Why Bother To Save Halloween?
By Richard Seltzer
Halloween is in trouble. Each year editorials in magazines, newspapers and on television warn of the dangers of trick-or-treating. Almost everywhere you look, cities set 'trick-or-treating hours' only during the early afternoon in broad daylight and each year more communities want to 'ban' Halloween.
So what? Who needs it? What is Halloween anyway? It's just an excuse for big kids to make trouble, little kids to eat too much candy, and candy companies to peddle their wares. Bah, goblin-bug! Not!
When children go trick-or-treating, often times the people they visit are folks they only see at Halloween, even though they live only a few doors away. Most people, the elderly especially, buy large quantities of candy and wait at home to hand it all out. Children are excited to come up to the door to get candy and the adults are happy to see them. But nowadays, that happiness can be short-lived. By the end of the night, most people are giving out two or three times as much candy per child as they had originally intended, because there are so few kids out trick-or-treating.
Seeing all of this, I can't help but wonder what has gone wrong with Halloween. And it occurred to me that it wasn't just a handful of crazy people who were endangering this tradition and the joy it can bring to little children, and adults as well. It's the fault of everyone, and their failure to recognize that Halloween plays an important function in our society, and their unwillingness to speak out in defense of Halloween when the media is so unanimously against it.
So what's so important about Halloween?
Maybe at one time, Halloween helped exorcise fears of death and ghosts and goblins by making fun of them. Maybe, too, in a time of rigidly prescribed social behavior, Halloween was the occasion for relatively harmless socially condoned mischief -- a time for misrule and letting loose. Although such elements still remain, the emphasis has shifted. These days, neither adults nor children understand the true meaning behind this great holiday tradition. Trick-or-treating has been reduced to a meaningless, mechanical daytime activity where children receive mass quantities of candy for no apparent reason.
Nowadays people often don't know their near neighbors, much less the neighbors a few blocks away. For little children these strange houses and strange people are a source of fear and anxiety. Children have been taught not to trust or talk to strangers, to beware of them. But on Halloween that prohibition is lifted; and, with fear, but impelled by curiosity and greed for candy and other loot, little ones ring doorbells at houses of strangers to find time and again that these strangers are really friendly people like the people they know well. In the course of the evening they gain confidence in themselves and in their neighborhood and come away not only with bags full of candy to be enjoyed for weeks later, but also a warm feeling about their neighborhood and people in general.
As for adults, especially the elderly and those who never had children or who haven't had young children at home for some time, children in the neighborhood are normally a source of anxiety and distrust. What mischief and vandalism might this strange new generation growing up with television violence be capable of? On Halloween night their fears too are exorcised, as wildly and imaginatively costumed kids parade to the door, a reminder of what they themselves did as children -- a common link of experience.
Looked at another way, Halloween is a time that reconfirms the social bond of a neighborhood (particularly the bond between strangers of different generations) by a ritual act of trade. Children go to lengths to dress up and overcome their fear of strangers in exchange for candy. And adults buy the candy and overcome their distrust of strange children in exchange for the pleasure of seeing their wild outfits and vicariously reliving their own adventures as children.
In other words, the true value and importance of Halloween comes not from parading in costumes in front of close friends and family, but from this interchange with strangers, exorcising our fears of strangers, reaffirming our social bond with the people of the neighborhood who we rarely, if ever, see the rest of the year.
So when you hear all those warnings about pins and poison, use caution and common sense. But don't just abandon a tradition that you yourself loved as a child, that your own children look forward to months in advance, and that helps preserve our sense of fellowship and community with our neighbors in the midst of all this madness.