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The History Of Halloween: From Old World Harvests To Scary Sweet American Institution

SLEEPY HOLLOW, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) - Halloween is now full of scare houses and elaborate costumes. Its origins date back 2,000 years when Celtic tradition celebrated the end of the harvest with a day to honor the dead.

By the early 1800s it became Americanized.

CBS2's Steve Overmyer traveled to the home of the first ghost story for Americans: Sleepy Hollow, the hometown of "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" author Washington Irving.

Halloween skull
(credit: CBS2)

"He came up there as a teenager and really was smitten with the folk tales and ghost stories of the Dutch families," said historian Elizabeth Bradley. "They became the fodder for so many of his famous stories."

The story was based in reality. During the Revolutionary War in the Battle of White Plains, a Hessian soldier's head was taken off by an American cannon. As the legend goes, he was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and every night rises from his grave to look for his head.

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Halloween hasn't always been a night for brave souls. In the Victorian era, it was a night for unmarried women to find a husband.

For years Halloween became a night of pranks. Costumes kept the tricksters anonymous. They were terrifying, but mischief devolved into vandalism.

Sleepy Hallow Cemetery
(credit: CBS2)

Some communities organized costume get-togethers to keep their children distracted with candy, and by the 1950s, Halloween was a kids' holiday.

While children will wear a spooky or cute costume Thursday night, the national retail foundation says 90% of Americans under the age of 24 plan to dress up for Halloween.

The only holiday where more money is spent is Christmas.

"It doesn't matter how old you are. The idea of ghosts and haunts and mystery is so exciting, and that's why it has become this more than $8+ billion industry," said Bradley.

While it has become a glorification of elaborate costumes and fright fests, Halloween has transformed from a harvest celebration in Ireland to part of American culture.

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