The Truth About Halloween
--Lesley Bannatyne (excerpted from A Halloween How To. Costumes, Parties, Decorations and Destinations, 2001
"I hate Halloween," exclaims an elderly caller on an AM radio talk show in Maryland. "They should get rid of it. Kids today are just destructive."
"Halloween glorifies Satan," warns a preacher on national cable television. "Kids shouldn't dress up as devils, period."
"I would never let my children go out trick or treating alone," confides a D.C.-area mom of her six year-old and ten-year old. "I'd never forgive myself if something happened."
People hurl invectives at Halloween like bullets. It's dangerous. Bang. It's Satanic. Bang. It's commercial. Bang. It's too scary, too corrupted, too sanitized. Bang, bang, bang. But the holiday doesn't sink to its knees and die. It grows bigger and more pervasive, with eight out of ten adults currently celebrating it in some fashion.
When people rail against Halloween, they don't really mean Halloween itself-what they usually mean is let's get rid of vandalism, or begging, or scary costumes. The actual holiday serves a need so human, so indefinable essential, that we'll probably still be celebrating when the ice cap melts and we're all trick or treating in powerboats.
You can tell how evocative Halloween is by taking a look at its detritus-the urban myths surrounding it-and the waves of anti-Halloween crusades that threaten to ban, change, contain or otherwise control it-all signs that the holiday is a very powerful cultural event. If it didn't mean anything, if it didn't answer a need, if it wasn't of use to us, it would gradually fade away like May baskets and Sadie Hawkins Day.
But the more popular Halloween gets, the more we hear about the down side: poisoned treats, razor blades in apples, black cat kidnappings, Satanic rituals. How dangerous is Halloween? What's true, exaggerated, or just plain made-up? Like shapes in a dark room, there are many stories associated with Halloween that dissolve when you look at the facts. Let's turn on the light and see what's a monster and what's simply a coat tree casting a shadow on the wall.
Halloween Myths: True or False?
Sadistic adults put razor blades in apples and give them out as treats.
You've read about this one in the papers. Somewhere there's a fiend who buries razor blades in the flesh of ripe apples (or pins, sewing needles or glass) and entices neighborhood kids to take a big bite and swallow. Every year we warn our kids to watch out for him, and every year newspapers publish Halloween safety tips that often include "check for tampered treats."
But this particular fiend doesn't exist. He never has. According to police reports and studies, not one child has been killed by a sadistic stranger lying in wait on Halloween with a deadly treat. The story of the razor blade in the apple is what sociologists call an urban legend, similar to the rat supposedly found in fast food fried chicken or the man who woke up with a pain in his back and discovered one of his kidneys missing. These are stories, told and retold, that seem like they could be true-it's possible that these sorts of things could happen-but they're too perfect. Their symbolism is too contrived; the plotlines too neat. They usually contain a warning against the dangers of urban life in the guise of a good story. Urban legends actually serve a purpose-they give our fear a symbolic form so we can express it.
The image of a razor blade in an apple fits the criteria for an urban legend beautifully. The metaphor is rich. The apple is a symbol of the afterlife, of old world Halloween. It's the fruit used to tempt the innocent (Adam and Eve, Snow White), but sliced through the middle by an ugly blade. And the Halloween sadist, an otherwise productive member of society who turns into a psychopath just one night of the year, is pretty unlikely. This holiday has always been about death and fear: the tainted-treat-toting-psycho is but a new icon in the pantheon of Halloween spooks.
Then there's the practical side. First of all, how do you hide a razor blade in an apple without putting a telltale gash in the skin? And honestly, who among us would root through Snickers bars and Butterfingers to sneak a bite of an apple on Halloween?
Joel Best, Chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at University of Delaware, has studied the Halloween sadist phenomenon in depth. Together with Gerald Horiuchi, Best published a 1985 study that concluded the Halloween sadist was essentially a myth. Their often-cited article in Social Problems(1), outlines the team's findings:
"A review of news stories about Halloween sadism from 1958 to 1983 suggests that the threat has been greatly exaggerated. Halloween sadism can be viewed as an urban legend, which emerged during the early 1970s to give expression to growing fears about the safety of children, the danger of crime, and other sources of social strain."
