October 30, 2016

The Death of Halloween


Ask anyone over the age of thirty-five or forty to recall the Halloweens of their childhood, and the stories tend to be remarkably similar. Halloween was a wild bacchanalia, in many ways topping even Christmas in holiday terms simply because there were so few adults involved. It was the one night of the year it was not only accepted, but socially mandated that we could dress up like monsters and killers and wooly-bully through the streets after dark completely unsupervised, banging on the doors of any random house we liked for blocks and blocks around, getting a fistful of candy at each one. And if some do-gooder dared try to give you a fucking apple or banana, it was likewise prescribed that you thanked them, returned to the sidewalk, and pelted the house with the offending produce. You put on a mask, a costume, and you could, that one night a year, get away with anything without any adults telling you any different. For god sakes, even if it was a school night you could rampage around in a sugar frenzy while dressed like the Grim Reaper until midnight and it was okay. So long as you got home alive at some point, there were no questions asked.

            Sure, there were always those stories about razor blades in apples and needles hidden in Snickers bars, but we seemed to understand implicitly these were just urban legends. And the apples were never a concern anyway, as those were inevitably discarded long before we got home to sort out the haul.

            It didn’t matter if you were in Manhattan or a small provincial town in the Midwest, wherever you were back then, Halloween was anarchy with a payoff. Hell, you could carry a real butcher knife openly, and everyone would simply accept it as part of your costume.

            Even as I got older and stopped going out myself, taking over front door duties at our house, it was still fun. When I opened the door for the little urchins dressed like princesses and zombies, my dad, see, would be hiding behind the door in a werewolf mask. Before any fistfuls of candy were doled out, he would jump around the corner and lunge at the kids, screaming, “A-BOOGABOOGABOOGA!” (We saved an awful lot of candy for ourselves that way.) Plus there were horror movies on TV, live spook shows in the theaters downtown, local haunted houses—no end of entertainment for a young horror movie geek. Yeah, fuck Christmas—I always have been and always will be a Halloween guy.

            But I first started noticing the distant clang of the death knell in the late Seventies, when after pressure from jittery parents who swallowed the urban legend whole, the area hospitals began offering to X-ray any kid’s sack of candy free of charge to make sure it contained no razor blades, syringes or corkscrews. I don’t know exactly how many paranoid parents insisted on making a run to the hospital before a single Twizzler was consumed, but I do know no sinister foreign objects were ever, ever found.

            Shortly before I left for college, the Green Bay City Council mandated that from that point on, trick-or-treating could only take place over a carefully and strictly delineated three hour stretch during daylight hours. Also, regardless of the day of the week on which Halloween happened to fall, trick-or-treating would only be allowed on a Saturday. It was for the safety of the children, they insisted, given the number of diabolical predators afoot. Or something.

            Well what the fuck is fun about that?

            Fortunately, for the first few years anyway, most everyone ignored the silly new rule which, it only occurs to me now, was passed in the midst of the ridiculous nationwide hysteria about a mythical epidemic of child abductions and Satanic cults. Over the years, though, even as the specific hysteria faded, a more generalized parental paranoia lingered, and the new rule became the accepted norm. But that was just the beginning. Even with the new daylight hours in place, kids were still allowed to go out alone and could still knock on any door they liked, stranger or otherwise.

            I was living in Minneapolis during Halloween of 1986, and there still seemed to be some hope. Or maybe I was simply completely out of touch. In any case when unsupervised trick-or-treaters came to my door, I handed out little bundles of three cigarettes, gaily tied together with an orange and black ribbon. Nobody said a word and there were no repercussions. If I tried to pull that today, I would undoubtedly be tracked down by a torch-wielding mob, pilloried in the media, and sentenced to fifteen years for endangering the welfare of children everywhere.

            Nearly everything Halloween used to be is dead and gone now, the victim of more stupid cultural forces than I could possibly list here. While I still love the season’s horror show trappings (though even those have been tempered of late thanks to an increasingly superstitious, devil-phobic population of halfwits), when I hear what’s happening on the sidewalks on Halloween it just depresses me. Parents now trot along to keep a hovering and fretful eye on the wee-folk, often clutching clipboards with a list of pre-arranged and vetted households. And at each carefully scheduled stop the so-called trick-or-treaters will undoubtedly amass a haul of sugar-free, hypoallergenic candy substitutes (certainly nothing with peanuts, peanut butter, real chocolate, nougat or caramel), and plenty of apples.

            Oh, and you may as well just excise that whole “trick” part from the term, as tricks are no longer an option anymore. Toilet paper a house, soap windows, or hurl produce and you’re likely looking at criminal charges, or at the very least a civil suit.

            What used to be a celebration of horror, excess, dark imagination and unbridled youthful energy and momentary independence is now a weary exercise in safety, security, surveillance, control and the worst kind of fear-mongering foisted on kids who have never known anything else. I know I’ve said it before, but my god what we have done to ourselves? And as we (well, YOU) keep passing this twisted mindset down from generation to generation, it’s only getting worse.

            In the grand panoramic scheme, what trick-or-treating and Halloween as a whole have become is a relatively minor symptom I suppose, but a telling symptom nevertheless of just how fucked everything is.

            Yes, yes, yes, these hand-wringing types, most of whom might still recall what Halloween used to represent will say, “Oh, but the world’s a very different and much scarier place now.” Is it, really, do you think? Are there really more psychotic child predators and bloodthirsty Satanists out there now than there were forty years ago, or did you just decide that somewhere along the line?

            It all makes me pine, if only for the sake of these poor bedraggled kids, for a return to Halloween’s origins among the Druids when, come the next morning, the hillsides were soaked with blood. But I guess that’s just me.


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