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Excerpted from A Halloween How-To: Costumes, Parties, Decorations and Destinations, 2001
Commercial, Communal, Spiritual, Extreme, and Anti-Halloween
Think of Halloween as a tree. Like a sapling, it takes root and shoots up. Through the years each generation adds a layer, like a series of rings, to the celebration. And although the holiday may look slightly different each time there's new growth, at the core it's the same. It feeds from the same roots, but its branches stretch out in new directions.
On Halloween two hundred years ago, people predicted their marriage partners from the roots of cabbages; no one could have imagined our trick or treating, much less the idea that Halloween would become a children's holiday. A hundred years ago, women dressed in fancy gowns at Halloween parties; last year people were wearing nothing by airbrushed bikinis. I don't think the Victorians saw that coming.
One hundred years from now Halloween may be unrecognizable to us. Maybe stranger danger will be so extreme kids will ride special "Hallo-transit" vehicles down the street, and adults will slip them treats through a pneumatic tube. Downtown there'll be a specially designated Halloween zone, where the in-vitro, lab-grown pumpkin's on display in a black-and-orange decorated vitrine. Or the holiday will become so prepackaged you can only buy the Nostalgia Set (vampire costumes, yard fogger and a can of condensed garlic soup) or New Dimensions (a coupon good for one night of time travel back to the ancestor of your choice). Maybe we'll come full circle and spend Halloween out on some post-apocalypse hillside pasture, huddled around a peat fire trying to make sense out of sheep guts. Halloween reflects our culture, and will change along with it as long as we have a pulse.
Ancient Celtic Samhain was about kin and chaos. Medieval All Hallow's was about death and redemption, Victorian All Hallowe'en about romance. What's contemporary Halloween about? Some would say consumption. Others would say community or creativity-transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Look at my bleeding mask of doom! You think Elvira's the only one who can wear a hydraulic bra and a tight black dress? Watch me! Halloween is growing again, adding another generational layer.
On the one hand, it's almost become a counterculture holiday: adolescents gain power and adults feel threatened. The celebration's become associated with heavy metal music and gender-bending. And look who's responsible for Halloween's new popularity-baby boomers who came of age in the counterculture of the 1960s. Halloween is counter-reality, a day when dads from the suburbs watch drag queens parade up 6th Avenue in New York, and people everywhere open their doors to strangers. On Halloween we walk right up to the threshold of what we can tolerate because we know it's only for one night.
And yet, at the same time, Halloween's evolving from a gently anarchic holiday to an institutionalized one, where corporations try to dictate costume trends and civic organizations regulate hours and days of celebration. Interestingly, while 1940s Halloween activities were organized to protect property owners from kids pranks, now they're being used to protect kids from adult strangers.
Halloween has gone from being about death as transformation-moving from the physical world to the spirit world-to transformation as presentation-transforming your house, yard or self for one night and showing it off to the world. This multi-headed Halloween, this institutionalized rebel, is creative, communal, rule-breaking, extravagant, and more than a bit egocentric. In other words, a truly American phenomenon. Halloween has sprouted a few new branches for its 21st century incarnation: commercial Halloween, communal Halloween, spiritual Halloween, extreme Halloween and anti-Halloween.
Buying and Selling Halloween
The aisles of the Halloween Outlet store in Worcester, Massachusetts are crowded with clerks trying to unbox the merchandise. A makeshift work table in the middle is strewn with molded rubber props-bloody fingers, arm and legs, aliens in jars of viscous liquid-amongst paperwork and calculators. A technician's trying to wire animatronic ghouls in the front window, and the owner, Gary Arvanigian, is up to his elbows in catalog orders at a table in the back room.
"Wait a second Christine," hollers Gary, "Let me give you the dragon."
Christine wrestles with the front door, trying to balance three big boxes on her hip as she wedges the door open with her foot. She's on her way to a nearby mall to set up a branch store. "I can't fit it in my trunk," she shouts over her shoulder. "The tail hangs out the back of my car."
All 7,000 square feet of the store are packed as full as Christine's arms. And it's only August.
