Costumes and candy: BHSU Geek Speak lecture to unveil history behind American Halloween traditions

Dr. Courtney Huse Wika will discuss the evolution of Halloween in America with her Geek Speak lecture, "Something Wicked This Way Comes: The History, Myths, and Rituals of Halloween" on Thursday, Oct. 26 at 4 p.m. at Black Hills State University, in Jonas Hall, room 110. Geek Speak lectures are free and open to the public.   Dr. Courtney Huse Wika, director of the Honors Program and English professor at Black Hills State University, will discuss the evolution of Halloween in America with her lecture, "Something Wicked This Way Comes: The History, Myths, and Rituals of Halloween" Thursday, Oct. 26 as part of the Geek Speak lecture series held weekly at 4 p.m. in Jonas Hall, room 110. All Geek Speak lectures are free and open to the public.  Husa Wika's Geek Speak lecture will conclude with a costume contest. She encourages everyone to dress in costume and join her in reveling in the fun traditions of an American Halloween celebration while learning about its history.   

Every year on Oct. 31, millions of Americans dress in costume, decorate homes with candlelit pumpkins, and take children door to door to collect candy from neighbors. Halloween has become a commercialized $6 billion holiday in the U.S. alone. But how did it evolve from a celebration of harvests and acknowledging ancestors to the contemporary traditions held today?  According to Huse Wika, American immigrants shaped the celebration of Halloween by incorporating many practices from various cultures. She says learning about the transformation from ancient pagan and Christian festivals to a night of play, costumes, feasts, bonfires, and trick-or-treating is vital to understanding the society that we live in today.   "Any time we have the opportunity to learn the history of a cultural practice," explained Huse Wika, "we benefit from the new knowledge and a wider, global understanding of cultures different than our own."  There are differences between Halloween and its religious and spiritual counterparts.  "Samhain, All Hallow's Eve, and All Saint's Day are distinct holidays from Halloween, which is a secular celebration," said Huse Wika. "While Halloween borrows traditions and rituals from Samhain, it is meant as a light-hearted event, while Samhain remains a spiritually-observed holiday."   Halloween hasn't always been so light-hearted. According to Huse Wika, during the Great Depression, the dispirited youth upset the tradition of inconsequential pranking and mischief by vandalizing and performing mean-spirited acts that were violent and destructive in many communities. Leaders decided to act and began offering alternative festivities for the youth to participate in, such as costume parties and games that remain a staple in American Halloween traditions.  

Huse Wika said dressing in costumes can be a beneficial outlet for people.    "We can choose to be anyone or anything we please in a socially-sanctioned display of identity," said Huse Wika.  "Some theorists even find the night to be socially cathartic, as for one night at least, the "monsters" are easily recognizable."  "Even as an adult," says Huse Wika, "Halloween still feels like a night where magical things can happen."  This and future Geek Speak lectures are held Thursdays at 4 p.m. in Jonas Hall, room 110.  Scheduled presentations for this semester are:
  • Nov. 2: "Veterans Legacies in the Black Hills" by Kelly Kirk, instructor of history
  • Nov. 16: "Searching for Riemann: A brief history and some recent insights into one of the most intriguing unsolved million-dollar problem in mathematics" by Dr. Parthasarathi Nag, professor of mathematics
  • Nov. 30: University Honors Capstone Defenses
  • Dec. 7: University Honors Capstone Defenses
To read short descriptions of each lecture topic, visit For more information, contact Dr. Courtney Huse-Wika, director of the University Honors Program and assistant professor of English, at 605-642-6918 or email