What's happening to Halloween?

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

It seems to me that Halloween was quite a big thing some twenty years ago. Participation has been declining steadily for a variety of reasons. Perhaps TV and home videos provide sufficient spookiness to diminish the need for door-to-door doling-out of dull doo-dads. Maybe kids are already too sophisticated for the simulated scare. Could a virtual Halloween haunt our future?

The original version of this article was published by
San Diego Mensan, October 2001

The Halloween tradition originated from the ancient Celtic fire festival on Hallow's Eve, on October 31. People dressed in frightening costumes to scare away the evil spirits that were roaming the earth. They would go from house to house begging for treats; failure to supply the treats would usually result in practical jokes being played on the spoilsport.

So, Halloween has British origins, though it remains a distinctly American tradition. I spent my childhood in India, and then moved to England; so I never experienced Halloween as a child. My wife enjoyed it; she relates that she particularly remembers one little old lady who, every year, brought out a tray full of beautiful candied apples and other goodies and offered each kid their pick. Etched in her memory is the image of that smiling lady with the tray, while she remained frozen with the awesome choice of which one of those beauties she would pick.

It seems to me that Halloween was quite a big thing some twenty years ago. Our kids would be all costumed up as soon as they got back from school, and were out by 5:00 - occasionally returning to unload their booty and dash off for more. Our doorbell would start ringing as early as 5:30 and there was a constant procession until almost 10 o’clock. The kids were having fun, there’d be a lot of pumpkins and Jack-o-lanterns in almost every home, and everyone was enjoying the spirit of the sometimes mid-week holiday evening.

My wife would dress up as a witch, with quite elaborate makeup, which made her look quite scary. I was somewhat lazier - I quickly donned a wizard costume and a mask. We’d get some dry ice from the ice-cream store to make smoke billow out of a cauldron at the front door and there was spooky music, flashing lights - the whole works. The little kids especially, would come up somewhat uneasily to ring the doorbell. They’d be excited and scared, and run off with their treat to tell whoever followed, “Hey! That house is pretty spooky!” Which, of course, would attract a further procession of little goblins and monsters to come over to sample the scare.

To raise the ante, I’d sometimes play a little different game. Considering the origin of “trick or treat” (if you don’t give the goblin a treat, you’d be tricked) I’d intone in my most scary wizards voice: “What’s the trick?” But, most of the kids didn’t know what I was up to and simply returned a blank stare. Eventually, I’d relent and get my candy-bar ready to drop in their bag and, as they put out their bag, I’d grab a small arm and say: “Ahhh! I like this juicy little hand!” Which of course, generated tingly fright for the unsuspecting toddler who’d been caught, and an excited scream from all the others, Naturally, I only did this with a large group of kids, and if an adult was near; I had to be sure I wasn’t over-doing it with a lone toddler, who might have really been frightened.

These days, most of the Halloween costumes I see are not at all frightening, and the only reason kids dress up is to be able to walk from door to door in their neighborhoods receiving candy from their neighbors, saying "trick or treat" (meaning "give me candy"). Many adults don’t even bother to dress-up. Others use the evening as an opportunity to party, drink, and generally "freak out".

Maybe decline of the emphasis on the supernatural has made the tradition empty. Participation has been declining steadily for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the awful news that some maladjusted adult had embedded razor blades in the apples, or has poisoned the candy, has caused parents to use more caution. You need only one crazy case like that to get everybody turned off.

Or, perhaps it’s TV that provides sufficient spookiness to diminish the need for door-to-door doling-out of dull doo-dads. Maybe kids are already too sophisticated for the simulated scare, or the tame and tired routine of getting the regulation candy-bar from stone-faced, un-costumed adults. Perhaps the lack of excitement simply doesn’t justify the trouble and cost of a new costume.

In any event, during the last Halloween season, I got my costume and wizard mask ready, and the spooky music and flashing lights - and no one came. At least, not until about 7:30, when a couple of neighbor-kids who know us well turned up for the obligatory handout. My wife has a better grasp of reality and was already watching TV. I was primed and ready with my wizard outfit, but somehow the routine seemed to be less scary. In any case, the peak of the frequency of doorbell rings distribution curve occurred at about 8:00, with only two rings in 5 minutes. By 8:30, the street seemed devoid of demons and I put my mask away. You know those usually late older kids who seem too huge to want to collect candy? Well, even they didn’t turn up. Hey, maybe I had scared ‘em off?

My wife and I have talked about what could be done to cause a resurgence of the old Halloween spirit. It was a grass-roots thing, with no one in particular doing the organizing. When nobody cares, nobody comes. So, maybe it will inevitably fizzle, and the tradition will transform into the televised re-run of Dracula XII and Halloween 23 starring the grandson of Michael Myers.

In a connected world, perhaps we’ll start having virtual Halloween. As I browse the Internet, looking at whatever it is I’m looking at on Halloween evening, a virtual goblin will pop up on my screen and my computer speaker will scream “Trick or treat!” The virtual goblin may be pretty sophisticated, so my question “what’s the trick?” may cause my screen to go blank, or generate a new virus that Norton and McAffee cannot catch. So, I’ll simply put my virtual candy-bar (charged online to Visa, Master-card or American Express) in the virtual bag of the virtual goblin, and hope that it will leave me alone to continue my browsing.

At least until the next one turns up to ring my virtual doorbell. And who know how long that that will go on……

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