Halloween Colors: The History and Meaning behind Orange, Black, Purple, and Green

Here’s when—and why—these hues became linked to the spookiest day of the year. Much like red and green at Christmastime, you can’t escape black and orange during the Halloween season.

In celebration of the spook-filled holiday, campers deck out their RVs with door decorations, painted pumpkins, and seasonal accents in the classic color combo. Then there are the Halloween costumes and candy offerings lining the store shelves most of which incorporate touches of black and orange in one way or another.

But when—and why—did these traditional Halloween colors become tied to the haunted happenings on October 31? And, at what point in time, did purple and green get thrown into the mix? Below, I break down the history and meaning of these festive hues so you can decorate, dress up, and celebrate with purpose this year. Or, at the very least, impress camping friends with some useful Halloween trivia.

Halloween decorations © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Halloween colors and their meaning

Orange and black

While it might seem that black and orange have been around forever as the official colors of Halloween, that’s not the case according to Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween.

In the first few years of the 20th century, party guides were being published that called yellow and brown Halloween colors thanks to the holiday’s association with the fall harvest; yellow was for corn/maize, and brown was for hay and dried husks.

But make no mistake: Orange is in honor of the jack-o’-lantern which made its way into Halloween culture around 1910. According to Morton, it became the “undisputed king of Halloween” because of the jack-o’-lantern’s prominence on postcards and in advertising.

As for black, it likely came from black cats although bats contributed to that as well.

Halloween decorations © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Purple and green

Purple and green have crept into the Halloween palette over later decades. The introduction of green may have been inspired by the emerald complexions of witches in film, notably Margaret Hamilton’s turn as the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Before that witches were typically shown with just human skin tones and dressed in red.

Color expert Kate Smith wrote about the significance of purple on sensationalcolor.com: “Purple has long been associated with wealth and royalty as the purple dye was precious and expensive. If green is the color of spring then purple conjures up autumn, fading light, and shorter days.” 

Halloween decorations © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Smith also noted that the rich color is “associated with an escape from reality and magical images.”

According to Amber Dunford, design psychologist and style director at overstock.com, purple evokes mystery and spirituality which complements our modern interpretation of Halloween. Green is at the opposite end of the color wheel making it a nice contrast to purple.

These cooler color additions balance out the warmth of the orange harmonizing the two color temperatures nicely. The addition of green could be a nod to the external world as we transition into fall hues around this time and the last of the summer greenery might be found lingering in some landscapes.

Halloween decorations © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The psychology of color

Color is the first thing we assess when viewing an object making it one of the most powerful and memorable design aspects from a psychological perspective, according to Dunford. People often react to color before they even respond to an object’s shape, texture, or scale. This tendency makes color a very powerful tool in marketing and one that becomes difficult to look past once it becomes ingrained in our psyche.

Whether you prefer the classic Halloween colors or enjoy the expanded palette that includes green or purple, one thing’s for sure: When you see these colors, you’ll think of Halloween.

Halloween decorations © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More on colors

Researchers estimate that some 300 million people around the world are colorblind, most of them male. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those with an exceedingly rare genetic condition that allows them to see nearly 100 million colors—or 100 times as many as the rest of us. It’s called tetrachromacy or super vision and it’s the result of having four types of cone cells in the retina rather than the usual three. (Cones help our eyes detect light and are the key to color vision.) Because of the way the condition is passed down via the X chromosome, the mutation occurs exclusively in women.

One tetrachromat describes her ability this way: “If you and I look at a leaf, I may see magenta running around the outside of the leaf or turquoise in certain parts where you would just see dark green. Where the light is making shadows on the walls, I’m seeing violets and lavenders and turquoise. You’re just seeing gray.”

In short, tetrachromats see colors within colors and even the tiniest change in the color balance of a particular hue will be apparent to them. It’s estimated that 12 percent of women have a fourth retina cone but only a fraction of them experience tetrachromacy. In total, only about 1 percent of humans have the condition. The rest of us will just have to close our eyes and imagine what it’s like.

Halloween decorations © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Numbers don’t lie

  • 120: Current number of Crayola colors
  • 23: Percentage of women whose favorite color is purple
  • 164 million: Americans who wear glasses
  • 63: Different colors on the world’s national flags

Worth Pondering…

Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my efforts to create an equivalent with paint color for the world—life as I see it.

—Georgia O’Keeffe, American painter, 1887-1986