Halloween today is second only to Christmas in activity, say the merchant associations that keep track of retail spending in America, with somewhere around $6 billion in estimated annual sales and growing. That's Airheads and plastic axes, extension cords and cornstalks, black lights, strobe lights and Bud Lights, as well as pumpkin puree, liquid latex, airbrush kits, rubber rats, fog machines, sugar skulls, skeleton bones, cobwebs, chrysanthemums and soundtrack cds-not to mention trailer rentals, motor parts, rotary carving tools and a whole lot more. And that figure doesn't include large facets of Halloween, such as the vintage Halloween collectibles business, which, according to dealers, has heated up 100-fold just in the last few years. Halloween merchandise and ads are appearing months before the actual day, supplemented by year-round catalog and on-line shopping, all of which has elevated Halloween from a celebration to a whole two month-long season that bridges the gap from back-to-school to Christmas.
The Halloween market has been growing nonstop for over a decade, ever since adults started celebrating seriously in the 1980s, thereby doubling, tripling, quadrupling the number of people who buy things for Halloween. When the dark attraction industry took off, older teens and 20-somethings were enticed into the market. Then when home decorating caught fire, everyone-whether 103 or three, home on Halloween or not, given to tasteful cornstalk displays or buried body parts-could take part. Halloween's packaged and sold like Christmas now, with the same merchandise categories: outdoor and indoor decorations, lights, cards, ceramic villages, and the latest, ornaments. Watch out, Santa.
Not only are there more people looking to buy Halloween, but there are more places than ever to find it. Enterprising companies set up shop in locations unimaginable even ten years ago: in virtual stores in cyberspace, or even vacant storefronts in malls, where they scramble to find personnel and to stock enough product to make it through the three months before Halloween (wasn't that an H&R Block a few months ago?). And although the American market is hardly saturated, entrepreneurs have been inching into the European market on a hunt for new consumers. The Halloween industry is making inroads in France, Germany, Australia, England, even Sweden, to name a few.
"Halloween doesn't belong to our national heritage at all," says Goran Lundstrom, of Helsingborg, Sweden, "We've been celebrating All Saints Day for hundreds of years, when people go to put a wreath and a candle on their loved ones' graves. But now Halloween has started to make its way into our society."
And which part of Halloween are we exporting to Sweden? Says Goran: "You'll find rubber skeletons, pumpkins and lots of other things, all in orange. One thing that is different, though, is the trick or treating! That isn't done here, I think. Young people just arrange parties in their homes and dress up in Halloween costume."
In Paris, Halloween is just plain hip. Costume companies found their way into the European market in the 1990s, when restaurants and clubs were eager to try anything American. Soon, shops had put out Halloween displays, costume sales were substantial, and even bakeries were hawking "Halloween cakes."
Is Halloween in France a marketing tool or the beginnings of a real holiday? Can other cultures truly celebrate our very American Halloween, or will orange streamers and imported pumpkins fade when the next new thing comes along? And what does exporting our customs do to host country's traditions?
"Creeping Americanization is in fact destroying our Scottish celebration of Halloween," states Ewan McVicar in an editorial in The Edinburgh Times, October 25, 1999. "In the grocers' shops you are offered not turnips for lanterns but pumpkins. Trick or treat has come here. Instead of a party piece for a reward, you get a threat of harassment and punishment if you do not cough up. Instead of our witches and warlocks and ghosties and ghoulies, the plastic masks that have invaded news agents' windows are aliens and zombies and vampires and Frankensteins. All from American cinema imagery."
Community Celebrations: Taking Back Halloween
"We go to the Keene Pumpkin Festival on closing night and collect hundreds of pumpkins, then line them up along the road between our houses," says Lisa Winant, a New Hampshire mother of three. "Halloween night, we collect all the kids, put them on a haywagon and go house to house. The grownups put on skits in the fields and we stop at each one. One year, we had a creature from the black lagoon crawl out of the pond, and this year we're going to make trees come to life. We started doing this with just our family several years ago, but now it's become a community celebration."
This is not an isolated incident. Many individuals, believing that the commercialization of Halloween is dumbing down our most creative holiday, are finding new ways to celebrate. Doing something together satisfies a need for community intensified by the busy-ness of our lives.
In Medfield, Massachusetts, Bonnie and Stephen Burgess began an impromptu Halloween parade on a whim: "I stuffed mailboxes on our street with fliers inviting everyone to march in a neighborhood parade." recalls Bonnie. "We set the start time and the route and held our breath. I had no idea how many would come-a dozen? We had 70 people march with us, then we all went back to our house for cider and treats. We'll definitely do it again next year."
