Halloween: Dead and Buried

Feature / November 2, 2017

October 20, 1963, Boston. Photo: Ollie Noonan Jr./Boston Globe

ROBERTS: This is going to be a buzzkill on my part, I’m afraid, but so be it. When I think of Halloween as it’s celebrated today, I think mostly of the evisceration of the American neighborhood and the American middle class, and the plunder of childhood by adult paranoia, adult vanity, and adult nostalgia. This national descent started in the early 1970s, right about the time Ronald Clark O’Bryan killed his eight-year-old son Timothy on Halloween night by poisoning his Pixy Stix—he needed the cash from a life insurance policy to pay off his debt.

I grew up hearing urban legends about poisoned candy and razor blades hidden in apples, and the Tylenol murders of 1982 (the first death was reported a month before Halloween) were the beginning of the end. Still, we had a few more years of trusting our neighbors enough to take candy from them (before neighborhoods were replaced by zip codes), a few more years that our parents allowed us to trick-or-treat unsupervised (but in groups; we were never alone), zooming through the greenbelts and alleyways with Three Musketeers bars and Blow Pops shoved in our mouths—as opposed to trick or treating out of fucking trunks in a fucking parking lot.

Where to start? How about: I’m complicit. I don’t know the name of one person in my apartment complex or on my street. And I don’t want to: I’m too tired and they’re too obnoxious. This year, as every year, I took my kids (aged 6 and 3) to a nearby block of nice houses to trick-or-treat. It’s all very sweet, all the houses are decked out, and the residents give out lots of good candy. Beyond the fact that only rich people can afford to own houses anymore, what’s disturbing is that there are just as many adults dressed up as kids, and they don’t seem to give a shit that they’re destroying childhood for the little ones who are actually going through it. And they are so arrogantly narcissistic that I don’t think it even occurs to them.

If you have small kids, wear something nondescript, take them out, and let them soak up whatever thrills are left. If you don’t have small kids, stay home and read a motherfucking book. And no, Harry Potter doesn’t count.

GRASSO: I don’t have kids, Kelly, but I can absolutely understand your strong feelings that the Halloween we knew is gone, probably forever. The ritual itself is a weird one, isn’t it? Going from house to house, bag or plastic pumpkin in hand, begging for treats. But it does rely on a certain amount of social cohesion, mutual trust, and local neighborliness that our society has seemingly dispensed with. But when I was a kid, there was enough community for us to know most of the folks on our end of the street, and enough trust abroad for us to range a few streets away.

That being said, I still remember coming of age in the 1980s having a few really great Halloweens. Of course, all the rumors you talk about—the razors in apples and poison candy—was abroad in the schoolyard while I was still young enough to trick-or-treat. All the candy I received and was allowed to eat was pre-packaged and carefully inspected. No healthy snacks for us back in the first half of the ’80s, either. Bummer treats like organic fruit snacks or, God help us, toothbrushes, were a rarity, and Hershey’s Miniatures wrappers spilled freely all over the living room floor until Election Day.

It was never a favorite holiday of mine, though, candy notwithstanding. You talk about older kids and adults in costume, and you get me thinking about how one of the main transitions from childhood to adolescence for me was The Year (probably 1988, when I was in 8th grade) where, instead of going trick-or-treating as a group with friends, we went out to make Halloween mischief. Egging houses (the urban legends had advanced in junior high, by the way, from razor blades in apples to high school kids supposedly hucking eggs filled with Nair at 8th graders), shaving cream fights, big impromptu gatherings of dozens of us on city streets eventually broken up by a pair of police cruisers—we were bad kids that year. Like I said, it had its own ritualistic coming-of-age feel to it, putting away childish things forever in favor of… well, marginally more mature childish things. Yes, we had our own mini-Devil’s Night.

MCKENNA: It’s strange to lament the disappearance of the English Halloween of my youth, because, as far as I can remember, its principal characteristic was basically that you didn’t actually do anything except be scared. That sounds unlikely, but friends and relatives I’ve spoken to confirm: Halloween’s principal feature four decades ago was spending the time from when it got dark—which in Yorkshire was about 4:30—to when you managed to fall asleep shitting yourself with fear. If the BBC schedules archive is to be believed, the only nod to Halloween that the establishment made in, say, 1984, was a special edition of soporific children’s story programme Jackanory (conceivably because the metropolitan Beeb looked down its didactic nose at promoting superstition). That Halloween is overshadowed by the 5th of November—Guy Fawkes’ Night, when the country celebrates the discovery of the Catholic plot to blow up parliament with bonfires and fireworks—in terms of spectacle (and expense) might have been a factor in its lack of commodification. There were no pumpkins (though we might have tried carving a squash, or even a potato), and trick-or-treating was a bizarre foreign ritual we saw in Spider-Man comics and Happy Days. I think many inhabitants of parsimonious pre-Blair UK would still have frowned upon the kind of conspicuous consumption involved in buying sweets and costumes. That meant the promotion of Halloween was left to the lower racks of cultural ephemera: comics, DJs, TV adverts. The whole country was so saturated with shades of the supernatural that it didn’t really take much for things to get spooky, though.

