Halloween is one of my favorite holidays – and yes, it is a holy day. All Hallow’s Eve, the day before All Saints Day, is a night when thoughts turn naturally to mortality, the afterlife, the devil, and his minions. Dressing up in costume and engaging in a harmless little march around town demanding candy from your neighbors is a beloved tradition in this country. Kids love the excitement and mystery of it all, and it’s heartwarming to see them explore the world that way.
Of course, we’re ruining all of that.
Below I’ve laid out why Halloween, like every other treasured cultural institution I grew up with, has been slowly hollowed-out into a commercialized shadow of its former glory.
1. It’s Not For Grown-Ups
This year, more money was spent on adult Halloween costumes than on children’s costumes. Now, presumably a fair number of people also make costumes for their kids or reuse them, but this is still a disquieting trend.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the infantilized modern adult, but let me say upfront that there’s nothing untoward about an adult dressing in costume and celebrating Halloween. It’s fun, it’s festive, it’s part of being a community. If you’d like to have a nice party or masquerade, do so! If it’s a family tradition, but there aren’t kids around to enjoy it, that’s totally fine. Halloween is for everybody.
Just keep in mind that as adults, you can have a costume party any time. There’s nothing stopping you. It’s an extra-special thing for kids, who typically can’t buy their own candy or organize a party. Absent the community aspect of instilling spooky traditions in a new generation of children, or mindfulness of one’s immortal soul, it too often degenerates into meaningless bacchanal.
2. Halloween is Not “Sexy”
This builds on item #1, but is sufficiently lame as to warrant its own entry. Seriously people: enough with the “sexy” versions of children’s costumes.
“Sexy Big Bird” is not sexy, it’s a yellow bathing suit with feathers. It’s not creative. If you want to peddle your flesh in public I contend that you would save money and effort by simply going outside in the underwear you already own, rather than forking over money for something you’ll only wear once (I hope).
The point of Halloween shouldn’t be to scare up a bed-warmer for the night in a vain attempt to bolster your sense of self-worth through casual sex. Ladies, you may as well go dressed as a blow-up doll if that’s your endgame – the sex will mean just as much to him. And gentlemen, for God’s sake show some class.
3. Stop the Candy Cops
We’ve all heard the Halloween stories about razor blades in apples, and psychotic strangers injecting Tootsie Rolls with AIDS. Every year there’s some panic about the dangers of getting free candy from strangers – this year in Colorado the new hotness is marijuana consumables, for instance. Parents can actually buy scientific test kits to detect THC.
It’s to the point where parents are expected to inspect their children’s candy before allowing them to eat any. The thinking goes, “it’s a scary world out there, full of dangerous, violent psychopaths just itching for a chance to murder our little babies.”
Stop this madness. First of all, this never happens. It’s a cultural myth. The very, very few instances of deliberately-placed foreign objects in Halloween candy are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Think about it for one second: if a person is handing out poisoned candy at their house and dispenses it to multiple kids, it wouldn’t take long for police to zero in on them. Now, this doesn’t preclude crazy people from trying this, but statistically speaking you can relax.
Violent crime in this country has steadily declined over the last several decades. Our children are actually safer than they’ve ever been, yet the excitable coverage of the few cases of violence and abduction amplify the threat in our minds.
Finally, think about this: you may be depriving your children of a lesson in economics. As a trick-or-treater, kids will get candy that they don’t particularly like. But some other kid might like it and be willing to trade for it. Children should have unrestricted access to a free candy marketplace. You aren’t a nanny-stater, are you?
4. Kids don’t say “Trick or Treat” or “Thank You”
There was a letter in Emily Yoffe’s advice column the other day about kids from poor (translation: black) neighborhoods going to richer (translation: white) ones to trick-or-treat. It was horrible, penned either by an insulated, possibly racist person in a tony ZIP code or a bored Slate editor who needed content. Yoffe got the answer 100% right, but the letter missed the real issue completely.
In my previous neighborhood, this exact situation occurred. It was really fun to see all the extra ghouls and ghosts and princesses, and I was happy to run out of candy. Yet I was distressed at the sheer number of children (black and white) who did not even say “Trick or Treat,” but just held out their pillow cases mutely. I prompted a few of them but received only blank stares, as if they’d never even heard of such a thing. Compounding my distress, there were precious few “thank-yous” offered afterwards.
Trick-or-treating is a social contract, whereby under threat of unspecified “tricks” a child is able to extort free “treats” from the neighbors while concealing his or her identity. As with any social contract, it breaks down over time if one party consistently fails to hold up their end.
Blame for this lies not with the children, but falls squarely on the parents. Parents, it is your duty in life to raise your children so that they can be successful and happy. One aspect of this is teaching them the social conventions by which we all live – in other words, basic manners. Parents must pass on this knowledge to their children, or it will be lost.
Perhaps nobody ever taught the parents themselves?
5. Gore & Terror
This one might seem a bit prudish, but it needs to be said: save the gore for appropriateaudiences. Common sense would tell you not to answer the door with a faceful of blood and giblets, but we seem to chase ever more grotesque thrills each Halloween. I think of it as a hedonic adaptation, which basically means we get used to things – good or bad, we adapt. In the case of Halloween, what scared us before might not give us the same jolt, so we seek out scarier material. It can lead to some truly distasteful stuff. Consider the “Saw” movies: the first one wasn’t exactly PG, but built tension admirably, left some things to the imagination, and culminated in a horrific onscreen amputation. The sequels devolved to become no better than torture porn.
Halloween is about harmless scares, not outright terror and disgust. It should be fun for children, and not a cause for tears. Don’t go out of your way to really terrify people of any age – it’s malicious, obnoxious, and not in the spirit of the holiday.
When I was 14, I didn’t grasp this. That was the first year I manned the door at our house rather than going out to gather candy myself. I had a devilishly fun time making myself up as a “shotgun victim” which involved fashioning a gaping head wound and pouring a liter or so of fake blood over my noggin. It was awesome.
That was, until the little three year old fairy princess came to the door. When I opened it she was beaming, having a marvelous time. It was probably her first Halloween where she had picked her costume and was carrying her own plastic pumpkin-shaped candy-pail. As she saw the gory ruin that was my head, I watched her little face crumple and she began to wail. She wouldn’t even take any candy from me. It wasn’t fun for her, and suddenly it wasn’t fun for me either.
Know your audience. Keep it fun.
I’m not optimistic about the prospects for reclaiming Halloween from the immature, over-sexed, hovering, apathetic, hedonistic adults ruining it for the rest of us. Still, if there’s to be any progress on this front we must make the effort sooner, rather than later.
For the children.