One or two people with a good idea can bring a community together and inspire a whole new generation of trick or treaters. This is how neighborhood legends are made. Take Leafman, for example. A simple dummy stuffed with leaves and topped by a big orange pumpkin head, Leafman sat on the screened-in porch of a Newton, Massachusetts home for 16 years. At first he was just a decoration, until his creator, Michael Norman, decided to make him talk. Leafman rocked in his chair, lit up, and magically knew every single child's name. Once word got out, Norman got 500 children trick or treating at his house. And although other houses had better decorations, and even better treats (Mrs. Leafman has been known to give out pencils), the children growing up nearby wouldn't think of missing Leafman on their rounds. In fact, when Leafman retired, the entire neighborhood grieved. He was Halloween to them. He knew their names.
"I've always decorated my yard for Halloween. Tombstones, dummies-even a dead Elvis. Last year I had a young mom and her two tiny kids in tow. She told me that she had always come trick or treating at my house as a child and now she made a point of bringing her kids. I couldn't believe I'd done this-that it had already passed to another generation.
-Debra Wyman-Whitehead, Manchester, Washington
Steve Defossez, a medical doctor and member of the New England Pumpkin Growers Association, has created an entirely different agenda for his Halloween tradition: a pumpkin regatta. Defossez produced his first annual Giant Pumpkin Regatta for Parkinson's Research at Stiles Beach in Boxford, Massachusetts in October, 1999.
" I was nurturing two promising pumpkins that summer," he recalls. "Drought, vine borers, fertilizer burn, blossom rot, stem splitting and breaking and overactive vine training had yet to grace my humble plot. Gazing at Bert and Gert with my eldest son Christopher, the idea of organizing a fundraiser for Parkinson's Disease research was born. Chris and I could collect sponsors for our boats, sail, and survive."
Defossez, whose father suffers from the disease, reaped nearly $4000 for Parkinson's Research in the inaugural year-he was also able to spread the joy of growing, building and sailing giant pumpkin motorboats.
In each of these cases, one person or family took the impetus to create a Halloween that was just a little bit unique and as a result, launched a new tradition. It's this kind of generosity that takes the sting out of commercialized Halloween.
Halloween's Spiritual Side
Here and there, the dead are coming back to live with us. Drive by a cemetery around Halloween, and you'll catch a glimpse of mylar balloons and bright orange pumpkins decorating the graves of children. Even roadside memorials to victims of car accidents are done up for Halloween in my town. I may not know who died at that spot, but I know the person is still somehow a part of the holiday celebration. You can see this same impulse-remembering the dead at holiday time-in the growing popularity of Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations in the U.S.
The Days of the Dead, or Los Dias de muertos blend pre-Columbian and Spanish Catholic cultures. There are many regional variations, but usually October 31st is a night of preparation for cooking food and assembling home altars; November 1st is Dia de los angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), when souls of children are welcomed home; and November 2nd is Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) a time to welcome those who died as adults and celebrate them with picnics in cemeteries, storytelling, and cleaning up gravesites. Along the U.S./Mexican border, the Days of the Dead and Halloween have mingled: pumpkins and witches are for sale in Mexican shops, and people can now buy sugar skulls in American bakeries.
Public Day of the Dead celebrations are gradually making their way into mainstream America. Self-Help Graphics in East Los Angeles, a Latino organization, has hosted a citywide Day of the Dead celebration each year since 1972. Its popularity has grown exponentially, say organizers, because it's not just a party, but has personal relevance to anyone who's lost a loved one. Over the past decade, major museums and art galleries in Boston, New York, Chicago, Houston and Miami have hosted Day of the Dead exhibits by living Chicano artists inspired by the Mexican ofrenda (a home altar created especially for Days of the Dead to hold offerings for loved ones). These exhibitions feed the American public's growing interest in multicultural celebrations and folk art, as well as in the more spiritual, meaningful aspect of the holiday. It's this spiritual connection that attracts thousands upon thousands of American tourists to Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, especially in the small, pretty-as-a-movie-set town of Oaxaca, where, in the first few days of November, the smell of marigolds wafts from the cemeteries in early November.
In the evening some cemeteries slowly fill with people. They carry flowers and candles to decorate the graves of the dead. At the little cemetery of San Felipe del Agua near Oaxaca City, there is a painted wooden altar in the center of the graveyard. It is filled with flowers and candles, offered by the faithful on the night of All Souls'. . . . At the few unattended gravestones, small children play the traditional board games-El Ancla and La Oca-by the waning light of a single vigil candle . . . Close to midnight the musicians gather in the middle of the panteon to play Las Golondrinas (The Swallows) and Dios Nunca Muere (God Never Dies). Then slowly the families collect their baskets and candles and leave the little cemetery."
