Resurrecting Halloween

Many of my fondest childhood memories come with skeletons and superheroes. I close my eyes and smile as my mind floods with costumed children crowding dark streets, pillowcases full of candy, eerie music and strobe lights accentuating the usually more subtle horrors of suburbia, and my feet aching from covering block after block in search of treats. I remember getting home and pouring out the treasure on the floor. Few sounds rival the waxed papery rush of a candy avalanche.

I remember when I was nine, shivering through the Los Angeles autumn night—an Arctic 67 degrees—as I, costumed as the Incredible Hulk in nothing but cut-off shorts and green make-up, marauded the streets and growled at everything that moved. Not to be maudlin, but this is one of the only happy memories I have of that year. And it’s a damn good one. I needed to be the Hulk. I had a lot of growling to do.

Somewhere in the mid-to-late 1970s, as I recall it, paranoia crept into the holiday. We started hearing about razor blades in apples, cyanide and strychnine in the chocolate, LSD on temporary tattoos. Black cats sacrificed by Satanists. Kidnappings. A holiday celebrating terror should have been more resilient, but parents can be vulnerable to this sort of lie.

The first casualty of the holiday was homemade treats. Older people in the neighborhood spent all day making popcorn balls and cookies only to have frightened parents throw their labors in the garbage for fear of contamination. Year by year, I saw fewer and fewer children, fewer decorated houses. I’d come home at the end of the night to see my dad looking disappointed, holding a bowl full of candy that no children had come to claim. As I approached the age of being “too old” to trick-or-treat, it hardly mattered anyway; the custom was dying.

Maybe it’s different where you grew up. Maybe it lived on despite the fears. If so, I applaud you and yours. Or, if for religious or cultural reasons, your family abstained from it, fair enough. That’s your business. But the idea that this beloved tradition was almost destroyed by urban legends infuriates me.

Over the last few years, I have seen a trick-or-treating renaissance. Maybe it’s just that I have kids of my own now. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. But the last couple years I have taken my kids out on Halloween I’ve seen a return to the candy-hunting spectacle, with hordes of kids having a blast. The Census Bureau projects that the number of trick-or-treaters between the ages of 5 and 13 this year will be up 65,000 from last year. How exactly this number is derived, I am not sure, but I couldn’t be happier about this.

Maybe my generation, having witnessed the tragic asphyxiation of a unique holiday, has determined to resurrect it for the sake of our kids. I’d like to think so. One of the great things about being a parent is the right to dive back in to the pleasures of youth. Of course, one of the perks of not having kids is that you have much more adult playtime. Good on ya, if that’s the case.

Either way, assuming you have no moral objection to it, you can do your part to see that Halloween continues. Make a costume. Get dressed up and hand out candy. Break out the bats and skeletons and carve a jack-o’-lantern or two, or thirteen. If no one has invited you to a party, throw your own. What have you got to lose? Find out where the best trick-or-treating neighborhoods are and take your kids, or your nieces or nephews, or what-have-you, out for a night to remember.

When Jason Henninger isn’t working on his werewolf costume, reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.


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