TIME Culture

Halloween Special: The Haunts of Famous American Ghosts

On Halloween, LIFE.com presents a gallery of Nina Leen's striking and eerie color photographs from a 1957 LIFE magazine article, 'Ghostly American Legends.'

This October 31st, as they do every year, millions of costumed kids—and a good number of grown-ups—will be fanning out across neighborhoods and going to parties in cities and towns all over the world. The creatures and characters on display will range from the topical (ebola, anyone?) to the classic (ghouls, pirates, witches, superheroes, zombies).

But no single emblem captures the spirit of the holiday quite as neatly as that old stand-by: a ghost.

Way back in 1957, in an article titled “American Ghostly Legends,” LIFE magazine paid spooky tribute to some of the country’s most celebrated ghosts—and ghost stories. The magazine’s editors introduced the elaborate, multi-page feature thus:

The native ghosts of the U.S. are less famous than their Old World, other-world counterparts. But there are a surprising number of them and they make up a colorful and diverse group.

Most American ghosts were born in the simpler past of colonial or frontier days. Even in today’s scientific age their stories, like the ghosts themselves, die hard. From the annals of unearthly Americana, nine of the most fascinating stories were selected [for this feature]. At their sites photographer Nina Leen caught the haunting and haunted atmosphere which might make any man, having heard the creaks and seen the eerie moving lights and shadows, believe that ghosts still walk.

Here, on Halloween a six full decades after it first published, LIFE.com recalls “American Ghostly Legends” with a gallery of Nina Leen’s striking color pictures, as well as reproductions of the article’s pages as they ran in LIFE.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Leen’s work—while perhaps rather staid when compared with the filters and effects available via Instagram, Photoshop and other modern media—was impressive enough at the time to win first prize for Magazine Color Story in a 1958 contest sponsored by Encyclopaedia Britannica, the National Press Photographers Association and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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