-description of Day of the Dead by Judith Strupp Green, Curator of Mexican Ethnology, San Diego Museum of Man, Balboa Park in Popular Series No. 1, May 1969
Just as Latin Americans are reclaiming their spiritual holiday right next to, or on top of Halloween, many of an estimated one million Neopagans(1) in the U.S. are celebrating their October 31st holiday more publicly. Modern day Witches now open their Samhain rituals to the public in gatherings all across the nation-Portland, Oregon to New York City; Laramie, Wyoming to Memphis, Tennessee; Sterling Heights, Michigan to St. Petersburg, Florida. And, according to leaders, the numbers of participants have been growing over the past ten years.
Halloween, for many, has become a time to touch down and find our place in the long line of generations.
...today's Hallmark-approved, TV special-packed, sanitized and ready-to-go Horror Lite is missing something. Like the rest of the major holidays (and quite a few of the minor ones), Halloween today seems to be a slicked-up, white bread, Disneyfied version of its former self.
-James Lileks, in his editorial column, "Backfence," for the Minneapolis Star Tribune
For those of you who side with Mr. Lileks, you're not alone.
Over the past two decades, Hollywood, in tandem with the dark entertainment industry, has created a sophisticated clientele that demands vivid, increasingly graphic, sensational scares. Enter the Halloween prop business, barely extent in the 1970s.
In haunted houses, wind-pipes made of cold, cooked lasagna noodles have given way to items like the Colorado-based Distortions Unlimited's Gallows, a realistic replica of a hanging, or their Electrocutioner, a detailed animatronic man writhing in an electric chair. And crowds eat it up: mostly 12- to 24-year olds, and surprisingly, often more women than men. The industry shows no signs of getting any less sophisticated; each new season brings more intense visuals, unique tortures, and real life, pump-your-blood, it's-gonna-get-you scares.
If the adults who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s try to preserve trick or treating to honor Halloween, those who came of age in the 1970s with heavy metal, slasher movies and the fear of razor blades in their apples just might get nostalgic for a scarier, more extreme Halloween. These are the folks who drive the dark attraction industry-the businesses that create and supply haunted entertainments, gory costumes and decorations, and realistic effects.
Graphic gore is not new, nor is our appetite for it. Think of the blood-smeared Judith waving the severed head of Holofernes above the Hebrews, or Oedipus gouging out his own eyes, even the televised image of Nicole Simpson's bloody neck. We rarely look away. If Jaycees haunted houses were the equivalent of PG, most professional haunted houses today have become R-rated. Commercial haunts are more realistic, more engaging, and, importantly, more interactive. Customers want to be in someplace where the unexpected will pop up, where they're terrified of what's around the corner.
"It's like boot camp for the psyche," said horror film director Wes Craven to David Blum in a New York Times interview. "In real life human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers, events like Columbine. But the narrative form puts those fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears."
Haunted attractions give people the experience of being safe and afraid at the same time. We know it's not real. In fact, professional haunters know that if you tread too hard on that fine line of reality/unreality and even hint that something's really wrong, the fun goes flat like a busted party balloon. Being spooked, says psychologists, is even good for us. Haunted houses, like roller coasters, provoke anxiety. And if we get anxious enough times and see that we really don't get hurt, then we become less afraid in general.
But it's not just the fear, the surprise, and the adrenaline-you can get all that in a movie. Haunters know you have to balance your effects with the right amount of actors-human contact is key to a successful scare. By adding the element of performance, they hit on what hooks people: the possibility that something real could happen.
Halloween in the Pulpit
Is Halloween sacrilegious or secular? Lest you think ours is the only time in which folks protest against Halloween, here's a the holiday envisioned by a priest at St. John's Rectory in Hartford, Connecticut before the Civil War:
Instead of the profane rites by which it has been desecrated, I have supposed it [Halloween] observed in Christian homes, by fire-side tales and recollections of the departed, and conversations about the state of Intermediate Repose.
