Halloween is coming up Sunday and my wife Diane has already bought two large bags of candy and is still worried that we won’t have enough.
In our old house we never had trick-or-treaters, but even after being in our current home for three years, we still don’t know what to expect. This year over 172 million Americans will celebrate Halloween and they are projected to spend over $10 billion on merchandise such as candy, decorations, costumes and pumpkins.
Scholars believe that trick-or-treating may be rooted in ancient beliefs that restless spirits roamed the earth this time of the year and offering them treats would appease them. In Celtic countries, children would visit well-to-do neighbors on All Souls Day and offered to pray for their departed family members, to earn food, drink, or money.
In Scotland and Ireland, children wore costumes and solicited treats in exchange for performing a “trick,” like telling a joke, singing a song or reciting a poem. Immigrants brought these customs to America where they merged into our modern “trick-or-treating” custom.
Today, some people still demand a performance in exchange for candy. As a child I avoided those houses if possible. They were not only embarrassing, they took up too much valuable trick-or-treating time. I believed the phrase meant that if you didn’t get a treat, you were justified in pulling a trick, usually some minor act of vandalism, like a soaping of a window or pelting a house with eggs.
On Halloween in 1879, a Louisville Short Line train screeched to halt on its way through Newport, when the engineer spotted a body on the tracks. The “body” was a dummy placed on the tracks by dozens of delighted boys hiding alongside the tracks. In rural regions, outhouses were tipped over by pranksters and so many gates were taken off their hinges allowing livestock to escape, that Halloween was known as “Gate Night.”
Harry Sawyers, a Popular Mechanics writer, says that in 1894, bands of Halloween hooligans terrorized Washington, D.C, by recklessly flinging flour. The New York Times reported that “some of the streets looked as if there had been a fall of snow, and the pedestrian who reached home with his garments uninjured considered himself fortunate.”
Halloween pranks grew so dangerous, that by the 1920s many cities considered banning Halloween. The 1930s, however, saw a shift in attitude and community organizations began staging parties, festivals, and costume contests on Halloween to combat vandalism.
The town where I grew up held an annual Halloween Costume Contest at the Jr. High School Gymnasium. Our family had an elaborate witch costume, which took first prize on several occasions. My mother’s forbidding mother-in-law, Busha, was the source of the black dress and witchy shoes that my mother, with no small degree of satisfaction, turned into her award-winning costume.
There was no trick-or-treating during World War II, due to sugar rationing, which curtailed candy production. It was reintroduced after the war and was featured in a famous 1951 Peanuts comic strip.
Trick-or-treating became part of mainstream culture, but the mischief didn’t disappear completely. According to The American Property Casualty Insurance Association, Halloween has the highest number of insurance claims of any day of the year and property crimes increase by about 24%. North Carolina psychologist Mallory Roman has written, “The normative acceptance of uninhibited behavior on Halloween is one of its most powerful allures. She says it gives people permission to express a “slightly darker version of themselves, to express hidden identities, and indulge in desires they usually resist.”
In my childhood, minor Halloween vandalism was expected and tolerated. Egging houses or cars, soaping windows, and hanging toilet paper on trees were fairly common. Some people complained that eggs hurt the car’s paint job, but these “tricks” were mostly harmless and were an essential part of adolescent flirting and dating rituals. Aggressive and destructive acts like breaking windows, smashing pumpkins, and knocking small children down to take their candy were the exception.
My friend Dennis got into big trouble one Halloween for setting a paper bag of dog feces on fire, on the porch of a cute girl named Ruth. Dennis rang the doorbell and Ruth’s father ran on to the porch and stomped the fire out, which was the outcome Dennis desired. Kids from our class reported seeing Ruth down on her hands and knees scrubbing the porch the next day. This did not, however, result in Ruth falling in love with the charming prankster.
A few years ago an 18-year-old in Pennsylvania was charged with felony arson and reckless endangerment for doing exactly the same thing. He was booked into the county jail after failing to post a $20,000 bond. I suppose Dennis was pretty lucky after all.
Princeton psychologist Tania Lombrozo believes that Halloween can tell us a lot of interesting things about ourselves — from what scares us to why we choose certain decorations and costumes. She says, “For children, Halloween is an experiment in delayed gratification and negotiation — which candies to eat now, which to trade, which to save.” She claims, “In fact, there’s a long tradition of using Halloween to shed light on the human mind and behavior.” She describes how psychologists have employed Halloween to better understand moral behavior, how children differentiate fantasy from reality, and even to assess children’s political preferences.
In the American Psychological Association’s Database there are 100 references for psychological studies which related to Halloween. There are no studies that explained acts of vandalism like that of Dennis, but several address why trick-or-treaters might pilfer extra candies when given the opportunity. Such dishonest behavior was repeatedly associated with wearing masks, being in a group, being excited, and feeling anonymous.
For Halloween, security and safety experts recommend a few basic guidelines to follow. These include: don’t leave your home unattended, keep your property well-lit, park cars in the garage, don’t leave valued possessions in plain sight, and always blow out the jack o’ lantern candle before heading to bed. You might also want to have a fire extinguisher handy for any flaming bags that suddenly appear on your porch, especially if you have a cute daughter.