Best and Horiuchi drew several conclusions. First, they discovered no evidence of children being harmed by anonymous strangers. Best was able to track about 80 cases of sharp objects hidden in Halloween treats and discovered that almost all were hoaxes. There were only two deaths related to tampered treats-both poisonings. One child died after eating heroin found in his uncle's home (not hidden in his treats, as initially reported); and a second was poisoned by his father, who allegedly put cyanide in the child's candy to claim a large insurance payment. (A third child, not in the original study because the incident occurred after 1985, was found to have died of heart failure, rather than the Halloween treats initially reported). Best and Horiuchi found no justification for the claim that Halloween sadists are a threat to kids. They also found, interestingly, that of the cases reported, most were incidents perpetrated by the kids themselves to gain attention, or to get back at an annoying sibling.
Still, stories of tampered treats spread throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Hospitals began offering X-ray screening of treats (although they eventually all but stopped, as they rarely found anything and X-rays can't detect poison), and some towns banned trick or treating for a few years. But most parents dealt with it on an individual basis. There was no nationwide movement created to confront the problem, because there was no real proof that the problem existed. In other words, the razor-blade-in-the-apple was a false threat, and as such, never caused the public hysteria attached to a real threat, like school shootings or terrorist bombings.
So if this phenomenon (of the Halloween sadist) doesn't really exist, why do we all know about it, teach our children about it, and act as if it were true?
Sociologists says that we use urban legends -stories we repeat over and over-to express our doubts about the safety of our kids, our neighborhoods, and our world. Best pinpoints the origin of the razor blades legend to the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when we became more aware of child abuse as a widespread social problem. Fear of crime in general grew during that period, as did mistrust of strangers. This vague sense of anxiety congeals into something concrete we can talk about-the "Halloween sadist"-and we tell stories to each other and our kids as a way of saying, "Be careful, it's dangerous out there."
In truth, your neighborhood is no more intrinsically dangerous on Halloween night than it is on any other night, and no child to date has been killed by eating a razor blade hidden in an apple by a sadistic stranger on Halloween.
Halloween is a Holiday for Witches.
Samhain (sow-en), celebrated on October 31st, is one of eight major seasonal holidays marked by many contemporary Witches and Neopagans.
Modern-day pagans use solstices and quarter days to mark the turning points of the year. Samhain's reserved for honoring ancestors and remembering loved ones who've died, and for acknowledging the cyclical nature of living and dying.
Although practices vary widely, most Witches will gather for a ritual. Witches don't believe in Satan, so there's nothing Satanic involved. Nor are there sacrifices, invocations of evil, or naked orgies; some of this is propaganda leftover from hundreds of years ago.
More likely, this is what you'd find at a Witch's Samhain ritual. The meeting place (be it inside or out) would be lit with candles, probably jack-o-lanterns, and decorated with harvest fruits and vegetables. People would enter quietly and gather in a circle. There might be a brief invocation of a goddess or god to provide wisdom, or a guided visualization to help understand the process of death and rebirth. Participants might remember people in their lives who have died recently, express grief, and share memories. The ritual might include some scrying (looking into the future) and conclude with everyone dancing to the beat of a drum and chanting. Samhain is a time of death-of the year and the fields-but within the frozen ground are beginnings of new life, and the goddess will return at the appointed time. The earth will green.
So if there's nothing intrinsically evil in Witchcraft , how did witches get mixed up with the devil in the first place? And why do we think of them as Halloween symbols?
The Halloween Witch
Witches exist not only in history but in folklore, film, literature and popular culture. So when you're talking about witches you have to be sure which kind you mean: real or fictional, folkloric or cartoon, ancient or modern?
The term witch likely once meant seer or diviner (the Anglo-Saxon root is witan, which means to see, to know; wit and wisdom come from the same root). At first, the church lived more or less peaceably with people who kept their own folkways, either in addition to or separate from the teaching of the church. (France's first witchcraft trial, for example, was not until 1390; the English were tolerant of "witchcraft" until the reign of James I in the early 15th century.) Witchcraft became contentious in the Medieval church, when the clergy theorized a relationship between witches and the devil, and made non-belief in witchcraft a heresy.
Inquisitors from both the church and from local courts began discovering witches in every town. At first people scoffed at testimony gathered by the various Inquisitions. Witches, said rational folks, can't raise storms or strike people dead with a glance. But after hundreds of people were imprisoned for disagreeing, tortured, and eventually forced to confess to crimes of witchcraft, others fell silent.
So what was a witch back then? A witch could be anyone (male or female) with special abilities--a poor person who was educated, for example, or someone with a green thumb. Witches were scapegoats for doctors who couldn't help patients, because illnesses caused by witchcraft were believed incurable. They were outcasts, petty criminals, indigents, the insane, or widows; they were the kind of individuals who were easy to get rid of and often considered a nuisance. They were protesters and dissenters. Witchcraft was used to cover up anything the Inquisitors couldn't explain and to solicit souls for the Church's war against Satan.