-Arthur Cleveland Coxe, "Halloween, A Romaunt" (1846)
Every October some pastors will rail against Halloween and the Devil and others will just as passionately defend the holiday. The media loves this particular battle: if our culture was destroyed tomorrow and all that was left were television videotapes, future archeologists would think Halloween was a Satanic ground war. Yet the fact is the huge majority of folks mark Halloween as they always have, and it's a well-publicized minority who speak out against it. It's also important to note that religious beliefs vary church by church, and that many have no problem with Halloween.
"I would say that just as Peter Cottontail does not summarize the meaning of Easter and Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer does not summarize the meaning of Christmas, witches and goblins don't summarize the meaning of All Saints Day," stated Reverend George Niederauer, Bishop of Salt Lake City's Roman Catholic Diocese, in a 1999 interview with the Salt Lake Tribune.
"Being overly concerned with Halloween and its pagan origins is not in keeping with Christian faith," United Methodist Minister Rev. Ronald Hodges agreed. "If we believe fully in the omnipotence of God, then concern about witches, ghosts and goblins...is misplaced. It is God alone who rules creation, and persons need not fear the dark side of the human experience."
Halloween doesn't register with the Jewish faith or among Buddhists, because it's viewed as a secular holiday. But Seventh Day Adventists boycott the holiday completely and some Protestant Evangelical churches are adamantly opposed to it. It's because Halloween's origin is pagan, and it's symbols can be regarded as Christian-related, that it gets into so much trouble in the pulpit.
Churches that oppose Halloween respond by hosting "trunk or treat" parties, where people park their cars in the church lot, give out treats, then throw a party for the kids. Some urge children to dress as saints or heroes on Halloween, and some substitute a fall festival, all peaceable alternatives. But there are also blatant, anti-Halloween crusades, perhaps the most volatile of which is the haunted house in drag: Christian Hell Houses.
Hell House is not a glorification or observation of Halloween! This outreach happens during the 'Halloween' time of year because that is when the average, unsaved American is conditioned to visit haunted-house type attractions. Hell House simply capitalizes on the seasonal opportunity for the sake of the gospel.
-introduction to Hell House Manual
Christian Hell Houses create realistic horrors to proselytize: if you do these sorts of things-have abortions, be gay, drive drunk, contract AIDS, or, in a few churches, wear trenchcoats and shoot fellow students-you will go to Hell. Satan himself welcomes unrepentant sinners at the end of the show, and an angel redeems the saved. Hell Houses are billed as "spiritually based haunted houses" for which you can buy a kit: a 280-page how-to manual, video, cd of sound effects and scripts. Hell House creators, the Pentecostal Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada, Colorado, believe the concept demonstrates how actions have consequences, and that death is forever. But the shows, as the manual states, have nothing to do with Halloween, and often polarize towns unnecessarily into tense, pro- and anti-Halloween factions.
Halloween in the Principal's Office
Youngsters at the West Jordon [Utah] school can wear plaid shirts, overalls and straw hats this Friday and will learn how to square dance and line dance instead of parading through the halls as Darth Vader or Pokemon characters. When children wear blue jeans, [principal] Berrett doesn't worry they will bring aka guns or knives.
-Salt Lake Tribune, October 27, 1999
We're trying to get away from Halloween's connotations. We find that we stay away from a lot of the objections that might be surrounding us. It's a kind of preventative thing.
-Principal of Belle Chasse Primary School, New Orleans, Louisiana, in an interview with the Times Picayune, 1997
Often times, as with Hell Houses, Halloween's iconography is used as a backdrop for an obvious political or moral agenda. Sometimes it's more subtle. Regulating Halloween costumes in school, for example, is ostensibly for kids' safety, but it's also a way to make kids conform.
"We do a lot with schools around Halloween; not so much Halloween costumes, but story costumes instead," said Natalya Haden, who with husband Jack Cody owns Creatures of Habit, a vintage clothing and costume shop in Paducah, Kentucky. "It takes the Halloween out of Halloween. Witches, ghosts and ghouls are Halloween characters. The scariness is what makes it different from any other dress-up occasion. The fear of hurting someone's feelings or being PC [politically correct] doesn't allow children to be as creative."
Jack agrees. "I'd be surprised if Halloween lasts another ten years. It used to be whole wheat and now it's white bread with the crusts cut off."
