Downtime

When Did This Time of Year Become “Spooky Season”?

The elusive history of a cursed phrase.

A black and white photo of skeleton whose mouth is open as if to yell, and above him, a banner with the words "Spooky Season" written in orange.
’Tis the season … ‘tis it, though? Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sabina Music Rich/Unsplash.

Quick question: What time of year is it right now? For me, “fall” would probably be the first thing to come to mind, but there are several other perfectly acceptable responses: autumn, October, Halloween, perhaps Q4, if you swing that way.

I would even begrudgingly take cuffing season. Just about any answer would by fine by me except for one: “spooky season.”

Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know what spooky season was (and my life was arguably better for it). If I saw the combination of words spooky season, I would have been able to gather that it referred to Halloween, but I also would have thought it was the sort of unremarkable alliterative phrase a bunch of people might have arrived at independently, perhaps because they were decorating a bulletin board in an elementary school or needed an Instagram caption but considered themselves too special to say something normal like “Happy Halloween!”

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But no, spooky season is a more specific expression and concept that has propagated across the internet in recent years. Perhaps you, more observant than I, have noticed it in your feeds. A typical usage might be something like what Jennifer Garner posted earlier this month on Instagram, a video of a ballet dancer wearing a full-body black leotard and a fake jack-o’-lantern on her head. It had the following caption: “It me. (It’s definitely not me but I appreciate a ballerina/spookyszn mashup.)”

“In the last year or two, it’s kind of become a phrase that I see all over the place that everybody uses,” said Miranda Enzor, a Halloween enthusiast who for the past six years has run a website called Spooky Little Halloween.

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There isn’t broad consensus about when spooky season begins. “To me it really starts ramping up even as early as mid-July,” Enzor told me, alarmingly. “I kind of personally count the beginning of what I would term spooky season as July 23rd, which is the 100-day mark to Halloween. Once I hit that, I’m in Halloween season and there’s no turning back.”

Which brings us to: What is it exactly? In 2019, Architectural Digest described the so-called season as a sort of rebrand of Halloween that both extends the holiday and harks back to “the Halloweens of our childhoods”: a time when millennials can watch Hocus Pocus and decorate their homes with fake spiderwebs.

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But it’s not just for millennials. Caitlynn Sant, a 21-year-old preschool teacher in Utah, runs a popular Halloween-themed Instagram page and explained spooky season to me like this: “I just think of fall and pumpkins. To me, I guess spooky season’s just the time when you can watch scary movies and do scary things.”

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It has been emphasized to me that spooky season is a time to indulge in the campier aspects of Halloween, and it’s not limited to just one day. Christmas has “the holiday season,” and this is just that but for Halloween. This is all fine, as far as I’m concerned. I just have trouble understanding why it’s different enough from good old Halloween to require its own annoying name. Does all of this pumpkin patch frolicking and haunted house visiting not fall under the banner of Halloween, or, if you must, since apparently it’s such a gas to invent new seasons (or szns), the “Halloween season”?

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I know I should let this go: It’s silly, but it’s also harmless, so who cares? No one likes a Halloween grinch. Except, well, I’m fine with Halloween—it’s spooky season that’s the problem. How did Halloween, which has been celebrated for hundreds of years, suddenly morph into spooky season? Why is everyone but me, up to and including Jennifer Garner, now going around talking about “spooky season” with a straight face?

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Researching the provenance of the term is a little difficult because, to return to the elementary-school bulletin-board factor, it’s a phrase that anyone could come up with on their own, and has. You can find uses of spooky season in newspapers going as far back as 1905, but they don’t mean spooky season the way it gets used today. Spooky season seems to have acquired its current, internet-driven meaning in the past five years or so. Amanda Brennan, a meme librarian and trend expert at the digital marketing agency XX Artists, told me via email, “It looks like ‘spooky season’ was being used by niche crowds in 2017 globally, saw some pickup in 2018, and hit peak search interest in 2019.” It’s continued to be a popular search term since, though it’s presumably been impeded at times by the pandemic.

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No one really knows exactly where it came from, or what caused its rise in popularity. There are theories, of course. But if spooky season has a patient zero, I was not able to identify that person (or ghoul). It appears to be a grassroots, or graveyard-roots, phenomenon.

“It’s definitely gotten bigger and bigger,” Enzor said. “I think Instagram has been a huge catalyst for that.

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“The word spooky kind of sums up what I love about Halloween,” she added. “I’m not so much on the horror, blood, and guts side. I just love the magical, cutesy, slightly creepy feel that the word spooky invokes for me.”

Indeed, Mike Wilton, who runs a Halloween news site called All Hallows Geek, guessed that a big part of it might just be the word spooky: “I think the word spooky and even the word spoopy, piggybacking off of that, has seemed to be used a bit more in the vernacular overall over the last few years, and I’m wondering if that’s where it came from.” He may be on to something: In 2018, the Washington Post published a piece about how “spooky culture” was powering the internet’s celebration of Halloween, which already happens to fall in what is considered the most meme-able of seasons.

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(Also: spoopy?? Apparently it’s another building block in all of this I had been sleeping on: Merriam-Webster has called it a “new Halloween classic” and explained that “the word is used to describe something that typically would be spooky, like an image of a skeleton or ghost, but is actually rather comical.”)

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Spookiness is a cultural trend as well as a language one: “As more alternative aesthetics come into the mainstream, ‘spooky’ and ‘witch’ as an aesthetic has definitely seen a rise in popularity, which is reflected in media like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Craft, and Charmed reboots, etc.,” Brennan told me.

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After carefully researching all of this, I’ve come to my own conclusion: As “Disney adult” as it sounds to my ears, people simply get a kick out of saying spooky season. And that’s what baffles me most of all. I can tell that spooky season adherents delight in using the phrase, and when they do, half the time they’re probably picturing it surrounded by cute tildes: ~spooky szn~. At best I can see how this is vaguely, uh, whimsical, but it seems unique as an internet joke in that I keep looking and failing to find what is so fun or funny about it; it’s like a joke where they left out the joke. Even mischievous online lingo that is now considered lame—“doggos” and “puppers” come to mind—was at one point in its life cycle sort of amusing. But spooky season? I just don’t get it, and I think maybe that’s because there’s no “it” to get.

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Alas, it’s too late to stop its spread now. Capitalism has seized on spooky season. “I have seen it showing up in more marketing communications,” Wilton told me, remembering a recent press release he got from Baskin-Robbins touting their spooky season offerings. It fits in with a larger trend: “From a marketing standpoint, the corporate world’s trying to capitalize on Halloween longer and more if they can,” he said. In a quick search of my own inbox, I found that I’ve received 10 pitches from publicists containing the phrase spooky season this year, up from four in 2020 and two in 2019. If common decency can’t kill spooky season, maybe I can count on brands to run it into the ground. I have to say, picturing its death—can’t you just see it, a tombstone in a cemetery marked “Here lies spooky season”?—might be the thing that finally gets me in the holiday spirit.

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