In a lot of the country, the night before Halloween is Mischief Night (known as “Mickey Night” where I grew up)—like the Devil’s Night you mention, Mike. Out in the boondocks where I lived this was peculiarly intimidating, as gangs of kids, the hoods of their snorkel parkas zipped up into tube-like protuberances that hid their faces entirely, roamed the lanes like antagonistic alien herds, chucking people’s garden gates into the river, shouting abuse and throwing stones (something the Britain of the day seemed inordinately afraid of). This mood of anarchy heralded the arrival of Halloween itself, contributing to the day’s confused mixture of thrill and fear: some kid’s older sister’s friend had read the Lord’s Prayer backwards and disappeared, mirrors were best covered so you didn’t run the risk of seeing the Devil standing at your shoulder in them, keep the curtains closed, never answer the door—all of this usually to the accompaniment of skeletal trees thrashing madly about in howling autumnal winds.

That fear is seemingly all gone now. We have our own half-hearted, shitty ersatz version of trick-or-treat, the supermarkets all sell pumpkin-shaped cakes and similar crap, and you can pick up a zombie mask in the 24-hour petrol station. Maybe English 10-year-olds would disagree—presumably some of them still experience it as a night of glorious, cathartic terror—but it feels as though the whole thing has been totally defanged, all its remaining pagan dread drained away, leaving only this flatulent pantomime. And can I also take the opportunity to say how much it gets on my fucking nerves that it’s just become a generic fancy dress party?

ROBERTS: We’re all sounding very “get off my lawn,” and I’m open to the fact that I might be full of shit. But I know this: elementary schools in the US are banning Halloween because of the fear that some children might not “feel included” in the festivities, and that is utter bullshit. I’m not clinging to the days of the monoculture—when everyone watched the same 13 channels, when I had to suck in cigarette smoke and red-alert smog on a daily basis—but must we abandon all of our cultural rites? Social equality and political correctness are two different things; trying to protect every kid from every conceivable uncomfortable social experience is not going to level the economic and social playing field when those kids grow up, as the younger generation is finding out today. It just makes them woefully unprepared for the post-nest reality that only the rich are safe, now as always.

There’s no money in building a Bedford Falls. There’s tons of money in building Pottersvilles. And that’s why we don’t have fun things anymore. That’s really all there is to it.

GRASSO: I suppose that this Halloween discussion does intersect neatly with the whole “free-range kids” topic that’s been such a subject of controversy over the last few years. It’s timely, as Gen Xers are using the most recent Halloween-set season of Stranger Things to lament their wide-open childhoods. A lot of people make the argument that giving kids independence like this makes them more self-reliant and better at forming relationships with other kids, and that these skills will translate to greater success in adulthood. I do kind of lament the fact that every decision parents make these days seems to be somehow connected to concern over how it will affect their kids’ future careers and economic viability, but that’s just me. As far as shared rituals go, I think there’s a lot of truth in your observation over the lack of a monoculture, Kelly, but I also think we’ve reached a point now in American culture where there’s no stuffing the genie back in the bottle. As you observe, the future is going to look more and more feudal, with different cultural traditions for the nobles in their castles and for the serfs in the fields.

I admit, I’m fascinated by Richard’s description of British Halloweens of the 1970s and ’80s, because I had come to believe that Halloween is a filthy American tradition like senior proms that transatlantic media had plunked down, invaders-from-Mars-like, into the British cultural fabric. The fact that there was genuine folk horror-like dread of spooky happenings on All Hallows’ Eve abroad back in those days is tremendous; it confirms all my suspicions about how close the beating heart of folklore is to the surface of everything in the British Isles. I don’t think I’ve had a genuine premonition of supernatural dread on Halloween ever; even after growing into maturity and learning about the pagan calendar and the wheel of the year, I never felt the fabric between worlds was particularly frayed on the 31st. I suppose that’s one of the traditions I wish had gotten into my blood: the one where you’re actually scared by ghost stories or by spooky movies on the VCR. Aside from those few nights reading Communion or Stephen King, I rarely had real-life scary moments growing up.

And I’m with you both 100%, Kelly and Richard: Halloween is and should be for kids. Grown-ups in costumes definitely have always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe adults could adopt a holiday like Mardi Gras to fulfill their desire to dress in costume and drink too much. But I suppose that’s what Halloween’s become, hasn’t it? A carnival in the old sense of the word—feasting before the winter’s fast comes, an opportunity to wear a mask and become someone else. Obviously adults desperately need this kind of liminal ritual of transgression in their lives these days, maybe because they didn’t get the chance growing up?

MCKENNA: There’s a place for masks and the wildness of the carnival in human society—I think, as you both point out, it’s watching the appropriation, formalisation, and commodification of what were once relatively informal shared rituals into something else altogether that causes the heave of uncanny-valley nausea. It feels a bit silly to talk about the commodification of fear, particularly given fear’s recent history as mass-produced titillation, but that’s how it’s felt—the annihilation of something potent and intangible by an avalanche of stuff that targets the suckers with the money: the adults.

