Phrasal verbs, idioms and sayings for Halloween – Online English Lessons

It’s Halloween on the 31st October, the night when ghosts and witches are said to appear.

Here are some suitably ghostly, spooky, evil and mysterious words and phrases…

Happy Halloween!

Witches, ghosts and skeletons

witch-hunt – to go on a witch-hunt is to try and find and punish or harrass people with unpopular opinions, usually because they are said to be dangerous to others.

This expression has its origins in the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages when thousands of young women in Europe were killed because they were thought to be witches.


He was the victim of a witch-hunt at work, and was fired because of his new and innovative ideas.

witching hour – witching hour is the time of night when witches, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures are said to appear.


I’m not leaving the house at witching hour on Halloween!

skeleton in the cupboard – a skeleton in the cupboard is something that might bring shame or embarrassment to a family or person if other people know about it.


Mrs Mills has a skeleton in the cupboard: she was caught stealing money from her employer in 2002.

skeleton staff – a skeleton staff is the smallest number of people needed to do a job.


My local doctors’ surgery only has a skeleton staff at weekends.

a ghost town – a ghost town is one that has been abandoned and is no longer inhabited.


All the young people have left our village and it’s like a ghost town now.

spirit away – to spirit away something or somebody (or spirit something or somebody away), is to remove something or someone from a place quickly, secretly and mysteriously.


According to legend, she was spirited away by witches in the middle of the night.


chill the blood – if something chills your blood it scares you. Also – make the blood run cold


The horror story chilled my blood.

The screams from the haunted house made my blood run cold.

in cold blood – to act in cold blood is to do something deliberately and without emotions or mercy.


They killed their former friend in cold blood.

makes one’s blood boil – if something makes your blood boil, it makes you angry.


It makes my blood boil to think that he was promoted to Manager before I was.

out for one’s blood / after one’s blood – to be out for someone’s blood is to be determined to get revenge.

Sometimes used humorously.

Example: We beat them at football, and now they are after our blood.


put / stick the knife in – to do or say something very unpleasant or very unkind to someone.


He really put the knife in when he told her that nobody at work liked her.

look daggers at – to look daggers at someone, is to look at them with hatred or anger.


Her husband’s ex-wife looked daggers at her.

stab in the back – to stab someone in the back is to betray them.


We let him stay in our home, but he stabbed us in the back by telling lies about us to everyone.

Owls, rats, bats and cats

bats in the belfry – if someone has bats in the belfry (or is bats, or batty) it means they are eccentric or slightly mad (crazy).


I think my neighbour has bats in the belfry: his house is full of thousands of old newspapers and magazines.

a night owl – a night owl is someone who likes being awake and active at night.


I’m a night owl: I do my best work in the evenings and at night.

smell a rat – to smell a rat is to be suspicious about something, to suspect that it is not as it appears.


Her new boyfriend said he is a doctor, but I smell a rat: I think he’s lying.

a rat – a rat is a person who betrays or deserts their friends or associates.


He’s a rat. He sold our plans for the new business to a rival company.

not a cat in hell’s chance – no chance at all.

This phrase was originally “No more chance than a cat in hell without claws” – which refers to the difficulty of fighting a battle with inadequate defence or weapons.

It is often used in situations where there is no hope.


We hadn’t a cat in hell’s chance of rescuing our possessions from the fire.


scared stiff – if someone is scared stiff they are so frightened they are unable to move.


I was scared stiff when I saw the ghostly face at my window.

scare the pants off someone – to scare the pants off someone is to frighten them a great deal


Halloween scares the pants off me!


a Jekyll and Hyde personality – someone with a Jekyll and Hyde personality has two sides to their personality: good and evil.

This expression comes from the novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which the good Dr Jekyll turns into the evil Mr Hyde.


Everybody thinks he is a lovely old man, but he can be very cruel and heartless: he has a Jeckyll and Hyde personality.

mad as a hatter – if someone is as mad as a hatter, they are completely insane.

It is thought this expression might have its origins in the fact that mercury was used in hat making: this caused nerve damage in the hat makers, making them appear insane.


Be careful when you talk to him, he’s as mad as a hatter.

Bedlam (noun) – uproar and confusion.

This expression has its origins in Bethlem Royal Hospital – a hospital in London for the mentally ill.


1. It’s the school holidays and it’s bedlam in our house.

2. The meeting was absolute bedlam, with everyone shouting and swearing at each other.

driven out of one’s mind – to be driven out of one’s mind is to be made insane with worry or fear.


I was driven out of my mind with worry when I lost my job and had no money to pay the bills.

Phrasal verbs

dress up – to dress up is to put on costumes or clothes to make yourself look like someone or something else.


1. The children dressed up in their Halloween costumes.

2. I dressed up as a witch for the Halloween party.

believe in – when you believe in something or somebody, you are sure that something or somebody exists.


1. Do you believe in ghosts?

2. My children still believe in witches and fairies.

freak out – to freak out is to experience strong emotions and become excited or disturbed, or very angry or very upset.


1. He freaked out when he saw the scary halloween costume.

2. They freaked out when we leapt out wearing witch masks and screaming loudly.

weird out – to weird someone out is to make them feel very uncomfortable or uneasy.


1. Take that mask off – it’s really weirding me out.

2. I don’t like Halloween. The costumes and decorations weird me out.

hand out – to hand out something (or hand something out) is to give something to each person in a group of people.


On Halloween, people hand out sweets to children who knock on their doors

huddle up – to huddle up is to move closer to other people, or to keep your arms and legs very close to your body, usually because you are cold or frightened


We were terrified in the haunted house so we held hands and huddled up together.

Look out!Look out! is an exclamation you shout out to warn someone about potential danger.


Look out! There’s a ghost behind you!

turn into – when something turns into something else it becomes that thing.


She drank the magic potion and turned into a black cat.

wind up – to wind up somebody, or wind somebody up, is to tell them something that isn’t true in order to make a joke.


We wound up his younger brother by telling him that ghosts and witches are real.

scare away / off – to scare away someobody or something, is to make a person or animal so scared that they go away.


We scared the neighbours’ children away by dressing up as skeletons and shouting loudly!

ward off – if you ward off something unpleasant, you stop it from harming you or coming near to you.


Garlic and crosses ward off vampires.

Halloween History from National Geographic

Image © Rich Bowen (pumpkins)  Erich Ferdinand (dagger) Ruthanne Reid (coffin) George Foster (witch)   longhorndave (bat) 

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