Spirits, Souls and Celebrations: A Look at Spooky Season Around the World

CUL Map Halloween 01 BANNER
Getty; Mike Kemp/Getty

The transition from fall to winter is a time filled with ghosts, ghouls and celebrations, when the gates to the underworld are thought to be open, and spirits from the other side mingle with the mortals. While Americans are drinking pumpkin-spice lattes, trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns this month, cultures across the world are gearing up for their own spooky-season traditions. From Hong Kong's Hungry Ghost Festival to Mexico's Día de los Muertos to Haiti's Fat Gede, here are the ways people welcome otherworldly spirits and souls.

CUL Map Halloween 03
Trick-or-treating. Bonfanti Diego/Getty

Halloween

United States

Early iterations of trick-or-treating began in the Middle Ages. Then called "mumming," people disguised themselves and went to neighbors' doors performing dances and plays in exchange for food. The tradition made a big comeback with children in the United States after World War II, when sugar was no longer rationed and suburbs were flourishing. Today, trick-or-treating is a Halloween activity practiced in the U.K., Ireland, Canada and Australia.

CUL Map Halloween 04
Día de los Muertos. Leopoldo Smith/Getty

Día de los Muertos
Mexico

Every year, families across Mexico gather at the gravesites of loved ones and create home altars bearing the deceased's favorite dishes, marigold flowers and other gifts. According to tradition, the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31 and spirits can reunite with their families for 24 hours.

CUL Map Halloween 05
A woman voodoo devotee in the role of a spirit known as a Gede on the Day of the Dead at the National Cemetery in Port-au-Prince. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty

Fet Gede
Haiti

Each year, voodoo practitioners gather in cemeteries to honor the dead and make offerings of candles, pepper-infused alcohol—the spirits love spice—and bones. Attendees dress up in characterizations of important spirits, like Papa Gede, who is known for his top hat, sunglasses and cigar.

CUL Map Halloween 06
Zangbeto, known as a Guardian of the Night, performs as insurance against the presence of evil spirits. Education Images/UIG/Getty

The Ouidah Voodoo Festival
Benin

Thousands of people travel to Benin every January from all over Africa to take part in the beachside ceremonies. Festivalgoers join processions, perform animal sacrifices and also pay respects to those who were uprooted from their homelands by the slave trade. Zangbeto, or "voodoo night watchmen," stand guard in intricate costumes made of hay to maintain safety and communicate with the spirit world.

CUL Map Halloween 07
The Glastonbury Dragons Samhain Wild Hunt. Matt Cardy/Getty

Samhain
United Kingdom

Originating from the ancient Celtic tradition, Samhain marks the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter and is used as a time to honor the dead. It is also believed that on this night, hordes of fairies come to terrorize towns. Pictured here, a man representing the Winter King participates in a sunset ceremony. The holiday is also celebrated in Ireland and Scotland.

CUL Map Halloween 08
Participants seen prior to the Zombie Walk 2017 at the Sitges Film Festival 50th Anniversay. Robert Marquardt/Getty

Dia de las Brujas
Spain

Halloween is a three-day celebration in Spain, complete with a mix of modern and ancient traditions. The first day is Day of the Witches, in which costumed participants head to bonfires. The town of Sant Feliu Sasserra specifically honors the women who were accused of witchcraft and killed during the Spanish Inquisitions.

CUL Map Halloween 09
A Parisian lays flowers at a family grave in the Cemetery of Montmartre to celebrate All Saints Day on November 01, 2020 in Paris, France. Kiran Ridley/Getty

La Toussaint
France

All Saints' Day, a public holiday in France, is a day to spend time with family and visit the graves of those lost. Cemeteries transform into gardens filled with chrysanthemums and immortal wreaths in remembrance of the dead.

CUL Map Halloween 10
A Buddhist monk blesses a buffalo during the Pchum Ben festival, the festival of death, at Vihear Suor village in Kandal province on September 20, 2017. Khem Sovannara/AFP/Getty

Pchum Ben
Cambodia

This 15-day period is when souls return from the spirit world to their families and repent for wrongdoings. Their living relatives bring offerings to pagodas, make food to feed them and pray for their souls. On the last day of the festival, thousands of people head to a small village northeast of Phnom Penh, where a water buffalo race marks the celebration's end.

CUL Map Halloween 11
The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, or Yu Lan. Cheryl Chan/Getty

Hungry Ghost Festival
Hong Kong

All of the rituals that take place throughout this month-long festival have one goal: to keep roaming ghosts out of mischief while the gates of the spirit world are open. Along with food offerings, there are several recommended guidelines for appeasing ghosts. For example, don't take the last bus of the night (that's for otherworldly guests) and don't hang clothes outside at dark (the ghosts love to pilfer human wardrobes).

CUL Map Halloween 12
Children living inside the cemetery play near human bones on top of stacked graves at the Navotas Public Cemetery in Manila, days ahead of the traditional All Souls' day. Noel Celis/AFP/Getty

Pangangaluluwa
Philippines

On October 31 in rural Filipino areas celebrants participate in this age-old tradition, dressing in white to represent the spirits and traveling house to house singing songs in exchange for food, money and prayers. During this time, families also visit cemeteries and clean the tombs of loved ones.