The Fatal Ultimatum: Trick-or-Treating’s Spooky Backstory 

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

Getting in costume and going door-to-door asking for candy on Halloween night has become such a time-honored childhood rite of passage, it’s almost treated as sacred. For such a long-standing tradition, the practice seems like it has always existed. However, like all human customs, trick-or-treating had to start somewhere.   

Medieval souling and guising 

Halloween is a mixture of several different cultural traditions that come from the Celtic feast day Samhain, Roman traditions of venerating household spirits and the later Christian holy day All Souls’ Day, which all involve caring for the dead. During medieval times, religious beliefs on All Souls’ Day led to the custom of “souling.” People who had enough food would bake loaves of bread and give them to the needy. They believed in doing so it would help the souls of people they cared about leave purgatory and go to heaven, which led to the custom of those less fortunate to go from house to house asking for “soul bread.” 

Guising is an old tradition that stems from the Celtic pagan belief that on Samhain, spirits are free to wander between the spirit world and the physical world. While some spirits are good, like deceased relatives, other spirits can be harmful. The best way to deal with the “bad” ghosts was to disguise oneself as a fellow ghost to trick them. Sometimes, people would leave offerings on their doorstep to encourage ghosts to leave them alone. In Scotland, where the tradition seems to have its strongest origin links, guising is still a common practice. It’s differentiated from trick-or-treating by the custom of children singing songs in order to get the candy. 

The 20th century 

Scottish and Irish immigrants to the United States brought all the old Halloween traditions into the new world. Exactly when the term “trick-or-treating” came into use is unknown, but the earliest known recorded use is from 1920s newspapers. One article from the Bay City (Michigan) Times reports on how “the peaceful citizens lived in terror of the time each evening when they should be summoned to their front doors to hear the fatal ultimatum of ‘Trick or treats!’ uttered in a merciless tone by some small child.” Cartoons in newspapers and animations in the 1930s and 40s spread the popularity of trick-or-treating throughout the country, cementing the tradition’s role in American culture. 

Trick-or-treating options today 

Trick-or-treating is alive and well, but if you no longer feel comfortable knocking on the doors of strangers, Clarksville offers plenty of safe options for families. This year, there are plenty of chances to get some use out of that guise!  


An Austin Peay State University tradition for the past 20 years, Greater Halloween Options for Safe Trick-or-Treating started as an alternative to traditional trick-or-treating for the children of APSU students and staff, and now has grown into a huge event for the entire Clarksville community. Student organizations set up themed candy booths that meander through the center of campus along the sidewalks, creating a sensation of trick-or-treating within an enclosed carnival-like environment. APSU students have fun getting creative with their booths and wearing costumes, some booths feature games, and not every booth gives away candy.  

Fright on Franklin 

A long-standing trick-or-treating festival hosted by Clarksville Parks and Recreation, Fright on Franklin is another candy booth event. Booths are hosted by local businesses and compete over booth decorations. The most creative booths win a prize at the end of the event, so you know the most competitive will bring their best decoration skills. Kids can also compete in the age-tiered costume contests that you can sign up for in advance. Get ready to grab some candy at 3pm on Saturday, October 28 on Franklin Street downtown! 

Fall Festival 

Stop by Rotary Park at 11am for some early trick-or-treating, also on Saturday, October 28. In its third year, this event put on by Montgomery County Parks and Recreation not only features trick-or-treating, but you can also enjoy pumpkin painting and other crafts and interact with “creepy crawlies.” This event lasts until 3pm and is a preferable option for families with younger kids. Check out all the fun fall events and programs that Montgomery County Parks and Recreation has to offer

Clarksville Speedway Trunk or Treat and Carnival 

On Halloween night from 4pm-10pm, instead of knocking door to door, Clarksville Speedway is offering a trick-or-treat option with plenty of extra fun included. More than enough candy opportunities available, plus check out the petting zoo, pony and hayrides, and other fun activities! 

These are just a few options. Clarksville is full of trunk or treat events all over town. Most churches offer a safe trunk-or-treat event or Halloween festival. If you prefer the traditional door-to-door on Halloween night, that’s still an option, too! Neither Clarksville nor Montgomery County have ever regulated the times for Halloween trick-or-treating, though it’s generally accepted that trick-or-treating goes on from about 5pm to about 9pm. Always remember to use safe practices while trick-or-treating like wearing reflective material, never walking alone and driving carefully in residential areas. 

Happy Halloween! 

Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters. 

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