What Happened to Halloween?

Halloween in our neighborhood was pathetic. We received a grand total of three trick-or-treaters all night, and on our block it appeared our house was one of just two that had its lights on to welcome kids cruising for candy.

It wasn’t always like this. I can remember growing up in my old neighborhood just over twenty years ago, and it would be a rarity to see a house that was not welcoming trick-or-treaters. Even places where the people weren’t home that night would often have a basket of candy left sitting on the doorstep for kids to take from on the honor system.

What the hell happened to my favorite holiday of the year? Halloween is, at its best, a holiday that celebrates community. At its core, it is supposed to be the one day of the year when it is considered perfectly acceptable to ring the doorbells of those in the neighborhood you barely know and be welcomed. It was a reason for people to get to know each other’s families and begin to find more in common with one another than sheer geographical accident. This spirit seems to have completely withered and died, and I want to know why.

When I was a kid, my hometown had an annual Halloween parade for all the children. It began at a church parking lot and ended at the local fire hall. I have to wonder how many churches today would consider hosting part of a town’s Halloween parade, complete with kids in ghost, monster, devil, ghoul and whatever other types of costumes. Then as well as now, some religious groups had objections to some of Halloween’s imagery, but it seems like they were more willing to find a way to take part in what is essentially a community-building activity.

Today, flipping through the local weekly newspaper, there are instead several ads from rather large nearby churches for “Halloween alternative parties.” Instead of being a part of a community’s Halloween celebration, it seems like a lot of religious groups have determined that, for whatever reason, the holiday’s sheer existence is no longer acceptable in any form. As a result, they have chosen to balkanize the communities of which they are supposed to be a part by having their own, “alternative” harvest-themed celebrations, sanitized for their approval and independent of what the rest of the town does. The popularity of these alternative faith-based shindigs seems to me another symptom of the cultural trends that have led to the rise of “gated communities,” an oxymoron if ever there was one. Instead of welcoming in those around us, we are now trying to shut out everything around us that seems even remotely different or makes us feel in any way uncomfortable.

There’s also a thematic element of Halloween that may have fallen out of fashion these days: confronting one’s fears. On Halloween, people often dress up in costumes that are meant to frighten. When you answer the door on Halloween night, a representation of the face of death may very well stare you back in the face. However, behind that mask is the face of the child wearing it. Behind the representation of our own passing is the face of the next generation. There’s something transcendent in the symbolism of that — while we ourselves will someday perish, the community of which we are a part will continue to live on as we continue to nurture its future. When looked at in that perspective, our fears for our individual futures and eventual demises look quite small and insignificant.

We were once told that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Today, we are told to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior amid dark mutterings about buying plastic sheeting and duct tape. Unfortunately, the values of Halloween just don’t jibe with that vibe.

I take heart, however, in the thought that the ancient pagans upon whose beliefs the modern holiday of Halloween took root believed that the nature of all things was cyclical. What once was shall be again someday, and just as what is now shall someday pass. I can only hope that’s the case.

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4 Responses to “What Happened to Halloween?”

  1. mB Says:

    I took my daughter and cousins out to trick-or-treat tonight. Like you said, it was pathetic. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were dark. There were a lot of trick-or-treaters, but no houses to trick-or-treat at. I really miss the good ol’ days when we were allowed to wear costumes to school and when each house on the block would welcome you with candy or tiny toys. [sighs].

  2. Stephanie Says:

    Amazing. Your parade started in the church parking lot? Read my article… http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/434062/whats_wrong_with_this_picture.html…an ex-coworker thought it was the devil’s work…wouldn’t let her children participate. What a crime. But then, as I read (I’m reading your article and writing this…) about “alternative” events. Again I say…what a crime.

    Great job.

  3. Teresa Says:

    I live in a newer neighborhood in Iowa. Twenty of the thirty houses were giving out candy, and we had so many kids (from babies to highschool) that we ran out of treats. But we have a neighborhood full of new families.

    I miss the frightening Halloween.

    First year here, we set up the skeletons, spiders, black lights and had virtually no one. Next year we did the Pooh decorations and funny ghosts and everyone came. I see mostly boys in sports clothes or superheroes and girls as princesses or whores. Halloween’s been cleansed of fright like our fairy tales.

    • Angela Says:

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