Our public schools need to serve every single student, be he Haitian immigrant, fundamentalist Christian, Quaker, Buddhist, Muslim or Jew. And school officials need to answer to parents. If Halloween's perceived as religious, or anti-religious, principals will hear from them. If it's viewed as taking up too much valuable academic time, or if older kids' costumes scare the younger children, they'll hear about it. And, most recently, if a Halloween costume is seen as an opportunity to conceal a weapon or drugs, principals may even be held responsible. No devils, no witches, no black lipstick or white, goth face make-up, no baggy pants or hats, please. School officials under fire opt for the choice that offends the least number of people. But to what extent are we letting a vocal few dictate the pleasures of the majority? Has everyone really been heard?
The whitewashing of Halloween celebrations in our schools may simply be a sign of the times. It's not just Halloween; celebrating holidays in school in general is being downplayed. Some schools eschew all holidays or invent new, secular ones to take the place of the traditional quasi-religious ones. For example, the Hillsborough, New Jersey schools initiated Special Persons Day to take the place of St. Valentine's Day. May Day celebrations in school have all but died out in the past thirty years, and a new, generic "celebration of light" has begun to crop up to cover all the winter religious holidays-Christmas, Kwaanza, and Hanukkah-together.
There may always be people who have no use for Halloween. So be it. One of the hallmarks of an enlightened society is that it respects all beliefs-majority or minority. There's no reason why those who don't celebrate Halloween should be punished for it. And there's no reason why those who do should be restricted. We have to find ways to make our celebrations flexible enough to let anyone in, or out, without giving up the heart and soul of Halloween.
Designer Trick or Treat
Come to the Mall-o-ween carnival! A 25-cent ticket lets you play games for great prizes! Enter the costume contest! Win!
Trade your Halloween candy for cash! Dentist X- will pay $1 for every pound of candy you turn over to him, up to five pounds!
Come to the Health Center and tour our haunted house, where nice folks hand out candy from inside office doorways (don't tell Dr. X-)!
Trick-or-treat over on our street, where the sidewalks are wide and well-lit, and every house gives out full-size bars (no snack size miniatures here)!
Celebrate Halloween indoors, in stores, in malls, in office buildings, in upscale neighborhoods!
Somewhere along the way, we've become convinced that when it comes to trick or treating, our own neighborhoods are not as much fun as the fancy ones, and that shops and malls are safe havens, while the streets outside our own houses are not. That home-made treats are dangerous, and store-bought, wrapped candies are not. We've become suspicious: of strangers, of cookies baked by someone else's grandma, of older kids in masks and hoods. The dark makes us nervous. And because we love our kids so much, we transfer our fears to them.
It doesn't matter if we know deep down that there are no Satanists looking to kidnap our kids, and no crazy person trying to hide blades in their treats. We still fear for our kids, and act as if these things might be true. Even trick or treating gives us pause.
I distributed a questionnaire to 50 adults in the fall of 1999. They were of all ages, lived in rural, urban and suburban areas, and came from eleven states coast to coast. One of the questions I asked was this: would you allow your ten-year old to go trick or treating in your own neighborhood without a parent? Forty-one respondents answered this question. Only eight said yes: three were parents with grown children, one was in their 20s with no children, and the other four lived in areas where they knew all their neighbors. The other respondents said no (21), or only if they were with friends (12). The reasons? It's too dangerous/you can't trust people (15); I live on a busy street (3); there are wild teenagers out (4); and it's too dark (3).
The sense of fear around Halloween has spawned a host of preventive measures designed to keep kids safe. Some towns hold community-wide parties on Halloween night, making families choose whether kids will go out trick or treating or attend the party. This outright attempt to eliminate trick or treating seems to occur, so far, only in communities that have serious reservations about Halloween already, such as towns where a conservative religious group is prominent, or towns in which a recent crime spills over into the Halloween season and makes everyone nervous about stranger danger. Some towns and cities regulate the hours for Halloween activities-since Halloween's not recognized by the federal government, each municipality can establish its own rules. They post trick-or-treating hours that tend to be earlier, some even in the afternoon, before dark. The newly formed Halloween Association, a national trade organization based in Maryland, has a campaign to set Halloween on the last Saturday of October, before daylight savings time ends. It's safer, says the organization: the day will be lighter longer, and will never be a school night. Many others are adamantly opposed to this proposal, from parents who resent government intrusion to businesses, like costume shops, who do extra sales when Halloween falls midweek.
