Brian W. Gray / Sun File Photo

Celebrations and costumes have been a staple of Halloween on campus and in Ithaca, including for these students and children in 1968.

October 31, 2019

Solar Flashback: The Hair-Raising History of Halloween at Cornell

Print More

Trick or Treat! Between prelims and Halloweekend, spooky season is truly upon us. From innocent Halloween dances to a pernicious mob almost completely destroying a bridge, Cornellians have enjoyed Halloween in various ways over the decades. This week’s Solar Flashback conjures up memories of this haunting holiday.

Solar Flashbacks is a special project connecting The Sun’s — and Cornell’s — past to the present to understand how this rich history has shaped the campus today. Flashbacks appear periodically throughout the semester. #ThrowbackThursday

[Check out the previous Solar Flashback on Homecoming]


’Tis the season of spooky soirees and scares, frightening festivities and fun. Halloween on the Hill has entertained students throughout Cornell’s history, whether through celebrations and revelry or through some not-so-innocuous mayhem.

Old Tricks: The Infamous Incident of 1882 

Despite years of lighthearted holiday merriment, Halloween at Cornell has seen serious mischief. One early Halloween went so awry that President A. D. White mentioned the incident in an address to students the following May.

At around 3 a.m. on Nov. 1, 1882, “a large band of individuals, numbering sixty or seventy, congregated on the campus and began to demolish” a bridge, according to a Sun article published that day. Other damages included “battered in” windows and “torn down” fences.

Two individuals were arrested, aScreen Shot 2019-10-30 at 5.25.56 PMnd the next morning, students and professors had to “perform a flank movement in order to reach the University buildings” due to the destroyed bridge, The Sun reported — completely circumventing the gorge. As for the bridge itself, “not one timber was left standing upon another.”

On November 8, The Sun reported that most of the “ruins of the bridge” had been cleared. The disciplinary trouble, however, had just begun.

Cornell faculty indefinitely suspended twelve students, reprimanded and placed four students on probation and reprimanded an additional student, according to The Sun on November 20. The Board of Trustees requested a payment of $400 in damages.

“And they now speak of it as a suspension bridge,” one Sun update joked.

Other students ultimately helped raise the money for damages, and the University allowed the suspended students to return, according to The Sun, but the incident lived on in the memory of both White and the students.

“It was an old bridge; those who took part in it doubtless flattered themselves that while enjoying the sport they were indirectly benefiting the University,” White stated in a May 1883 speech to students. “The University authorities could not take that view of it.”

Screen Shot 2019-10-30 at 5.27.56 PMThe University took measures in the following years to prevent the recurrence
of such Halloween mayhem, with one Sun report in 1883 remarking that the campus was so “guarded” that “even a ghost had not a shadow of a chance to flit across the Cascadilla bridge.”

“The time was when all Ithaca trembled and brought in their front gates as Oct. 31 approached,” one Sun article lamented on Nov. 3, 1885, after a calm Halloween. “How times change!”

Old Treats: Chimes, Parties and Devilish Delights

While some Cornellians of old passed their Halloweens looking for trouble, others throughout the ages chose to engage in more lighthearted celebratory activities.

In 1934, a Halloween Gala was held at DeWitt Park, and “the most novel feature yet obtained [was] a three clown band performing on a stage mounted on a truck.”

Students donned colorful attire — ranging from hippies to Al Capone to an orange newt —  and headed to the clocktower for a special Halloween chimes concert in 1980.

“The room quieted down as the Chimes Masters got down to the business of producing a concert songs in eerie minor keys,” The Sun reported. “The competition waxed fiercer, the bells rang louder, and campus safety showed up to relay some complaints from nearby residents who had requested that the concert end by midnight.”

“‘The hour of doom approacheth!’ someone shouted around midnight,” the passage continued. “It was snowing as masqueraders left, picking their wav down the stairs. A Reagan Gorilla and an Anderson Mutant stood on the top landing arguing over who would go down first.”

Some things don’t change much, however — The Sun wrote in 1980 that “most parties centered around a keg, cider punch, and dancing in cleared out living rooms decorated with brown and orange crepe paper and Halloween cut-outs and lit with Jack-o lanterns.”

1980 copy 4

New Tricks: Pumpkin Pandemonium and Costume Controversy

Thankfully no mob has tried to tear down a bridge in recent years, but it is the season to cross #75 off the 161 Things Every Cornellian Should Do and throw a flaming pumpkin in the gorge.

Speaking of the season’s emblematic orange gourds, there is a reason why the Dairy Bar has an ice cream flavor called “Clock Tower Pumpkin.” On October 8, 1997, a pumpkin appeared at the very top of McGraw Tower, sparking a mystery that made national news.

The pumpkin was removed months after its first sighting, but the legendary prank still captures the imagination of Cornellians. Years later, a man claimed to The Sun that his friend had shimmied up to place the gourd via a door in the roof.

While Halloween mischief has its place in Cornell lore, other holiday occurrences are not so harmless to some. In 2013, a controversy about Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation arose when students noticed their peers dressing up in culturally-significant attire.

“Halloween is not an excuse to be culturally appropriative or racist,” Brenda Martinez ’15 told The Sun about costumes like sombreros, kimonos or feather headdresses. “Culture is how people construct and produce their everyday lives, and appropriating others’ culture makes a mockery of their existence.”

New Treats: More Parties, New Ways to Wind Down and Witches

Although some aspects of Halloween can draw ire as outright goulish, recent years have seen the continuation of party traditions and the introduction of new ways to mark October 31.

While fraternities sometimes tend to get a bad rap around Halloween, in 2001 Phi Delta Theta put on a Halloween Fun House, entertaining about 300 local children with a toned-down haunted house, inflatable trampoline, arts and crafts and other carnival games.

“It is so nice to see such a great community service program for the kids. Students often get a bad rep in the community, but this was the perfect way for them to interact with families,” said Steve Lamb ’78, a parent of several attending children.

Last year, “wind down zones” made their debut during Halloweekend as a place for people to grab some snacks and take a break as they came back from a night out.

“If [people] were uncomfortable at all with where their night was going they would just have a couple minutes to think about it, which they otherwise might not have had,” said Hailey Sokoloff ’20, a member of the Student Assembly Health and Wellness Committee.

“[Sexual assault] seems to get more and more relevant as we get closer to the event,” added Ruwanthi Ekanayake ’20, another committee member.

The largest witchcraft collection in North America also opened in Kroch Library on Halloween in 2017. The collection was started by Cornell’s own A.D. White, and had 3,000 objects on superstition and witchcraft — and even briefly featured the crystal ball from The Wizard of Oz.

Witchcraft collection at Kroch Library on October 31, 2017 ( Michael Wenye Li/ Sun Assistant Photography Editor)

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Witchcraft collection at Kroch Library on October 31, 2017

“There are a lot of accusations of witch-hunting in our present time, and it’s really interesting to see how anybody who feels that they are wrongfully persecuted for political, social, religious or whatever reasons, employs the trope of witch-hunting,” said Kornelia Tancheva, co-curator of the exhibition.

1980 copy 2From Cornell’s earliest Halloweens to the present, revelers have used the occasion to both celebrate and wreak havoc. The tradition of the season as a time to hold spirited parties and enjoy the fun frights has lived on.