Over the roughly 300 years of the witch craze in Europe people came to fear witches. They were wary of witch's pets (cats); witch's tools (brooms); and witch's festivals (including, in Scotland especially, the eve of All Hallow's). The last witch trials were held as recently as 1712 in England and 1711 in Ireland. The last witch burning was in 1722, in Scotland, and the last hanging in the American colonies, 1692.
From this period in history we inherited the image of the witch who flies, harms cattle, curdles milk, steals babies, consorts with the Devil, and causes illness and death. It is this witch who lives on in fairy tales and folklore; who frightens us in film and literature. And it is this witch most of us associate with Halloween.
Satanic cults use Halloween to perform ritualistic crimes.
There are two questions to address here. First, to what extent do Satanic cults or ritualistic crime really exist? And secondly, what's Satan's connection to Halloween?
Religion scholar and encyclopediaist J. Gordon Melton calls Satanism "the world's largest religion that does not exist." The largest organized Satanist-style cults such as the Church of Satan or the Temple of Set (never more than a few hundred members in their heyday) are now largely dormant, and Melton has discovered that most practicing Satanic cults usually number three to five people and last only a few months. There is no religious denomination or even any cult today celebrates the Devil on Halloween, not even so-called Satanists, since they don't acknowledge the existence of any higher power including Satan. In addition, there are no confirmed statistics, court cases, or studies to support the idea that serious Satanic cult crime even exists(2). It turns out that most of the devil-worshipping activity reported in the media is perpetrated by teenagers based on what they've read in church literature or seen in movies.
So how did Satan get tied to Halloween? Satan didn't come into the formula until the 14th through 17th centuries-the time of the Inquisitions-when witches were thought to make a pact with the Devil at their rituals (see the Halloween Witch, above). Fears of witchcraft and Satanic rituals had abated with the Enlightenment, and by the 20th century, pointy black hats and red horns were simply part of the fun of Halloween. But films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist (among many, many others) have etched a more detailed, modern persona for the Devil in our imaginations. With John Carpenter's 1978 Halloween, Hollywood started to mine Halloween imagery for terror, and Halloween and horror became synonymous. It was a provocative stew. The more horrific and satanic Halloween was portrayed, the more vehement the opposition from some churches.
It may simply be that Halloween's symbols are incendiary. In our image-based society, somewhere along the line we began to confuse symbols of death with those of Hell. Ghosts and goblins, fearsome faces and fire-traditional images for spirits of the dead set free on Halloween-are now often construed as hellish. I suspect it's Hollywood, more than anything else, that helped put the hell in Halloween.
Black cats are in danger on Halloween.
Rarely, but yes.(Information in this section is correct as of 2000)
Black cats are the target of age-old superstition: witches can take their shape; they can suck the breath from an infant, curse a corpse, and perform cruelties too numerous to list. Although most of us no longer harbor these beliefs, we do sense that Halloween and black cats go together. And over the past decade or so newspapers have run many stories about black cats being abducted and used in occult rites on Halloween. Are they?
Since 1997 (and lasting 5-10 years depending on the shelter), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has instituted a better-safe-than-sorry policy and not allowed the adoption of black cats three days before and after Halloween. In that year, the organization got suspicious when a woman adopted a black cat, but when the ASPCA made a follow-up call to see how the cat was doing, the woman reported the cat was dead. When ASPCA workers came to pick up the body, they discovered she'd given a phony address. The investigation of the case halted there. Was the cat harmed? Was it somehow related to Halloween? We won't ever know. But taking a proactive approach seemed the Society's safest choice.
The staff of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) reported in 1999 that they have not personally witnessed a case of black cat abuse at Halloween (in fact, most shelters report no such cases). It has, however, reported hearing stories, and so recommends protection of black cats around Halloween. In response, shelters and humane societies nationwide have suspended adoptions of black cats. The bans have been in place throughout the 1990s, with some shelters denying adoptions as early as the 1980s. Although HSUS lacks statistics about risk to black cats during this time, anecdotal evidence is enough for it to take a conservative approach. And besides, anyone who wants to adopt a black cat can still do so after the Halloween ban is over, which, for most shelters, is a matter of a few days to a few weeks.
