with it except as sweets stand-ins.
7. Beggar's Night
Parts of the North and North Midland— especially Ohio and Iowa—call Halloween like it is: . “Beggars’ Night, how ’bout a bite?” you might have heard in the Buckeye State. Beggars’ night could be celebrated on “one or more days” the week before Halloween, much to the annoyance of several of those quoted in DARE. From a 1936 issue of the Piqua Daily Call in Ohio: “If the kids would get organized and pick on one particular date for their Beggar’s Night, we could brace ourselves for the onslaught.”
One Ohio resident said they had beggar’s night on October 30, on which they said, “Please help the poor,” while on Halloween they said, “Trick or treat.” The same practice also occurred on Thanksgiving eve, according to quotes from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York City.
8. Devil’s Night
As a Michigan resident, you might have called the night before Halloween devil’s night, during which, according to quotes in DARE, kids might vandalize and set fire to abandoned buildings. In 1995, Detroit rechristened devil’s night as Angel’s Night, a community-organized event in which tens of thousands of volunteers “help patrol and surveil the streets during the days leading up to Halloween.”
9. Mischief Night
To New Jerseyans, Halloween eve has always been mischief night, on which you could expect to get TP’d, egged, or spray-painted. According to quotes in DARE, additional activities might include doorbell ringing, gate removing (hence, gate night in some parts of the Northeast), car window soaping, pumpkin stealing, and porch furniture moving.
In England, mischief night refers to the prank-filled evenings of April 30 (May Day eve), October 30, or November 4, the night before Guy Fawkes Day. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation of the term is from 1830, while DARE’s is from 1977. It’s not clear exactly when the New Jersey/southeastern Pennsylvania meaning of mischief night originated. The earliest record we could find was from 1947 in an article, “Passaic Takes the 'Mischief' Out of ‘Mischief Night.’”
A variation on mischief night might be mystery night, attested in Essex and northern Middlesex counties, as well as other parts of north and central Jersey.
10. and 11. Goosey Night and Picket Night
Garden State alternatives to mischief night include goosey night and picket night. While picket night might come from “the custom of producing noise by running a stick along a picket fence,” according to Lexical Variation in New Jersey by Robert Foster, it’s unclear where the phrase goosey night comes from. If we had to guess, perhaps from goose, meaning “to poke or startle.”
12. Cabbage Night
In some northern parts of the United States, October 30 is known as cabbage night, during which, according to DARE, “young people throw cabbages and refuse on people’s porches, and play other pranks.” Why cabbages? It might have to do with an old Scottish tradition in which young women would pull up cabbages to inspect their stalks. The thickness of the stalks supposedly predicted whether their future husbands would be thin or portly. Then they would inexplicably hurl the vegetables at neighbors' homes.
13. Clothesline Night
In parts of 1950s Vermont, clotheslines were apparently the victim of much TP’ing on Halloween eve. Hence, clothesline night.
14. and 15. Corn Night and Doorbell Night
Corn was the projectile of choice in Ohio areas in the late 1930s. One resident remembered the custom of celebrating the night before Halloween by chucking “dried, shelled corn” at porches. In other parts of the Buckeye State, ringing and running is preferred on what’s known as doorbell night.
16. Light Night
Over in New York, mischief makers would “fling rocks at bare street lights,” says one resident—hence, light night.
17. Moving Night
After a raucous moving night in Baltimore, you might find anything not nailed down—including gates, flower pots, and porch furniture—moved to a neighboring yard, down the block, or even on the next block.
18. Ticktack Night
The cabbage night equivalent in regions including Iowa, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Ticktack are various “homemade noisemakers used to make rapping or other annoying sounds against a window or door as a prank,” especially around Halloween, as well as the prank itself. In parts of Ohio, one resident said, the ticktack noises were from the sound of corn being thrown at windows.
According to Foster’s Lexical Variation in New Jersey, “Mercer County is the home of Tick Tack Night,” where the name is sometimes reinterpreted as “Tic Tac Toe Night” and some pranksters believed they were “called upon to draw tic tac toe diagrams on houses and walks."
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.