Oranges, yellows, browns, and reds dominate store displays for fall in the US. These colors extend into the brief commercial period occupied by Halloween where they're also joined by black and purple. While black makes sense from a seasonal and spiritual perspective, purple feels like an odd choice. How did purple get to be a “Halloween color"?

The red, oranges and yellows that we recognize as representative of fall are the colors we find in the natural world: They're the colors of dying leaves, the last of the ripening produce, the emptied fields, the orange-red sunsets created by shifting weather patterns, and the end of season bonfires. They are harvest colors but also colors that reflect the passing of time. They're colors that signify a maturity, with reds and yellows indicative of ripened produce and emptied fields. 

Our fall festivities, including Halloween, draw on older traditions from throughout the northern hemisphere. Halloween is rooted in the Gaelic festival of Samhain which was observed on November 1st by the Celts. Samhain marked the end of the harvest season; but it was period of change, and during this transition the Celts believed the border between worlds was the thinnest. The very apparent shift toward longer, darker nights helps establish the relevance of black as a seasonal color, but popular culture maintains the ties to the spiritual realm. As the absence of color, black assumes a negativity which extends into the things that we do not want to necessarily associate with. It becomes frightening by what it may obscure.

Red, orange, yellow, and black can therefore be connected to natural, seasonal changes. Purple is not a harvest color, though it may be linked to spirituality by tracing its use in religious ceremonies. For example, purple is used in the Catholic Church during lent and at Easter in connection with fasting and the crucifixion of Christ. However, purple’s legacy is tied to its rarity in the natural world. It has long been a color associated with royalty and wealth. In ancient Rome, the triumphal robes of emperors and generals were purple or purple and gold to signify their status.

Modern color research can help us understand the paradox that is purple. Designers, advertisers, and others who have a need to sway emotional responses have long used color to influence emotion and feelings. For example, blue is associated with comfort and security, orange as distressing and upsetting, yellow can be cheerful, while purple is dignified. Red has both positive and negative associations: it can be active, strong, and passionate, but it can also be aggressive, bloody, and intense. Similarly green has a dual meaning. It implies quiet, relaxation and naturalness, but also fatigue, envy, and guilt.

In a study that asked people to indicate their emotional responses to five principle hues (red, yellow, green, blue, and purple), the positive aspect of purple was largely tied to children and laughter. With this in mind, the introduction of purple to Halloween may be tied to the evolution of the commercialism of the holiday.

Halloween in America was a subdued affair until the 19th-century. Early colonists certainly knew of Halloween but viewed the holiday as too pagan and too Catholic. The arrival of Irish immigrants in the 1800s revived Halloween activities but they were not immune to the social and economic changes that were occurring. Halloween established itself in America at a time when industrialization was changing the role of the nuclear family in American society—and with it, the permitted expressive activities assigned to children.

Halloween allows children to test social boundaries. In fact adults assist children in pursuing taboo behavior by helping them dress up in costume and facilitating their approach of strangers to ask for candy—on the other days of the year, children are generally encouraged to be truthful and cautious around strangers. For this one day, the established social divides between good and bad, the living and dead, and acceptable behaviors for young and old people are suspended. Characters who are normally considered “evil,” such as witches, monsters, vampires, and ghouls, are tied to signs of death and fabricated haunted experiences where good and evil and life and death meet. Adults who would otherwise keep young children from death by not taking them to funerals or not allowing them to watch movies that are violent or scary, will allow exposure to controlled themes meant to spook or frighten on Halloween. 

This may have presented an opportunity for purple’s entrance to the season. As a child-friendly color, it may have been used to soften the use of black and make the holiday and its themes palatable to a younger crowd. Is a witch wearing a purple had less frightening to one wearing a black hat? With its established connections to death, black may have been perceived by marketers as an overpowering color in relation to the younger market that is participating in Halloween. It has not been fully replaced by purple, but there are definitely two Halloweens that are sold: there is a frightening, darker version that is meant to connect with adults, and their is a gentler version that serves as an entry point for children to the holiday.

Think about your favorite brand for a moment, and the colors that it employs—or the colors that are featured prominently in its logo. What do they mean to you? And how do they connect to the product? As with many broader cultural events, Halloween is far from removed from commercialism. It has come to be driven by market demands as other holidays. In this case, purple may reflect a specific targeting of a large segment of the available market.

Does purple feature in your Halloween decor this year? Or in your costume? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.

Referenced:

Dell Clark, C. (2005). Tricks of Festival: Children, Enculturation, and American Halloween. Ethos, 33(2), 180-205. 

Labrecque, Lauren and George Milne (2012). Exciting Red and Competent Blue: The Importance of Color in Marketing. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 40(5), 711-727.

Kaya, Naz and Helen Epps (2005). “Color-emotion associations: Past experience and personal preferences.” In AIC 2004 Color and Paints, Proceedings of the Interim Meeting of the International Color Association,  Porto Alegre, Brazil, 3-5 November 2004, ed. by Jose Luis Caivano. In www.fadu.uba.ar/sicyt/color/aic2004.html, pp. 31-34.

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