The threat is not all smoke and mirrors. There have been a few, highly publicized incidents of black cat abuse around Halloween. I was able to find and track a dozen reported incidents between 1992 and 1999 (for comparison, in roughly the same time period, an estimated 2500 dogs and cats had died or suffered during air travel, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Upon further investigation, some cases turned out to be unrelated to Halloween or black cats. Two of the cats were unharmed, only seven of the incidents involved black cats (as opposed to brown cats or tabbies), and it's difficult to document how many happened on or near Halloween (either the shelters had gone out of business or the staff could not remember). In the only case that was prosecuted, the perpetrators were teenagers. Oftentimes, confusing the issue, journalists report examples of animal abuse that have taken place at other times of the year in articles about black cat abuse at Halloween.
Sadly, animal cruelty happens year round and to all colors of cats, but we are hyper-aware of anything occult or Satanic at Halloween time. During October, 1999, for example, there was not one newspaper report of a harmed animal in the dozen U.S. cities I examined. But in that same period, many papers ran articles about suspended adoptions including USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Boston Herald. Most stories quoted shelter personnel who implied that cats are in danger of being used in ritual sacrifice. As a result, the sense of a crisis exists where there are only unrelated, isolated incidents, none of them involving ritual sacrifice by Satanic cults, but rather cruelty and crimes committed by individuals.
The increased media, however, does give the shelters and humane societies a chance to educate the public about pet safety. For those who love and care for cats, saving even one life makes the effort worthwhile.
During Halloween, the Humane Society of the United States recommends: 1) keep your cats away from the door and make sure they have on collars and current ID tags in case they get spooked by trick or treaters and bolt; 2) keep candy out of reach (chocolate can kill dogs, and is also toxic to cats); and 3) keep cats away from flames, and from hanging streamers that could choke them.
Zombies , Goblins and Ghouls
Here's the rundown on what makes a zombie different from a ghoul or a goblin: a zombie, via Haitian folklore, is a corpse who's up and about because a witch doctor has dug it up and stolen its soul. A goblin, from French folklore, plays pranks and steals wine-but can also be slightly helpful. A ghoul, of Arabic origin, eats corpses and, sometimes, young children; it was once thought to be the terror of the desert personified. These are all lower creatures of world mythology. Now a ghost-that's a different story. A Gallup Poll taken around Halloween, 1999 found that roughly one third of us say we believe in ghosts, three times the number who admitted it twenty years ago.
The first Halloween ghosts were perhaps, as Ray Bradbury suggests in The Halloween Tree, memories of our great grandparents. It's not hard to envision ancient tribes camped around a bonfire telling stories of heroes and battles, strange encounters and unexplained sights. As the night stretched on, we can imagine how the tales grew more vivid, the subjects more supernatural. There would be talk of ghosts.
Although it makes poetic sense for spectral activity to increase on Halloween, most ghost investigators I've talked with say it's just not so. We humans may be more aware of the spirit world on Halloween, but the spirit world appears to treat the holiday as just another night.
As for vampires, they have no real tie to Halloween other than as a favorite costume choice and a certain similarity with the other undead characters of Halloween. That said, is the vampire culture more active on this night? Do real vampires even exist?
It depends on how you define vampire. Says Dr. Jeanne Keyes Youngson, lifelong vampirologist, "There is no such thing as the traditional reanimated corpse. I have it from the lips of Milton Helpern, former head of the New York Coroner's Office. It's impossible for a body, once life functions have shut down, to come back to life. There are, of course, vampire "wannabes" who do their best to emulate the Undead." According to Dr. Youngson's 1999 Worldwide Vampire Census, 272 of the 713 respondents claimed to actually be vampires.
Fascination with vampires crosses all age groups and lifestyles, from the little boy ogling a slick black-cape-and-fang set in the Halloween aisle at Wal-mart to the hordes of adults entrenched in vampire role-playing games. There are those who believe in psychic vampires, individuals who suck the life energy from those around them; human vampires, who claim they experience all the characteristics of fictional vampires except immortality; even in supernatural vampires who inhabit a netherworld also populated by ghosts. But among those who believe themselves to truly be vampires or take on a vampiric demeanor as a lifestyle, Halloween is still largely a holiday where they can delight in the freedom to be who they are; it's is the only night when the rest of the world looks like them.
Can you imagine answering the door and getting hit with a bag full of slimy, stinking muck from the bottom of the street gutter? Or being trapped in your own house by some kids who knotted a rope from your front door to your porch railing? Or finding your front fence hanging from a telephone pole, your cow locked in the schoolhouse, or a six-foot tall pile of lumber blocking Main Street as you head downtown for your newspaper?