But does it work? Does regulating Halloween hours for trick or treating keep kids safer? We really don't know yet. There's no hard data proving such rules have an effect on Halloween accidents. The National Safety Council does not keep statistics on trick or treating hours, and the Centers for Disease Control traffic child fatality figures for Halloween do not include any numbers indicating a change since 1975. Rather, dictating hours when kids can trick or treat gives the illusion of safety: adults feel better when kids go out earlier, and during specified times. It also makes it easier to plan and structure the night.
Another common reaction is to go trick or treating in confined, controlled environments. Mall trick or treating arose soon after the tampered-treat scares of the 1970s; many communities still offer it. But a newer trend is developing along these lines, which is to take kids to affluent neighborhoods, or "good Halloween neighborhoods"-areas that give really great treats, and all the houses participate. Or to do a prearranged trick or treat route, where you stop only at friends' houses, even if it means getting in the car and driving all over town. Let's call it designer trick or treat.
There are many plusses to designer trick or treating: going to a special area of town that's famous for its Halloween celebration means there'll be lots of other folks around, increasing the feeling of safety as well as the fun. Affluent neighborhoods are usually better lit, with wide walkways leading up to the front door; it's easier to keep watch on your little ones. And trick or treating only at friends' houses means you know and trust everyone your child comes in contact with.
But what you lose with designer trick or treating is an essential aspect of modern Halloween: an opportunity to build community, to turn strangers into acquaintances. Going only to "good" neighborhoods contains the holiday and institutionalizes it, like going to prefabricated Christmas villages rather than finding beauty in the blinking lights of your own street. Nothing permanent is gained. You've missed your one chance a year to visit with the people on your own block, choosing instead to visit those you already know, or those you'll probably never see again. Case in point: children in my town often trick or treat across the city line in an upscale neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the houses are huge and endlessly being remodeled. Last Halloween, workmen-not the owners-were handing out candy!
One last thought on safety: I think it's interesting that most of us support zero tolerance on terrorists: even when they're holding a planeful of hostages, we support a firm refusal to negotiate. Yet we will-almost without a fight-let the specter of the Halloween danger terrorize us into giving up a ritual we dearly love and clearly need.
The Importance of Halloween
The Brazilian kids in my neighborhood are stunned by Halloween. They have just come to America and are learning English; they don't know yet to say trick or treat, or even thank you. But I can see their shy smiles and unbelieving eyes: this unexplainable generosity on the part of strangers sets their heads spinning.
There's a deeper value in knocking on your neighbor's door. Historians always describe Halloween as the one night a year when the veils between the worlds of the living and the dead are lifted. Perhaps in our culture today, Halloween is the one night a year when the barriers between people can be lifted: between classes, races and generations.
Halloween is also full of touchpoints. The first time we don't trick or treat is as significant as unmasking Santa: it's the end of childhood. Years later there's another marking: the first time we trick or treat with our children we become acutely aware of ourselves as adults, walking in the same responsible footsteps of our own parents.
People adapt customs to their needs, and they'll keep a holiday if it fits in with their values. Right now, preserving childhood is something parents care about. Trick or treating, pageants, haunts, parades and parties are all popular now because there's a need for community. People want to experience something real, a connection with each other and with forces beyond all of us, and an outgoing, exhibitionist holiday like Halloween is a perfect vehicle.
Yes, Halloween is becoming more popular, commercial, and adult, as well as more spiritual, creative, and extreme. But when you open up the frame and stand way back, you can see how everything's connected-Halloween isn't evolving in a vacuum, it reflects who we are and what we value. Halloween is a touchstone for each and every one of us through time and across continents. As Jack Santino writes in All Around the Year, "Celebration, symbol, ritual, festival, holiday, folk custom-all too often these are viewed as fun, pleasant, perhaps even beautiful upon occasion, but also as frivolous, never as primary to life. I suggest that in fact they have to do with those parts of life, both biological and social, that are of the most importance to us, with birth and death, with life and growth...Where we find elaborate symbol and ritual we find issues and event that are of central importance to human beings."
Maybe future generations will look back with nostalgia to our time, when death separated generations and people had to imagine what good and evil looked like on this night once called Halloween. They may chuckle to themselves at both our cynicism and our innocence. But I'm willing to bet they still have a Halloween. Because as long as the earth goes around the sun, there will be the coming of the dark season, and with it, the need to celebrate all that stays hidden in the shadows.
1. The Witches' Voice, the largest internet site for the Neopagan community, quotes this one million figure; earlier, pre-internet estimates were anywhere from 30,000 to 500,000 depending on the source.