It’s worth underlining that my memories of Halloween are very much my memories of it: I was a particularly cretinous child who took stuff like this far more to heart than was healthy. I’m sure most of the kids who lived in my village didn’t get quite as bad a case of the paranormal vapours as I did come October, and conversely I’m sure plenty of kids today still do experience some eerie transcendence on the night of the 31st. But between Mickey Night, Halloween, and the pre-V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes’ Night (when there weren’t any of those frigging Guy Fawkes masks around, thank fuck—well, unless you count the cut-out ones in Whoopee), you felt like you’d been through something that connected you to life: chaos, the supernatural, the October dark lit up by vast pyres and explosions. It all still happens, of course, but as with so much else, commerce has grown over the surface like some toxic lichen, leaving the shape but muffling the gleam.

What I suppose irks me most about a lot of what Halloween represents today, though, is how it seems somehow disrespectful—disrespectful of children; disrespectful of fear, however mild; disrespectful of the unknown and the unknowableness of existence—in a way that even the trick-or-treaters in Spider-Man weren’t. As though a distorted memory has taken the place of something that once stimulated a genuine response to the mysteries of existence, and the fun that was a happy collateral has become the thing itself. It’s deprived Halloween of its power as a kind of quiet mass memento mori: like deafening, braying, drunken chatter drowning out the tolling of the bell and the creaking of the coffin lids. Fucking hell, we’re miserable bastards, aren’t we?

8 thoughts on “Halloween: Dead and Buried

  1. My wife and I (and our dog) dressed up to hand out candy, so I guess we are the true monsters. But then, I know my neighbors, and we handed out candy to neighborhood kids from our house, not the trunk of our car. We may be monsters, but I am grateful to learn that I am rich (along with over 3/5 of American households).

    We did Star Wars as a family, by the way. Me as Chewbacca, the dog as Han Solo, my wife as Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars’ greatest villain). We did have one Sand Person come by the house, but my wife startled her. (As she left, I heard her tell her brother, “See, SOME people appreciate Star Wars.” It left me feeling distinctly un-monster-like.)

  2. If you still have that neighborhood connection, I think that’s great, and I’m glad you’re savoring it. In my neck of the woods, it gets rarer and rarer. I live in Los Angeles, and that’s what I’m talking about when I mention home ownership. Nationally, though, home ownership continues to decline. And it’s not even an option for many, many young people grappling with student debt, etc.

  3. I thought Bonfire Night, or Bommie as I heard it called was preferred to Halloween as a Fall event.I know a lot a people there kind of resent Halloween as over commercialized and over American,but don’t they have a right to choose?Shit, I’d do BOTH if I lived there and love it. Halloween can be celebrated in an inexpensive way if you wish, and if handing out candy isn,t in your budget, or in your interest,Leave the porch light off and celebrate after Trick or Treat hours.

  4. By the time I was trick-or-treating without parental supervision as a 10-year-old in ’87, the only prank kids usually played was squirting things with silly string, and that was primarily teenagers. I remember reading books that depicted kids toilet-papering houses, egging mailboxes, etc. and feeling deeply envious that I’d missed out on all the fun. 🙂

    Kids in my hometown up in the North SF Bay suburbs still go door-to-door trick-or-treating. However, the trend towards trying to remove all possible negative influence from kids’ lives unfortunately means that in addition to many schools banning costumes, a lot of parents now confiscate all but a few pieces of candy at the end of the night. I can understand limiting caloric intake for an overweight kid, but severely limiting sugar alone, especially for kids who are physically active and a healthy weight, seems a bit too much like the butter paranoia of our youth.

    I think it should be noted that adults *did* wear costumes back in the 80s & 70s — they just did it at parties and nightclubs/discos, not while walking their kids. According to my 66-year-old mother, parents would often have their kids trick-or-treating at dusk, then either have somebody babysit or drop the kids off at a Halloween party and head off to enjoy themselves with their friends for a few hours. (Which sounds like a very 70s/80s thing to do, now that I think about it.)

    • I think that’s exactly right. I don’t object to adults wearing costumes at adult Halloween parties (not really); I object to adults encroaching on a cultural event that was once owned by kids. There was a kid world, and there was an adult world. Two languages. Now we have the man-child and a whole bunch of shitty superhero movies. Graahr!

  5. A friend mentioned one of the houses they went to had live bluegrass music. I guess Halloween is alive and well among the hovels and cultural poverty of flyover country.

    I grew up during the height of the poisoned candy scare. And I grew up in a rural area, so trick or treating was driving around to the houses of friends and family instead of walking around a neighborhood. So I don’t have a huge amount of nostalgia for the way “things used to be.”

    It seemed like a lot of the kids who came by our house were older girls. With kids drinking, smoking, getting pregnant, and generally going out less these days, maybe they are trick or treating longer too? I can’t complain.

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