Toilet paper in the trees seems pretty tame by comparison. Yet all these tricks date from a time when Halloween pranking was considered safe and fun. Most people didn't object to these kinds of pranks; they tossed them off as mischief. Today they'd make the papers under headlines such as "Vandals Caught in Halloween Prank Gone Awry" or "Satanic Cult Linked to Cow Theft."
It's true that pranks have become more destructive. And a real shift has occurred between then and now, between a time when adults tolerated a certain amount of pranking and now, when angry seniors berate teens on radio talk shows. The change in attitude has less to do with the holiday and more to do with social tensions between classes, races and generations. Halloween's simply the backdrop for the drama.
When everyone knew their neighbors, pranks got pulled on the local grouch and people smiled guiltily to themselves. But when Americans moved into crowded urban centers full of big city problems like poverty, segregation and unemployment, pranking took on a new edge. Vandals struck out blindly against property owners, adults, and authority in general: city kids setting dumpsters on fire didn't know who owned the property they were torching. Tires were slashed without regard to whose car. It wasn't about pulling off a good practical joke any more; it was about doing damage.
The war between kids and property on Halloween has been fought pretty hard over the last twenty years. There are notorious cities like Detroit , where in 1984, a record of 810 fires were set during the three-day period around Halloween. Suburban police dealt with broken mailboxes, spray painted cars, and toppled headstones right along with their big city counterparts. "I've got neighbors who are so fed up they're driving around with guns on their dashboards," a spokesperson for a group of homeowners in Wildwood, Illinois told the Chicago Sun Times after the 1986 Halloween season.
Halloween vandalism seemed to reach a peak in the late 1980s. The Halloween "Mall Crawl" in Boulder, Colorado ended in drunken fighting and property damage. There were a record number of arrests in New York City for Halloween-related assaults, and violence in the usually peaceful Castro district of San Francisco. Curfews and community action came into being to fight back against crime.
They scored some pretty dramatic wins. In 1994, Detroit enlisted 35,000 residents to patrol the streets and keep watch over abandoned properties. The number of fires reported that Halloween were fewer than on an ordinary night, and the city famous for its fiery "Devil's Night" became known for "Angel's Night." Neighborhood Crime Watches and "Pumpkin Patrols" continue to crop up across the country to help ensure the little kids get home safe and the bigger kids stay out of trouble. And many cities have started sponsoring concerts and dances for older kids on Halloween.
Arson, vandalism, and harassment are not a normal part of Halloween mischief, and community organizing helps keep the holiday sane for everyone. But that doesn't mean there's no room left for pranks. Pranks and vandalism are apples and oranges, and learning the difference between them is part of growing up.
The biggest Halloween danger to kids is probably traffic. Former Boston helicopter traffic reporter Judy Paparelli says the accidents start first thing in the morning on Halloween. Drunk drivers are part of it: in 1998, more than 20% of all fatalities that occurred during Halloween weekend were alcohol-related. The other parts of the problem are low visibility and carelessness.
Halloween costumes make for distracted drivers and excited kids. Little ones in dark costumes are hard to see, and trick or treaters are more apt to run out into streets from between parked cars in their hurry to get to the next house. Experts warn that most little kids aren't ready to handle street-crossing by themselves, and often overestimate how quickly they can cross or rely too much on the "magical" power of a crosswalk to protect them. The Centers for Disease Control (together with the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control) compiled statistics of Halloween-related traffic deaths from 1975 through 1996 and found that: "overall, among children aged 5-14 years, an average of four deaths occurred on Halloween during these hours each year, compared with an average of one death during these hours on every other day of the year." An addendum warns the figure may be low, since it does not include accidents that occur in driveways, parking lots and on sidewalks, nor does it include data beyond 10pm or from another day (for example, when Halloween is on a Sunday and kids trick or treat on Saturday instead).
Halloween sadists and Satanist psychos don't hurt kids on Halloween. Cars do. No devil-worshipping cult lies in wait for us. But, yes, there are twisted pranksters and angry, unhealthy people in the world. Sometimes Halloween safety restrictions are really a smoke screen for intolerance, and sometimes Halloween mischief masks serious social ills.
The real Halloween monsters are the same monsters we live with every day: bad judgment, anger and small-mindedness. Maybe we'll learn to define and challenge these everyday threats and leave alone those traditions that strengthen communities and make childhood magical.
1. Joel Best and Gerald T. Horiuchi, "The Razor Blade in the Apple: the Social Construction of Urban Legends," Social Problems, Vol. 32, June, 1985.
2. For a good study of Satanic cult activity in America today, read Jeffrey Victor's Satanic Panic, Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago, 1993.