Full moons are synonymous with howling wolves, witches and vampires, but to actually see a full moon on Halloween is quite unusual.
On average, it only occurs once every 19 years.
With all that’s already happened in 2020, perhaps it’s fitting the full moon cycle will land on Halloween this year.
“It’s very rare,” said Bob Bonadurer, director of the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Daniel M. Soref National Geographic Dome Theater & Planetarium.
“We haven’t had one since 2001 so this is kind of a special night. And come on — who doesn’t love a full moon on Halloween? We can all howl more. It’s a nice treat, plus Halloween is on a Saturday,” Bonadurer said.
Though it’s difficult to forecast several days out, the National Weather Service is predicting a partly cloudy night on Halloween in southeastern Wisconsin.
While the full moon can be enjoyed while social distancing, the state Department of Health is strongly recommending against going house to house trick-or-treating this year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
How did full moons become linked to Halloween? Since witches have been part of the Halloween backstory for many years, it’s fitting that in centuries-old fables full moons were thought to be the best time for fortune-telling.
“If you’re going to predict the future, a full moon is a good time to do it,” said Halloween historian Lesley Bannatyne. “In folklore, you find mentions of witches and the moon and pictures of witches flying past the moon or in moonshine.”
Bannatyne has written five books on Halloween’s ghoulish history including “Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night.”
The origins of Halloween date back 2,000 years from northwestern Europe as a feast on Nov. 1 to mark the end of summer and the start of winter.
“Because it was an important day at the edge of the cold, dark season, it was thought it was a time when the spiritual world was present. It has always had a spirit-filled aspect to it,” Bannatyne said in a phone interview.
Americans co-opted the holiday following the U.S. Civil War when women began throwing themed Halloween parties. Over the decades Halloween became more commercial with costumes, trick-or-treating and loads of candy.
While witches have always been part of Halloween, vampires and werewolves came to the party late. Even Hollywood was a bit behind the curve.
Lon Chaney Jr. is often considered the gold standard of cinematic werewolves, but his 1941 film “The Wolf Man” was released at Christmas. And a decade earlier when Bela Lugosi first embodied “Dracula,” the movie was a Valentine’s Day release.
If werewolves are humans who turn into wolves during a full moon, or so the legend goes, what about actual wolves — don’t they howl at full moons?
While wolves howl during the day and night as a way to bond with their brethren, find a mate and let others know where they are, that doesn’t mean they always howl during a full moon, said Randy Johnson, the state Department of Natural Resources wolf expert.
Howling usually increases during mating season in winter and during pup rearing season during late spring and summer, but generally, most of the yapping is done at sunrise and sunset, said Johnson, a large carnivore specialist in the DNR’s Bureau of Wildlife Management.
Last winter’s annual wolf monitoring found a minimum estimate of 1,034 animals in Wisconsin, a 13% jump from previous years. A wolf pack in Wisconsin usually consists of four animals including a breeding pair during the winter with an average pack territory of 60 square miles. Wolves occupy about 35% of Wisconsin, mostly in the top third of the state with a small pocket of animals living in the central forest region.
Johnson didn’t know how the legend of wolves howling at a full moon started, but full moons have usually meant a time when more people were outdoors. Years ago, humans could spend more time harvesting or planting crops by the light of full moons and hunters could stay out later to catch wild game.
That’s why the full moon in September is traditionally known as the harvest moon and October’s full moon is called the hunter’s moon.
It’s possible the folktale started from people being outdoors during a full moon who heard the baying of wolves.
This Halloween’s full moon is actually the second full moon this month, which means it’s a blue moon. Since full moons occur roughly every 29½ days, occasionally one month will get two.
The last blue moon happened on March 31, 2018.
This Halloween the moon will be 252,000 miles from Earth, which is fairly far away compared with super moons when their orbits bring them closer to terra firma.
“It will be 7% smaller though it’s not really noticeable. I like to call it a mini-moon,” said Bonadurer.
Moonrise on Halloween will occur at 6:06 p.m. Mars will be near the moon that night — if Halloween revelers look up and see a bright reddish-orange star near the moon, that’s Mars.
And if you somehow miss this Halloween’s full, blue mini-moon, the next one won’t happen until 2039.